Articles Posted in Defamation

A recent Court of Appeals case serves as a reminder of the difficulty of proving actual malice in a false light claim made by a public official.

In Eisenstein v. WTVF-TV, No. M2015-00422-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 3, 2016), plaintiff was a Davidson County General Sessions Judge suing a TV station and various reporters regarding a story aired in 2011. The story focused on whether plaintiff “hired an unlicensed individual to act as a psychologist for the drug court program.” The Court of Appeals opinion contained a transcript of the broadcast, which revolved around a Dr. Casey who was paid by the drug court and allegedly held out to some drug court defendants to be a psychologist, but who was not in fact licensed as a psychologist in Tennessee. The report included a statement that plaintiff judge “wanted to put Casey on staff using federal money, writing in this memo that Casey had proven himself an excellent psychologist.” The broadcast showed the reporter approaching plaintiff judge, and plaintiff not answering questions posed by the reporter.

Plaintiff argued that the “broadcast placed him in a false light by implying that he lied on a federal grant application and by indicating that he was uncooperative.” Because plaintiff was a public figure, he had to show actual malice to prove his false light claim, and defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of plaintiff’s inability to make such a showing.

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In Goetz v. Autin, No. W2015-00063-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 10, 2016), plaintiff filed a rather unclear complaint that appeared to assert four causes of action: (1) defamation, (2) malicious prosecution, (3) abuse of process and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court dismissed the entire complaint for failure to state a claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Plaintiffs factual allegations were essentially that defendants “made defamatory statements to [his] family members, neighbors and friends, subjecting [him] to contempt and ridicule and threatening his job[;]” that defendants filed suit against plaintiff on May 12, 2010 with “no reasonable basis” for the action and with an “ulterior motive;” that defendants “committed an act in the use of process other than such as would be proper in the regular prosecution of the charges alleged[;]” that defendants eventually voluntarily dismissed their claims; that the lawsuit contained false statements about plaintiff; and that plaintiff suffered “severe physical and emotional injury” due to the defendant’s lawsuit and statements. Based on these facts, the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling that the complaint failed to state a claim for the causes of action pursued by plaintiff.

On the abuse of process claim, the Court noted that “a plaintiff must allege the existence of an ulterior motive and an act in the use of process other than such as would be proper in the regular prosecution of the charge.” Moreover, “[t]he mere initiation of a lawsuit, though accompanied by a malicious ulterior motive, does not constitute an abuse of process.” (internal citation omitted). Instead, a “plaintiff must allege some misuse of process after the initiation of the lawsuit.” Here, the complaint failed to allege that defendants did anything more than file the “original processes of the court.” Since the institution of a lawsuit alone is not enough to support an abuse of process claim, plaintiff’s complaint failed to state a claim for this cause of action.

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In Winslow v. Saltsman, No. M2014-00574-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 21, 2015), plaintiff brought claims against two defendants, a political candidate and his campaign advertising consultant, alleging false light and defamation. Finding that the defendants negated the element of actual malice, the Court of appeals affirmed summary judgment for defendants.

Plaintiff was Chief of Staff for the Tennessee Republican Party (TRP) and was given an employment agreement by his boss before she resigned to run for Congress. The new TRP chair offered plaintiff a different position, but instead plaintiff chose to negotiate a severance based on his employment agreement and leave his employment with the party. Shortly thereafter, he began working for his old boss’s campaign. The defendant democratic candidate for the Congress seat hired the defendant consultant for advertising, and at some point the consultant obtained copies of a financial review of the TRP, plaintiff’s employment agreement, and a document drafted by plaintiff while negotiating his severance. These documents showed that the TRP had extensive debt and overdrafts.

Before the primary elections, the democratic campaign ran advertisements on TV and in print stating that the opposing candidate and former TRP chair “left the state Republican party over $100,000 in debt” and “gave her future Congressional campaign staff lavish bonuses.”  In a radio interview, defendant consultant stated that plaintiff “was paid out of Republican Party funds for three months while he was working for [his former boss’s] campaign,” and that such an arrangement was “at worse, illegal and, at best, just plain wrong.” The democratic campaign also launched a website where they published the TRP financial records, records showing payments to plaintiff, plaintiff’s employment agreement and the document he drafted when negotiating his severance. Based on these statements, plaintiff filed suit against the democratic candidate and his consultant for false light.

To prove his claim, plaintiff had to show that the false light he was placed in “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person” and that defendants “acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which [plaintiff] would be placed.” Importantly, here plaintiff conceded that he was at least a limited public figure, so the standard for his false light claims was actual malice. “Actual malice exists where the defendant publishes or makes a statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” (internal quotations and citation omitted). Failure to investigate information alone, however, is not enough to establish actual malice.

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In Grant v. The Commercial Appeal, No. W2015-00208-COA-R3-CV (Sept. 18, 2015), plaintiff sued defendants for various causes of action related to an online and print newspaper article, although on appeal the only causes of action at issue were defamation and defamation by implication. The articles were about plaintiff’s involvement in a mall revitalization project in Memphis that had recently been approved by the Memphis City Council. The article, in part, contained information regarding the following:

  • plaintiff failed to tell the City Council that he owed a large sum of money to the federal government;
  • plaintiff “stated that he had no financial interest in the project, yet…various state records and other transactions [plaintiff] has been involved with suggested otherwise;”
  • upon investigation, it was discovered that plaintiff had an office on the mall’s property;
  • a city councilman was quoted as saying the project was the “worst project we ever approved” and that the city council was unaware that plaintiff was “one of the project’s principals;”
  • a quote from a “frat brother” of plaintiff saying plaintiff worked on the mall project as an adviser for free;
  • an online headline saying “Silent partner? [plaintiff’s] involvement clouds $1.5 million Southbrook Mall deal.”

Plaintiff asserted that “the substance of the articles [were] defamatory to him,” making it appear that he was dishonest and deceptive, and that defendants had acted with actual malice.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which the trial court granted on two bases: (1) “that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted as the statements at issue ‘are not defamatory or capable of defamatory meaning,’” and (2) that the article fell within the fair report privilege.

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The recent opinion in Byrge v. Campfield, et al., No. E2013-01223-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 8, 2014) serves as a good reminder of Tennessee defamation law involving a public figure.

In October 2008, Stacey Campfield, then a Republican State Representative for Tennessee’s 18th District, posted on his political blog an entry about the 36th State House District race featuring Democrat Roger Byrge. Campfield’s blog entry alleged that Byrge had a drug-related arrest record. The blog post stated, in part:

Word is a similar mail piece has gone out exposing Byrges multiple separate drug arrests. Including arrests for possession and drug dealing. (I hear the mug shots are gold).

In Nardone v. Cartwright, et al., No. E2013-00522-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 17, 2014), Plaintiff sued his previous employer for slander (spoken defamation) and libel (written defamation).  The case arose after Plaintiff quit his job and was told that he would not receive his final paycheck until he turned in his uniforms. The employer’s office manager was then informed by the Tennessee Department of Labor that it could not withhold plaintiff’s paycheck pending plaintiff’s return of the uniforms and was also advised to contact the police to seek assistance in getting plaintiff to return the uniforms. Employer then contacted Knox County Sheriff’s Office. The officer who took the call keyed in information to create a report, and in the section labeled “primary offense” the officer selected “theft from business by employee.” The employer did not request that plaintiff be prosecuted, nor did the employer say that plaintiff was guilty of theft.

After plaintiff’s lawyer returned the uniforms, plaintiff filed suit against employer alleging that he had been defamed by the report. At trial, plaintiff admitted that nothing in the narrative of the report was untrue. Plaintiff also testified that he still had his job with his new employer after leaving the defendant and also that he was making more money at his new job. No evidence was submitted to show plaintiff’s reputation was damaged, and plaintiff could not name one person who thought less of him as a result of the report.

Finding no evidence in the record to support a case of libel, and because the six-month statute of limitation had run on the slander allegation, the trial court granted employer’s motion for directed verdict and dismissed plaintiff’s case. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of his libel claim, but the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

You don’t see a lot of defamation cases winding their way up Tennessee appellate courts. Rarer still are defamation cases decided entirely on an affirmative immunity defense. Miller v. Wyatt hits both those marks, so it’s worthy of a crash course in legislative immunity even though it’s a very fact-specific result.

Defendant, a City Councilman, placed on item on the Council’s meeting agenda to discuss campaign ads for the City Mayor’s race. Defendant explained that he wanted to address a political ad placed by another City Councilman who was running for Mayor. Defending the ad, the candidate pulled out a letter written by Plaintiff, a former City Manager referring to the incumbent mayor as “the most ethically challenged, ego-mani[a]cal, narcissistic elected official I have ever know.” (We haven’t gotten to the allegedly defamatory stuff yet, by the way.) Defendant responded at the meeting by saying that Plaintiff “was discharged from City Manager up here because of misappropriating funds and not following procedures.” (There’s the allegedly defamatory part.)

Plaintiff sued Defendant for slander. The trial court granted summary judgment to Defendant based on the legislative privilege, and Plaintiff appealed.

When a new lawyer decided to try his first case by defending a man accused of murder, it is no surprise to any lawyer with a room-temperature IQ that things would not go well.  At all.

So, when a mistrial was declared in the case based on the lawyer’s ineptness, some lawyers expressed dismay over the decision of the lawyer to accept representation in the case.  Word got around and the new lawyer sued.  He sued lots of folks.  Including Max Kennerly, author of Litigation and Trial.  And Eric Turkewitz of the New York Personal Injury Law Blog.  Here is the complaint.

Here is Max’s Motion to Dismiss.  It gives you a good feel of the defense to the claims.  Here is a post where Eric explains his view of the lawsuit.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has released an opinion that sets forth the scope of the litigation privilege to pre-litigation activity by counsel.  The Court said that "an attorney is privileged to publish what may be defamatory information prior to a proposed judicial proceeding, even though the communication may be received by individuals who are unconnected with the proposed proceeding. In order for the privilege to apply, (1) the communication must be made by an attorney acting in the capacity of counsel, (2) the communication must be related to the subject matter of the proposed litigation, (3) the proposed proceeding must be under serious consideration by the attorney acting in good faith, and (4) the attorney must have a client or identifiable prospective client at the time the communication is published."

Read the entire opinion here.