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.


DEML Opens Counseling Practice

Gloria Deml, PH.D, ME.D, BSN of Chattanooga announces the opening of her counselling practice.  She is a 2007 graduate of the National Christian Counselor Association in Sarasota, Fl. and a 2016 graduate from Winchester School of Christian Counseling and Seminary.  Dr. Deml additionally holds a BSN in nursing from the University of Maryland and a master’s in education ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Chamber Calendar Of Events Nov. 20-24

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 21 Red Bank Council Meeting 12:00-1:00 p.m. Red Bank Community Center: Tom Weathers Drive, behind Erlanger North Speaker: Senator Bo Watson Meetings cost $10. .............................. .............................. .............................. .... (click for more)

3 People Shot Early Saturday Morning; 1 Is Killed; 2 Victims Are Known Gang Members

Ladarius Cross, 28, Terrance Careathers, 26, and a juvenile were shot early Saturday morning. Cross was killed.   Chattanooga Police responded to a motor vehicle crash at 5:16 a.m. in the 1400 block of Roanoke Avenue.   Upon arrival, Chattanooga Police Officers located the single vehicle crash with two people suffering for apparent gunshot wounds. The driver, ... (click for more)

CSAS Teacher Who Was Once Reported Missing Facing DUI Charge

A teacher at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, who recently was reported missing and then was spotted, has now been arrested. John Albert Eaton, 44, was arrested Sunday in Red Bank on a DUI charge. He gave his address as 9580 Sweet Gum Lane, Soddy Daisy. Eaton's wife had reported him missing after she said he told her he was going to the school on a Sunday afternoon ... (click for more)

Signal Mountain Should Be Problem Solvers Around The City

Re: Roy Exum’s “Stay, Signal Mountain, Stay”  Well this article is something to think about. I think the split could go either way, and Signal Mountain schools would still flourish, as they have done for the past several years. What I'm worried about is why Signal Mountain has not yet had the guts to go be problem solvers at Howard, or Tyner, or Central. Why do ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The School Board Bullies

When the good people of Signal Mountain join with their loved ones to give thanks for many, many blessings on this hallowed Thursday, you can bet the Hamilton County Department of Education will be on nary a list. For the past year a diligent advisory committee has studied the feasibility of forming its own school district and exactly one week prior to Thanksgiving, the misguided ... (click for more)