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.