Articles Posted in Defamation

To defeat summary judgment on a defamation claim, a public figure needed to “produce clear and convincing evidence of actual malice at the summary judgment stage.” In Elsten v. Coker, No. M2019-00034-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 4, 2019), plaintiff and defendant were both running for mayor of Hendersonville. Before the election, defendant’s campaign disseminated a pamphlet with two statements about plaintiff that plaintiff found objectionable: (1) that as an alderman plaintiff was “caught in an insider deal to sell stolen property to the Hendersonville Parks Department” and (2) that plaintiff was “currently under investigation by the Tennessee Ethics Commission for campaign finance violations relating to illegal contributions from a construction company owner.”

Plaintiff filed this defamation action, and the trial court granted defendant summary judgment, finding that plaintiff “did not produce clear and convincing evidence of actual malice[.]” The Court of Appeals affirmed.

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In order to succeed on a defamation by implication claim in Tennessee, a plaintiff must be able to show that the statements made implied facts that were not true and held the plaintiff “up to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, “ or lowered the plaintiff “in the eyes of the community.” Where these showings cannot be made, a claim for defamation by implication or innuendo must fail.

In Loftis v. Rayburn, No. M2017-01502-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 20, 2018), plaintiff was the previous director of the Nashville State Community College culinary program. He brought suit based on an article published in a newspaper, which was based on an interview between the reporter writing the story and defendant. Defendant was a local restaurant owner who was brought on to help make the college program more successful. The article stated that when defendant began his work, the program was “simply turning out unqualified students,” and that he enlisted other chefs to help turn the program around. The article said that “[t]hey started by cleaning house from the top by removing director Tom Loftis [i.e., plaintiff].” The article further noted that this was a “politically inexpedient move last year since Loftis was the brother-in-law of Bill Freeman who was running for mayor at the time.” This was the only mention of plaintiff in the article.

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Social media and the ability to broadcast one’s opinions across the internet are raising many new issues in defamation law. A recent Tennessee case held that when a Facebook post and picture are posted together, they must be considered together and the communication should be analyzed in its entirety.

In Weidlich v. Rung, No. M2017-00045-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2017), defendant sued plaintiff for defamation over a post plaintiff made on Facebook. Plaintiff and defendant had both attended a heated school board meeting regarding the potential formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at their local high school. Defendant was in favor of the group, while plaintiff “expressed strong opposition to the formation.” During this time, plaintiff’s wife “made tentative plans to run for” the school board. At a subsequent meeting, defendant saw plaintiff’s vehicle in the parking lot. On the back of the vehicle, plaintiff had a sticker with the Confederate flag and the word “SECEDE;” a sticker with the words “God, Family, The South” next to another Confederate flag; and another sticker that said “The League of the South,” which Defendant testified was a hate group. Defendant took a picture of these stickers and posted it to her Facebook wall, along with the caption: “Free Bonus Prize. The Fisty Family are also white supremacist! We’ll need to keep this handy come election time.”

Plaintiff sued for defamation based on this Facebook post. The General Sessions Court ruled for defendant, finding that plaintiff “had been unable to establish damages.” In the trial court, plaintiff had a witness testify that the witness stopped using plaintiff’s mechanic shop and had spent around $7,000 using a different service provider. The trial court ruled for plaintiff and awarded him $7,000 in damages and $5,000 in attorney’s fees. In its order, the trial court found that the statement was defamatory, that it was made maliciously, and that at the time of posting neither plaintiff nor his wife were public figures. The Court of Appeals reversed this ruling.

In Vaughn v. Methodist Hospital Staff & Administration, No. W2016-00422-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 8, 2017), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a slander claim due to the six-month statute of limitations.

Plaintiff, who was proceeding pro se, originally filed her action in general sessions court for “libel/slander/defamation of character…” on July 15, 2014. In court, she testified that her claims were all based on statements made on July 17, 2013. The general sessions court dismissed the case pursuant to the six-month statute of limitations, and the circuit court subsequently granted a motion for summary judgment on the same grounds, which the Court of Appeals affirmed.

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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.