Do Armstrong’s teammates, who claim he pressured them to lie about doping, have a case against him?

Question:

Some of Armstrong’s former teammates have accused him of bullying them into giving false or misleading testimony about Armstrong's involvement in doping. They also claim they were pressured to dope as well. Do they have grounds to sue him?

Answer:

Armstrong admitted during his January 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey that he had used banned performance enhancing substances throughout his Tour de France cycling career. His admissions not only exploded years of his own denials, they also cast his treatment of former teammates in a new light.

Some of Armstrong’s teammates on the former U.S. Postal Service cycling team (now sponsored by the Discovery Channel) claim that Armstrong tried to, or actually did, intimidate them into giving false information to investigators and under oath. During the Winfrey interview, Armstrong admitted that he was a “bully,” but denied pressuring his teammates.

Whether the teammates whom Armstrong allegedly bullied have grounds to sue him depends on what he did to bully them and what they did in response. In fact, their own actions in response to perceived bullying may even expose them to prosecution!

Inducing False Testimony

If Armstrong did bully his teammates into giving false testimony, then he may have suborned perjury. Suborning perjury is a crime and Armstrong could be charged with it if his teammates testified under oath in a false or misleading fashion as a result of his threats. (For more information on this crime, see Suborning Perjury.)

But, any teammate who lied under oath also committed a crime (perjury), even if he was bullied into it. (For more information on perjury, see Perjury.)

Armstrong’s alleged bullying by itself does not necessarily give the perjurers (here, the teammates if they succumbed to Armstrong’s pressure) grounds to sue him for compelling them to commit a crime. However, some of his alleged bullying tactics may expose him to liability to his ex-teammates.

Actions by Teammates

A former teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, have publicly stated that Armstrong threatened and “tried to destroy” them because they refused to give false testimony about his doping. Another former teammate, Floyd Landis, has filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit alleging, among other claims, that Armstrong pressured him to participate in a doping regimen. Although the Andreus have not filed an action against Armstrong yet, they may have grounds to sue him for defamation now that he has admitted that his attacks on their integrity were fabricated.

Below are the possible lawsuits that could ensue.

Defamation

Armstrong told Oprah that he had called Betsy Andreu “crazy” and a “bitch.” He has also called both of the Andreus obsessed and said they were “out to get” him. Armstrong launched his campaign against the Andreus after they testified in 2006 to overhearing him admit to a doctor that he had taken banned substances. The Andreus testified that they, along with other witnesses, were present in Armstrong’s hospital room in 1996 as he discussed his testicular cancer with his doctor. (Armstrong has not admitted that this conversation occurred.) The Andreus were called to testify in the 2006 arbitration of Armstrong’s lawsuit against an insurance company to compel it to pay him a performance bonus for winning the Tour de France. The company had refused, based on a growing chorus of doping accusations against Armstrong, but it ultimately settled the case and paid him several million dollars (on February 7, 2013, it filed suit in a Dallas court to get that money back.) (For more information on Armstrong’s action against the insurer, see Does Lance Armstrong have to refund the performance bonuses he got for his Tour de France wins?)

After the Andreus testified, Armstrong accused them of lying and, according to the Andreus, persuaded cycling organizations not to hire Frankie. Armstrong has also accused other former teammates, including Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, of lying about his now-admitted doping. Accusing another person of mental instability, dishonesty, and vindictiveness could constitute defamation.

Defamation is a tort (that is, a civil wrong against a person) and governed by the law of the state(s) where it occurred. Every state has a defamation law and, in general, a person engages in defamation by:

  • knowlingly making a false statement of fact
  • that injures the reputation of another person, and
  • is published (that is, told to at least one other person).

Armstrong’s accusations that his ex-teammates and others lied about his doping were untrue, as he admitted to Oprah. Calling someone a liar generally damages his reputation. So, several individuals may have grounds to sue Armstrong for defamation.

Interference with contract

According to the Andreus, not only did Armstrong call them vindictive liars and refer to Betsy Andreu as crazy, Armstrong allegedly made it hard for Frankie Andreu to find a team that would hire him. If Armstrong indeed “blackballed” Andreu (or anyone else), he may have committed the tort of interference with contract. Interference with contract occurs when one person intentionally disrupts the (actual or prospective) contractual or business relationship of other parties. “Blackballing” people by convincing a prospective employer not to hire them is an interference with contract that can become the basis for a legal claim.

Teammates and Others May Fear Charges of Conspiracy or Obstruction of Justice.

Stephanie McIlvain, Armstrong’s personal representative for his sponsor Oakley, was also present in the hospital room in 1996. She, too, testified in the 2006 arbitration but she said under oath that Armstrong made no confession to his doctor. However, McIlvain implied that Armstrong did make the confession in a 2004 telephone conversation recorded by the cyclist Greg LeMond. Anyone, teammates or outsiders, who joined efforts with Armstrong to give or compel false testimony in an on-going federal or state proceeding may be guilty of conspiracy. Co-conspirators could be charged with the crime of perjury or suborning perjury along with Armstrong.

And, anyone who attempted to interfere with a state or federal proceeding could be charged with obstruction of justice, which is a crime under federal law (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1501–1517) and in every state. Encouraging, pressuring, or bullying someone to give false sworn testimony in a proceeding is an obstruction of justice. Even if the witness resisted the efforts and gave truthful testimony, those who tried to induce her could still be charged with the crime. Simply endeavoring to interfere with the proceeding is a crime.

Some of Armstrong’s teammates, including Andreu and Landis, also claim that he pressured them to participate in the same doping regimen that he followed. If any of them did, they and Armstrong could be charged with conspiracy to violate anti-doping, drug trafficking, and other laws and regulations.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (“USADA”) has accused Armstrong of trying to enforce a code of silence through intimidation. Coercing teammates to take banned substances may have been part of that effort, since they would be less willing to testify against Armstrong if they themselves could be asked about their own doping and possibly charged as co-conspirators.

False Claims Act

In 2010, Floyd Landis filed his lawsuit against Armstrong under the False Claims Act. (31 U.S. C. § 3729.) Under that Act, a private citizen “whistleblower” may sue a defendant on behalf of the federal government, alleging the claims that the government could bring. In his lawsuit, Landis alleges that Armstrong and other defendants conspired to defraud the federal government to obtain sponsorship money for the U.S. Postal Service Team. Doping would have disqualified the team for sponsorship. Landis alleges that, by agreeing to hide their doping regimen from the government, Armstrong and others received public monies through fraud. (For more on the U.S. government’s sponsorship of Armstrong’s team, see Did Armstrong break any laws when he accepted sponsorship money from the government?) The complaint in Landis’s action may be viewed in full here: http://tinyurl.com/aw5arxv.On April 23, 2013, the U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint to formally join the Landis lawsuit as a co-plaintiff.

If he wins, Landis stands to recover a significant award, although the majority of any award would go to the government. The U.S. reportedly paid more than $30 million in sponsorship fees.

Landis’s own involvement in doping will be an issue in this lawsuit, not least because it may make him a co-conspirator (however reluctant) but also because it may call his credibility into question. (Landis may have obtained immunity from prosecution for his own participation the conspiracy.) Armstrong’s attorneys will no doubt vigorously pursue these weaknesses as they build his defense. Now that the government is a party in Landis’s action, the variables have shifted. As a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, the U.S. holds most of the cards; watch for developments in this case in the coming months and years.

Bad Blood May Lead to More Lawsuits

The fall-out from Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey is just beginning, and Armstrong’s ex-teammates have a lot to think about. What is clear even now is that every development in the Armstrong saga sheds a little more light on the expanse of the doping culture in professional cycling. And, pretty clearly, Armstrong is going to pay out some of his hard-won money—at the very least to his lawyers.

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