Supreme Court Adopts Absolute Privilege For Cabinet-Level Officials In Defamation Suits

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that cabinet-level state officials have absolute immunity from defamation claims for speech that arises out of the performance of their official duties.

Zoyle Jones, a former employee of the Tennessee Department of Correction, sued the State for defamation and other claims after former TDOC Commissioner George Little spoke to the media about Jones’s demotion. The demotion was in the wake of allegations and investigations into Jones’s alleged improprieties in double-billing his travel to the State and a private organization. The Commissioner’s comments referenced two letters that he had sent to Jones about the double-billing controversy and the demotion. 

The Tennessee Claims Commission dismissed Jones’s other legal claims, but did not dismiss the defamation claim.

In the appellate proceedings, the State contended that the Tennessee Supreme Court should adopt an absolute privilege, which provides complete immunity to a defendant for the alleged defamatory statements. Jones argued that the Court should rule that state officials have a weaker qualified privilege that may be overcome if the claimant presents evidence of ill will or malice. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously determined that a rule of absolute immunity should apply to cabinet-level state officials in defamation claims arising out of statements made while performing their official duties.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon G. Lee explained that a rule of absolute immunity furthers two important policy considerations. First, an absolute privilege ensures that cabinet-level state officials can fulfill their important public duties free from the harassment of lawsuits. Second, an absolute privilege also furthers important free-expression principles, by allowing these state officials to inform the public about the functioning of government and other significant issues. 

The Opinion goes on to say that in a constitutional democracy, the public has a right to receive information and ideas about the government and its public officials. 

The Court noted that Commissioner Little, a member of the governor’s cabinet, was acting within the scope of his duties when he spoke about the content of his letters, which were public records, to members of the media. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Claims Commission and returned the case to them for further proceedings. 

To read the Opinion in Zoyle Jones v. State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Lee, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.

New Hamilton County Businesses

Here are the new business licenses from the County Clerk's office: 3W BUSINESS SOLUTIONS 4642 ANSEL CIR HIXSON, TN 37343 AESTHETIC INVESTMENTS 4715 BONNY OAKS DR APT 219 CHATTANOOGA, TN 37416 ANTHONY DUCKETT - MILLENNIUM 5 LLC 2145 S HOLLY ST CHATTANOOGA, TN 37404 AUGGIE REPAIR 601 SPEARS AVE CHATTANOOGA, TN 37405 B & H VENTURES 819 ... (click for more)

CBL Completes Sale Of 2 Regional Malls For $66.5 Million

CBL & Associates Properties, Inc. (NYSE: CBL) on Friday announced that it closed on the sale of Fashion Square Mall in Saginaw, Mich., and The Lakes in Muskegon, Mich. The malls were sold to a private buyer for an aggregate price of $66.5 million, including the assumption of a $38.2 million loan secured by Fashion Square. Net proceeds from the sale were used to reduce outstanding ... (click for more)

Hixson Man Charged With Sending Threatening Emails To General Sessions Court Judge

A 30-year-old Hixson man has been charged with making threats to kill General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom after police said they found evidence to tie him to recent threats against the judge. David Lee Graham, of 1730 Colorado St., is charged with retaliation against a judge. His bond was raised to $100,000. Detective Ric Whaley said he had been conducting an investigation ... (click for more)

Rescuers Carry Injured 15-Year-Old Boy Out Of Pocket Wilderness

First responders spent Sunday afternoon rescuing an injured 15-year-old boy at the Pocket Wilderness at the foot of Mowbray Mountain. At 1:20 p.m. , a 911 call was made reporting a teenager had injured his ankle from cliff jumping at the "Blue Hole " at the Pocket Wilderness. Tennessee State Parks and the Mowbray Volunteer Fire Department responded to the scene and immediately ... (click for more)

Make America Good Again - And Response

“No people can be great, who have ceased to be virtuous.”   Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) Last week I witnessed first hand the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. As I observed the happenings within the Quicken Arena, the one theme that continued to pop up again and again, was  Make America Great Again .  Of course, that being ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Jerika’s Last Dance

There is a horrifying disease called spinal muscular atrophy type 2 that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. What happens is the nerve cells in a person’s brain stem and spinal cord slowly die and, without the ability to voluntarily control your muscles, your body withers away in one of the most painful ways you can imagine. Jerika Bolen, age 14, can’t stand it any longer, nor ... (click for more)