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.


Cambridge Square Welcomes 3 New Office Tenants

Cambridge Square, Ooltewah’s growing commercial, entertainment, and residential community, has added three new office tenants, according to Marketing and Leasing Director Jim Cheney. Additionally, in response to the increasing demand for professional space, Cambridge Square has expanded its flex space office portfolio to accommodate small business owners seeking shorter term lease ... (click for more)

Alexander Supports Supreme Court Decision To Hear States’ Rights Case

Senator Lamar Alexander Friday released the following statement after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a case regarding whether states can require out-of-state businesses to collect and remit state sales taxes:  “I am glad the Supreme Court will revisit its 25-year-old decision that interferes with a state’s ability  to determine its own tax policy," said Senator ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Under Winter Weather Advisory With Snow On The Way; Most Schools To Close

Chattanooga is under a Winter Weather Advisory for Tuesday with snow expected. Hamilton County Schools will be closed Tuesday "due to the significant threat of snow in the area during the school day." All school age childcare will also be closed. All central office staff should report at the normal time. UTC, Chattanooga State, and Chattanooga College will ... (click for more)

Man Who Led Police On Wild Chase On Jan. 12 Is Apprehended At Ooltewah

A man who led police on a wild chase on Jan. 12 has been apprehended in Ooltewah. Kenny Lynn McCulloch, 30, of 8347 Wild Fig Lane, Ooltewah, faces a slew of charges. In the Jan. 12 incident, a deputy saw a blue older-model Dodge pickup truck avoid the intersection of Bonny Oaks Drive and Lee Highway by going through the Mapco parking lot. The deputy got behind the vehicle, ... (click for more)

Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you, Dr. King for stepping-out.  Thank you for your lasting voice to what it's all about. Thank you, Dr. King for  stepping up and also showing-up, ...when decisions were being made and  your refusal  to shut-up.  We find your fingerprints on both directions and toward progress.  your modeling, mentoring,  and reactions helps ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Vulgar Trump & More

Nothing rankles me more than seeing obscenities and vulgarity that appears in today’s liberal media, not to dare mention our public forum. Understand, I will use “damn” when no other word will fit as well. I’ll use “hell” as an exclamation point sometimes and I also may quote an aggressor in a story where he threatens to whip another’s “ass.” But our President reached an all-time ... (click for more)