Former GM Of Hillcrest Country Club Loses $12 Million Defamation Suit

Mar 20, 2017

A former general manager of the Hillcrest Country Club in Kansas City has lost his quixotic lawsuit against Time Inc. seeking $12 million in damages for defamation and emotional distress.

A federal judge last week granted summary judgment to Time, ruling that statements made about Terry J. Clark in an article on Time’s GOLF.com website were neither false nor defamatory. U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Crabtree also found that Clark had failed to show he had sustained an injury because of the article.

Clark, who was general manager of Hillcrest from August 2006 to May 2011, sued Time about a year after the article was posted on May 29, 2014. The article criticized his management practices and referred to him as “Vlad the Impaler.”

Although the article didn’t mention him by name, it was undisputed in the lawsuit that the references to Vlad the Impaler – the nickname for the 15th century Romanian prince infamous for impaling his enemies – were about Clark.

The article, written by former senior Sports Illustrated writer and Kansas City resident John Garrity, described how Hillcrest, Kansas City’s second-oldest private golf club, had once been given up for dead but was thriving again. 

The rugged course was built in 1916 and designed by renowned golf course architect Donald Ross. The country club was running large deficits when it was bought in 2006 by David Francis, who turned management over to Clark. The article described how the general manager went on a “management rampage” that resulted in scores of members quitting the club.

The club later sued them for breach of contract, and many of them filed countersuits.

Garrity referred to Clark as Vlad the Impaler because he thought it described his management style, “which resulted in him ‘killing off the membership,’” Crabtree wrote in his 46-page decision.

Anecdotes cited by Garrity in his article included what he said was his favorite: “Vlad told the chef to stop ordering Heinz ketchup as a rebuke to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.” (Kerry is married to Teresa Heinz, who is heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune.)

Clark briefly hosted a conservative radio talk show using the pseudonym Gabby Haze in which he referred to Democratic elected officials as “Democraps” and parodied celebrities such as Mother Teresa and Michael J. Fox, according to Crabtree’s decision.

Francis eventually fired Clark, triggering protracted litigation between the two over Clark’s ownership stake that ended in Francis’ favor. In November 2011, a few months after the two parted ways, Hillcrest filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization to stave off a threatened foreclosure. The bankruptcy case was dismissed a few months later and Hillcrest remains open for business. 

Clark originally retained a lawyer to file his defamation lawsuit, but the two had a falling out and Clark ended up representing himself.

Reached by phone Monday, Clark said he had not been notified of Crabtree’s decision but said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

“What do you expect? The little guy doesn’t have a chance in this country; the system’s rigged against us,” he said.

Garrity said the article was not meant to be about Clark but about Hillcrest.

“It’s an opinion-based piece, based on my own experience and my family’s experience about Hillcrest’s efforts to bounce back from bankruptcy and about saving the only Donald Ross-designed course in Missouri,” Garrity said in a phone interview Monday.  

“And in the middle of the story, when I was having to explain what the course was trying to bounce back from, I had to relate a little bit of the history of Clark’s management of the club.”

Garrity said that, as Crabtree pointed out in his decision, the article “had certain elements of hyperbole and facetiousness in my writing style. I did not name Mr. Clark by name because I had no malice toward him. I was not interested in holding him up to ridicule personally.”

In ruling against Clark, Crabtree said there was no triable evidence that the article damaged Clark’s reputation. And he said that the article’s statement that he had gone on a “management rampage” was not susceptible of proof as either true or false.

“One person’s vision of a ‘management rampage’ might be another’s view of aggressive or proactive management,” Crabtree wrote. “So, this opinion is not actionable as a defamatory statement.”

Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

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