Tennessee Defamation Law and Legislative Immunity

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.

The Court of Appeals affirmed based on Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-201(b)(2) of the Governmental Tort Liability Act, which states:

All members of boards, commissions, agencies, authorities, and other governing bodies of any governmental entity, created by public or private act, whether compensated or not, shall be immune from suit arising from the conduct of the affairs of such board, commission, agency, authority, or other governing body. Such immunity from suit shall be removed when such conduct amounts to willful, wanton, or gross negligence.

The question in this case was whether Defendant’s allegedly defamatory statement arose from the conduct of the City Council’s affairs – and thus would be protected – or was outside the City Council’s affairs – and thus would not be protected. The Court of Appeals noted that “[w]hether an act is legislative turns on the nature of the act, rather than on the motive or intent of the official performing it.” Bogan v. Scott-Harris, 523 U.S. 44, 54-55 (1998). The Court of Appeals found, under the facts of this case, that the privilege applied because: (1) it was made in the course of a regularly scheduled, open meeting of the City Council; (2) when a motion was made to remove discussion of the ads from the meeting agenda, a majority of the City Council voted to keep it on the agenda; and (3) allegations of impropriety by a city employee would fall within the legitimate business of a city council. 

This case was decided by the Middle Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals on February 26, 2014. 

For more cases about the law of defamation in Tennessee, click on the link.