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.
After that declaratory judgment case was dismissed, plaintiffs filed this defamation complaint against defendant, stating that defendant “had falsely alleged that they had committed bigamy in his complaint for declaratory judgment.” Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the defamation action, which the trial court granted based on the absolute litigation privilege, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
The absolute litigation privilege applies in defamation cases to mean that “statements made in the course of a judicial proceeding, if pertinent or relevant, are absolutely privileged, and this is true regardless of whether they are malicious, false, known to be false, or against a stranger to the proceeding.” (internal citation omitted). In order for the absolute litigation privilege to apply, the “statement by a judge, witness, counsel, or party” must “be in the course of a judicial proceeding, and…be pertinent or relevant to the issue involved in said judicial proceeding.” (internal citation omitted).
Here, the parties did not dispute that defendant “made his allegedly defamatory statements in the course of the declaratory judgment action, and thus in the course of a judicial proceeding.” The issue, then, was whether the statements “were pertinent or relevant to the issues in the declaratory judgment action.” The Court quickly concluded that this criteria was met, as defendant’s allegation that plaintiffs’ marriage was bigamous was the very basis of his complaint.
Plaintiffs attempted to argue that “the question of whether the privilege applies is unfit to be decided on a motion to dismiss,” but the Court rejected this argument. The Court noted that the “issue of whether [defendant’s] statements were relevant or pertinent to the declaratory judgment action is a question of law, as is the ultimate question of whether the absolute litigation privilege applies.” (internal citation omitted). The Court noted that “the legal questions involved in the absolute litigation privilege are particularly well-suited for disposition on a motion to dismiss so long as the requirements of the rule are met.” (internal citation omitted).
Because both criteria for the absolute litigation privilege were met, dismissal of the defamation complaint was affirmed.
This case is a good example of the absolute litigation privilege being applied. Even if the statement is blatantly false, a defamation claim cannot stand where this privilege applies.
This opinion was released two months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 28, Section 11 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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