Brett Favre’s defamation lawsuits against fellow retired NFL players Pat McAfee and Shannon Sharpe have moved from a Lamar County (Miss.) circuit to a federal district court in Mississippi. The moves impact who serves as jury and judge, and they could bolster McAfee’s and Sharpe’s defenses.
Last week McAfee and Sharpe “removed” (transferred) the lawsuits to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. Removal is permissible when—as here—the parties are from different states and the amount in controversy is greater than $75,000. Favre is a resident of Mississippi, while McAfee and Sharpe reside in Indiana and California, respectively.
Favre’s alleged damages aren’t specified but logically exceed $75,000. The Hall of Fame QB, who has been sued by the Mississippi Department of Human Services over alleged ties to a welfare misappropriation scheme, claims McAfee and Sharpe have substantially diminished his ability to generate income through endorsements and appearance fees. Favre also seeks punitive damages.
Favre claims he was defamed on a podcast where McAfee reportedly said: “Every time [Favre’s] name gets brought up, we have to mention that he tied the hands of the poor people and took money right out of their pockets … [Favre is] certainly in the middle of stealing from poor people in Mississippi right now.”
Sharpe allegedly defamed Favre on a Fox Sports show by saying, “Brett Favre is taking from the underserved” and “[Favre] stole money from people that really needed that money.”
Favre insists these statements are false and damaging to his reputation. As explained in a Sportico story, whether Favre can establish actual malice as a public figure is one of several hurdles. He also risks pretrial discovery where he’d have to answer questions under oath and share sensitive emails, texts and other documents.
If the defamation cases eventually go to federal trial, jurors would be picked from a larger geographic region with fewer ties to Favre. The former Green Bay Packers star resides in the town of Sumrall, which is in the same county (Lamar) where he sued. Although prospective jurors are screened for possible bias and although Favre has fans throughout his home state, McAfee and Sharpe might have better odds with a jury picked from an area that covers a broader area of Mississippi and many of its counties.
Favre also needs all the jurors to side with him, as federal trials require unanimous verdicts. Civil trials in Mississippi circuit courts, in contrast, require only nine of 12 jurors to return a verdict.
The judge will also be different; U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett will preside over both cases. While circuit court judges are elected and potentially sensitive to public opinion, Starrett and other federal district judges have lifetime appointments.
Whether these changes will alter which party prevails is unknown, but McAfee and Sharpe opting to play defense in federal court is sensible.