A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Who’s Your Daddy: LeBron Faces Heat From…His Father?

http://www.bballcity.com/images/2008/01/lebron-james.jpg

By Jeremy Potter

You probably saw “LeBron” in the headines and thought “This is just what the Internet needs, another story about LeBron James.”  It’s understandable.  After all, we’ve all had enough of The Decision LeBron made “to take [his] talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat.

But there was another story about LeBron last week, which, while not headline news, piqued our interest.  Seems a Washington D.C. attorney has filed a lawsuit against LeBron and his mother, Gloria, in which he claims that he is LeBron’s father, and that LeBron and Gloria tampered with his 2007 paternity test that came back negative.  He is seeking $4 million in damages.

This story drew attention from the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal, the Daily News, and CNN.com.  But none of these outlets took the time to examine the lawsuit, preferring instead to run with the headline and let the details work themselves out later.  In fact, it was the celeb site TMZ and not a traditional news site that actually located the court documents, though it stopped short of analyzing the law.

We weren’t satisfied with that.  We wanted to know- how much heat this lawsuit packs.   So we read Leicester B. Stovell’s allegations of paternity.   Very carefully.

And the good news for Mr. Stovell is that if his law practice ever slows down, he may have a future as a screenwriter; his complaint reads more like a movie script than a legal document.

In a nutshell: Mr. Stovell claims that in 1984 he met Gloria James at a club, took her home, and slept with her.   Sadly, he tells us, he was unable to satisfy her sexually that evening. To make matters worse, she declined his invitation to stay for breakfast the next morning.   Some months later, he saw her again.  This time, he learned that she was, in fact, not in her early twenties as she’d told him, but was only fifteen.   She was also pregnant.   She asked him what his middle name was (it is “Bryce”) and told him that she would name her baby “LeBron”, which, Mr. Stovell tells us, is clearly a combination of “LEicester” and “BRyce.”   (In addition, LeBron has named one of his sons Bryce.   We will let you decide the weight of this evidence).   Before bidding Ms. James goodbye, Mr. Stovell recalls that he said of the unborn baby: “Well, if he’s mine, make sure he plays basketball.”   (We are not at all sure how he can remember saying it, or why we should believe him, or what this is supposed to prove.)  But wait, there’s more.

Twenty-two years passed and Mr. Stovell would like us to believe that a friend asked him if he had fathered a son who was playing basketball for Cornell University; this triggered in Mr. Stovell first suspicions, and then the realization, that basketball superstar LeBron James was his son.  He contacted the Jameses, and then flew to Ohio to take a paternity test, an event that, he says was fraught with intrigue; Ms. James threatened him before he took the test, and a thuggish looking fellow who worked for Ms. James tried to intimidate him by following him around town. The test came back negative.   Which only reinforced his belief, nay his utter certainty, that there was something rotten in the state of Ohio; that the paternity test was fraudulent, and that he was LeBron’s long lost father.

Now to the suit’s claims.   Mr. Stovell claims, first, that LeBron and his mother committed fraud and misrepresentation in covering up LeBron’s father’s identity for these many years.  Second, that the comments the two have made about the boy having a deadbeat dad amounted to defamation by slander resulting in personal and professional damages. And last that the Jameses interfered with and breached an oral contract for a true paternity test.

Legal eagles will be interested to learn that Ohio’s statute of limitations for a paternity suit expired on LeBron James’s 23rd birthday, December 30, 2007.  As a result, Mr. Stovell would be impeded from bringing the lawsuit now needed evidence had intentionally been kept from him.    (Skeptics will no doubt feel an ‘A-ha’ moment, and believe that this is the reason for the allegations of fraud.).

After reviewing the lawsuit, we feel it safe to say that LeBron won’t be writing a $4 million check to Mr. Stovell any time soon.

Let’s look at the defamation claim for a moment. No one would connect Mr. Stovell to the comments the Jameses have made about LeBron’s growing up without a father, and so neither his personal nor his professional life could have been affected. It is Mr. Stovell who is self-identifying in this lawsuit and in the media, only to turn around and claim to be harmed.

The fraud claim suffers from a similar problem.  Two of the elements of common law fraud in the District of Columbia are 1. Intent to deceive and 2. That the plaintiff took action relying on the misrepresentation.   Mr. Stovell has offered allegations but no proof about any intent on the part of the Jameses, and he has taken no action relying on any misrepresentation that has harmed him.

Last, Mr. Stovell’s contract claims require the existence of an oral contract as well as interference with and breach of that contract. As proof, he points to LeBron’s agreement to submit to a paternity test as the oral contract and the Jameses “intentional, knowing, purposeful, willful, malicious and in bad faith authorization” of tampering with the DNA results.  This, too, seems like an uphill battle for Mr. Stovell, as so much of his story seems to defy credulity.   Of course, a new paternity test might solve the problem once and for all, but Mr. Stovell has not laid out the grounds for the court to mandate one.

Which Mr. Stovell must realize; he isn’t even asking for a new paternity test.  Yet he would need one in order to establish paternity.  (In Washington D.C., where Mr. Stovell resides and the suit was filed, a father has two options to establish paternity.  Either both parents can sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity (AoP) or a man can go to court to get a judge to issue a paternity order. )   Somehow, without even having his paternity established, Mr. Stovell is claiming damages as a result of being deprived of his son, LeBron, for more than twenty-five years, damages for alienation of the natural affections of LeBron and Lebron’s two sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus,  and (get this) damages from Mr. Stovell’s lost opportunity for “sharing personal information” with LeBron which “would be in his best interests.”  Your guess is as good as ours on what exactly that means and how a court might measure that loss.

And then Ka-ching!  The raison d’etre for the lawsuit. Mr. Stovell claims damages because the fraud that kept him from his son “diverted commercial opportunities away…which [Mr. Stovell] uniquely is situated to optimize.”  To the tune of $4 million.

That’s what’s known as the “money shot.” Unfortunately for Mr. Stovell, this is the legal equivalent of an airball.

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