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Immunity For Government Employ Denied

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.”

In its analysis, the Court of Appeals first noted that defendant’s reliance on § 29-20-205 was “misguided.” The Court then explained the legal analysis that would apply in this case:

[T]here is apparently no dispute that Plaintiff’s claims…arise out of enumerated intentional torts for which immunity of the governmental entity is not removed under section 29-20-205(2). Defendant appeared to suggest in the trial court that once this immunity of the governmental entity was established, so long as Defendant was acting in the scope of his employment, he enjoyed the same immunity. Respectfully, we cannot agree.

Section 29-20-205 provides immunity to governmental entities. …This definition does not include employees of governmental entities. As such, the Tennessee Supreme Court has clearly held that the immunity afforded governmental entities does not extend to the employee. Instead, the immunity of the employee is determined by considering two interrelated factors: (1) whether the employee is being sued in an individual or official capacity; and (2) whether the employee’s governmental employer has immunity.

First, we must determine whether the employee is being sued in an official capacity or individually. …[W]hen the GTLA immunizes a governmental entity, it follows that an officer is also immune when sued in his official capacity.

Defendant, however, was not sued in his official capacity, but in an individual or personal capacity. …If the employee is being sued individually, his or her immunity is inversely related to the immunity of the governmental entity….Thus, when the governmental entity cannot be held liable due to immunity, a plaintiff may seek recovery from an individual employee under the circumstances outlined in [29-20-310] subsection (c).

(internal citations and quotation omitted).

Turning back to the present case, the Court found that defendant’s argument focused on the section of the GTLA that would have applied had he been sued in his official capacity. Plaintiff, however, sued defendant in his individual capacity. The Court held that the trial court’s order did not “reveal whether [it] applied the correct law in this case,” and the order did “not disclose the steps taken to reach its ultimate ruling of immunity…” Because of the lack of legal basis in the order, the trial court’s judgment was vacated and the case was remanded.

In its opinion, the Court acknowledged that there is disagreement over the interpretation of § 29-20-310(c), the applicable statute, regarding whether it requires the actions of the employee to be “willful, malicious, criminal, or performed for personal financial gain to impose any liability.” The Court stated that it “need not decide the proper interpretation…in this particular case,” but it did seem to indicate that “under even the more burdensome interpretation of section 29-20-310(c)…it appears that Plaintiff’s allegations survive.”

This case gives a detailed explanation of the analysis to be used when a claim is made against a government employee is his or her individual capacity. If you are litigating a case with such a claim, this opinion is a must-read.

NOTE:  To aid lawyers in giving clients guidance about how long it takes to receive an opinion after oral argument in the appellate courts, we are going to start sharing that information with readers.   Please understand that the length of time that elapses between oral argument and the date the opinion is released is dependent on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the complexity of the issues presented.  In this case, the opinion was released about six weeks after oral argument.

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