The Lance Armstrong Legal Battle

The Lance Armstrong legal battle has been the focus of much discussion lately, with pre-trial motions in full force and a trial scheduled for spring of 2018. I thought it might be useful to go over some of the history surrounding the legal battle and discuss how the legal system in the United States works in relation to the case.

In 2010, disgraced and unemployed in cycling, Floyd Landis brought a lawsuit against his former teammate, Lance Armstrong, and former team, the United States Postal Service Cycling Team. This lawsuit was brought on behalf of the US government under the False Claims Act, which allows private citizens (Landis) to bring lawsuits on behalf of the government against individuals or corporations who may have defrauded the US government. Usually this is used to combat fraud in the government contract realm. The US government joined the civil lawsuit and have requested the standard damages allocation of triple the fraudulently earned money.

Since the start of this suit, all other parties named in the suit have reached settlement agreements with Landis and the government; their names are not officially known as the suit is under seal. The only remaining party involved in the suit is Lance Armstrong, who the government has made the sole focus of the case. A key detail should be mentioned here: this is a civil suit, not a criminal suit. In the United States, criminal investigations are pursued by the Department of Justice under the purview of the Attorney General, Federal Prosecutors, State Attorneys, and/or District Attorneys. They seek imprisonment, community service, and/or monetary fines for violations of criminal code. In civil suits, however, anyone can sue anyone else for pretty much anything (we're actually talking about torts and violations of civil law, but really you can sue for almost anything), and monetary damages are sought in lieu of prison time. These cases are conducted between the plaintiff (the one who is seeking damages/ suing) and the defendant (the one who allegedly damaged the plaintiff), and are held before a judge and jury. The standard of proof is lower in civil cases: criminal cases are 'beyond a reasonable doubt’, while civil cases are usually 'upon a preponderance of the evidence'. This means that the jury must decide if it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the alleged actions, a 51% or more likelihood. Moreover, Lance is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, or in the case of civil suits, liable.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and the US government are suing Armstrong for defrauding the US government in the form of salary earned fraudulently from the United States Postal Service (USPS). Pending the jury’s eventual decision on the matter, if Armstrong is found to be held liable for civil fraud, he stands to lose up to approximately $100 million, three times the salary he earned through the USPS sponsorship of approximately $32.3 million. The burden of proof falls on the government to prove that Lance committed civil fraud.

Ok so here's the deal with proving fraud. There are 5 elements that the USPS must show that Lance Armstrong was complicit in:

  1. A false representation of fact.

  2. Knowledge of the falsity by party making the false representation.

  3. Intent to deceive the party by making the false representation.

  4. Reasonable reliance by the innocent party.

  5. Damages incurred by the innocent party.

So for what Lance did to commit civil fraud:

  1. He was doping when he said he wasn't.

  2. He knew he was doping when he said he wasn't.

  3. He hid the fact that he was doping so that the USPS would pay him money.

  4. The USPS reasonably relied on Lance’s statement of riding clean in its decision to sponsor and continually sponsor Lance Armstrong.

  5. The USPS incurred damages as a direct result of the fraud committed by Lance Armstrong.

These last two elements are what the Armstrong defense is/should be focussing on. He can’t deny the first three.

For the reasonable reliance, the Armstrong defense is claiming that 'everyone was doping' to show that the USPS either knew about the doping or didn't want to know about the doping. If they knew about it (or never really asked so that they could invoke plausible deniability) and continued to fund Armstrong, then they were not relying on Lance's 'I don't dope" comments when it came to the decision to pay Lance. The defense is trying to show that it was unreasonable for the USPS to rely on Lance's claims about his doping since they should have know he was, after all 'everyone was doping'.

As for the actual damages, this one is tricky. Back pay is probably damages in the form of fraudulently earned money, unless that money was spent on a net gain of wealth over the course of the sponsorship. The $32.3 million in salary paid to Lance is a loss to USPS, but if Lance can show that the USPS benefited from the sponsorship in a real dollar amount higher than his salary, then he could win the damages element of civil fraud. As sponsorship goes, the sponsor should receive a benefit from supporters of what they are sponsoring: brand awareness, increased sales from the supporters, etc. If Lance can show that USPS did not incur any net damages from the revelations about his doping (poor brand awareness, loss of business, etc.), then he can possibly get off of the charges. The point of fraud statutes is to protect individuals from suffering losses as a result of fraudulent actions. If the USPS suffered no material loses, then any money they spent on Lance was an investment in brand awareness.

Lance’s defense should argue that the material benefit of sponsorship in the Tour de France alone is worth well more than the salary they paid to Armstrong. If they can convince the jury that either one of the elements is missing, then Lance will not be held liable for civil fraud. If he is found liable, he can face up to the $100 million jury award, part of which Floyd Landis will take home.

The law and order side of me says that Lance has a somewhat strong case against the government. Although we all know that he did this, the case is not really about whether or not he doped, but if the USPS knew about it while it was happening, or never wanted to explicitly know about it, and continued to fund Armstrong. If the US government can’t prove damages either, then the Armstrong defense has a strong chance of coming out on top here. What might end up happening is a settlement agreement between Armstrong and the Government. Whenever a case goes to verdict, there is always a chance of things going the complete opposite way of the trial. Depending on who has the upper hand during the trial, that party will likely push for a settlement agreement to avoid going to verdict. Lance could very well pay a relatively small damages settlement to the US government and Landis, avoiding the jury entirely, while closing up the last legal battle against him. The part of me that blames him for many of cycling’s biggest problems of the last two decades is the very side that the law doesn’t allow for. The jury is not allowed to view Armstrong as the culprit of the illicit actions committed during the EPO era They are, however, allowed to see the widespread culture of EPO and doping during the USPS’s sponsorship of Lance, and determine whether or not that culture is something a reasonable sponsor should have been aware of. Regardless of the outcome, this case marks the end of Lance’s legal troubles and hopefully an end to the EPO era in mainstream cycling culture.