Articles Posted in Defamation

Where plaintiff real estate professional brought an action for defamation and false light based on an online review written by defendant, defendant moved to dismiss the action pursuant to the Tennessee Public Participation Act (TPPA).

In Charles v. McQueen, No. M2021-00878-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 4490980 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2022), plaintiff was a real estate professional involved in some capacity with Durham Farms, which was a large residential community. Defendant was a resident in the community who wrote a negative online review of the developer of the community and plaintiff. Regarding plaintiff, the review stated: “Bill Charles, especially, uses misleading tactics to lure in home buyers only to deceive them.”

Based on this review, plaintiff filed this action for defamation and false light against plaintiff. Defendant filed a petition for dismissal pursuant to the TPPA, and after finding that the TPPA applied, that plaintiff was a limited-purpose public figure in the context of this action, and that plaintiff “had not established a prima facie case for actual malice,” the trial court dismissed the case. This ruling was affirmed in part and reversed in part on appeal.

The TPPA, Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-101 et seq., is Tennessee’s version of an anti-SLAPP statute and was designed to “encourage and safeguard the constitutional right of persons to petition, to speak freely, to associate freely, and to participate in government to the fullest extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of persons to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury.” (quoting Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-102). “The TPPA provides relief for parties who partake in protected activity constituting either the exercise of the right of association, the exercise of the right of free speech, or the exercise of the right to petition.” (internal citations omitted). If a party petitions for dismissal under the TPPA and “makes a prima facie case that they have participated in a protected activity under the TPPA, the court may then dismiss the action against them, unless the responding party establishes a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in the legal action.” (internal citations, quotation and emphasis omitted).

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Where defendant’s allegedly defamatory statements accusing plaintiffs of bigamy were made within the context of a declaratory judgment action, the absolute litigation privilege applied and dismissal of the defamation case was affirmed.

In Vanwinkle v. Thompson, No. M2020-01291-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 1788274 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 2, 2022), defendant had previously been married to one of the plaintiffs, and a final decree of divorce had been issued in their divorce case. Approximately ten months after the final decree, plaintiffs married each other. Defendant then filed a “Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and to Invalidate Bigamous Marriage,” asserting that his divorce from plaintiff was not final and that plaintiffs were therefore engaged in bigamy.

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Where plaintiff’s tort claims against the church and church elders where he was previously pastor were all connected to the church’s termination of plaintiff as pastor and his resistance to that termination, the claims were barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

In Maize v. Friendship Community Church, Inc., No. E2019-00183-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 19, 2020), plaintiff was the former pastor at defendant church. After plaintiff had inappropriate communications with a female church member on Facebook, the church elders (also named as defendants) met and subsequently requested plaintiff’s resignation. Plaintiff refused and was then given a termination letter, which he “refused to abide by.” After a second termination letter was delivered to plaintiff, the church elders held another meeting, wherein “it was suggested that [the termination] had to be done through a church vote in order to be effective.” Because plaintiff was refusing to acknowledge his termination, the church sent an email to its members explaining the termination and stating that plaintiff was likely to attempt to hold church services.

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Dismissal of claims of defamation and false light invasion of privacy by the former CEO of a credit union was affirmed where the email she cited “was not capable of conveying a defamatory meaning” and could not “be considered highly offensive to a reasonable person;” the statement she cited was “not capable of conveying a defamatory meaning” and was not sufficiently publicized; and the audit report she cited was not given the requisite publicity.

In Tidwell v. Holston Methodist Federal Credit Union, No. E2019-01111-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 25, 2020), plaintiff had been the CEO of defendant credit union and was fired after an audit by a regulatory agency. Several issues were identified by the audit, and plaintiff claimed “she became the scapegoat for these problems.” Plaintiff brought suit against the credit union, the chairman of the Board of Directors, the chairman of the Supervisory Committee, and an independent auditor for libel, false light invasion of privacy, and retaliatory discharge.

The trial court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss all claims. Plaintiff appealed, the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal.

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Where a plaintiff who had been convicted of multiple violent crimes filed a defamation claim asserting that a reporter damaged his reputation by stating in a written article that the FBI suspected he might have murdered his girlfriend, the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal based on the theory that the plaintiff was libel-proof.

In Benanti v. Satterfield, No. E2018-01848-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 27, 2020), plaintiff filed a pro se defamation claim against a newspaper reporter. Plaintiff had previously been convicted in a very public trial of a scheme involving bank robbery through the kidnapping and extortion of bank employees and their families. Defendant reporter had written articles about plaintiff and his trial, several of which plaintiff attached to his complaint. While the articles contained information about plaintiff kidnapping entire families, pointing a gun at a baby’s head, and strapping a fake bomb to an elderly mother, plaintiff’s defamation claims were based on the portions of the articles that stated that plaintiff was suspected of possibly murdering his girlfriend because she found out about the criminal activities (though her death was ruled a suicide), as well as portions that alleged his business that focused on helping prisoners re-enter society was a sham.

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Where a trial court did not explain the legal basis for its ruling that a deputy sheriff was immune from a defamation suit under the GTLA, the Court of Appeals vacated the judgment.

In Taylor v. Harsh, No. M2019-01129-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 21, 2020), plaintiff filed suit against defendant, who was a deputy sheriff, for slander, defamation, and interference with prospective economic advantage. The complaint specified that defendant was being sued in his individual capacity. According to plaintiff, defendant pulled plaintiff over for a traffic stop “that resulted in no citation or arrest,” and defendant “thereafter informed an official with a youth volunteer firefighter program…that Plaintiff had committed a felony and fled from the police,” which caused plaintiff’s participation in the program to be terminated.

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that he was immune under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA). The trial court granted the motion, writing in its memo that defendant “was entitled to the immunities set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205(2).” In its oral ruling, the trial court found that defendant was entitled to immunity, but “focuse[d] primarily on the facts of this case, rather than the law.”

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The absolute privilege against a Tennessee defamation claim given to some state officials “for statements made in the course of their official duties” does not extend to district attorneys general.

In Burns v. State of Tennessee, No. E2018-02174-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 26, 2019), plaintiff was the lead investigator for the Gatlinburg Police Department on a case involving a high school basketball player who was assaulted with a pool cue. Plaintiff testified during a preliminary hearing, and according to news coverage of the hearing plaintiff stated that “the assault did not constitute a rape because the alleged assailants were not seeking sexual gratification.” After reports regarding plaintiff’s testimony, General Neal Pinkston, who was the Hamilton County District Attorney, sent out a press release to news outlets stating that General Pinkston had requested the TBI to “investigate [plaintiff] for perjurious testimony related to statements he made during sworn testimony” in the preliminary hearing. The next day, General Pinkston’s office released a statement saying “General Pinkston believes [plaintiff] perjured himself in Hamilton County Juvenile Court on Monday, February 15.”

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In a Tennessee defamation case, statements made in an email regarding a deposition in a federal lawsuit fell under the litigation privilege and dismissal was affirmed.

In Kilgore v. State of Tennessee, No. E2018-01790-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 13, 2019), plaintiff had been involved in a previous federal lawsuit. In the federal case, plaintiff, who owned a towing service, had brought an action against certain highway patrol officers. During that case, the officers were represented by two attorneys, Ms. Jordan and Ms. Lyford. Shortly before the scheduled deposition of a witness, the witness’s son’s business caught fire. The day before the deposition, Ms. Jordan sent an email to plaintiff’s counsel in the federal case stating that one of the co-plaintiff’s emissaries had told the witness to “watch out” and that “the timing [did] not seem to be coincidental.” The email stated that the incident would be fully investigated and that witness intimidation was a crime, and also stated that future depositions would be held at secure locations with metal detectors. Later that day, Ms. Lyford sent an email explaining that she was attempting to locate a secure location for the deposition the following day.

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The Tennessee Supreme Court recently affirmed that the fair report privilege does not apply to “a nonpublic, one-on-one conversation between a newspaper reporter and a detective of the county sheriff’s department, who also served as the public information officer for the sheriff’s department.” In Burke v. Sparta Newspapers, Inc., No. M2016-01065-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Dec. 5, 2019), plaintiff filed a defamation suit against a newspaper that ran an article stating that he had “misappropriated” money from a football league fundraiser. Plaintiff took issue with several statements from the story, which quoted as its source “the case’s lead investigator, Detective Chris Isom, of the White County Sheriff’s Office[.]”

Defendant newspaper filed a motion for summary judgment “asserting immunity from liability based on the fair report privilege.” Defendant argued that “the privilege applied because the article was a fair and accurate report of the statements Detective Isom made to [the reporter] in his official capacity both as lead detective and as public information officer for the White County Sheriff’s Department.” Defendant acknowledged that the statements occurred during a private, one-on-one conversation, but urged that the fair report privilege nevertheless applied.

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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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