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Friday, May 06, 2011

Applying the Doctrine of Absolute Privilege

Applying the Doctrine of Absolute Privilege*
Van Donsel v Schrader, 2011 NY Slip Op 03698, Appellate Division, Third Department

Richard Van Donsel, the then Cortland County Attorney, sued Scott Schrader, the then Cortland County Administrator, alleging causes of action for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The genesis of this action was characterized by the Appellate Division as “part of an ill-fated plan to construct a County facility.” The County contracted to acquire real property owned by one Steven Lissberger. The County then reneged on the contract and Lissberger sought damages. Subsequently Lissberger sold the parcel to a third party, and was represented in that sale by Ronald Walsh. Walsh, at the time, was also serving as an Assistant County Attorney.

Van Donsel negotiated a settlement of the Lissberger claim. Schrader conducted a pre-audit of the proposed settlement and recommended its rejection in a memorandum to the relevant Cortland County legislative committee. In the words of the Appellate Division, “Noting Lissberger's sale of the property for only $500 less than the price set out in his contract with the County and Walsh's connections with [Van Donsel] — points that [Von Donsel] had neglected to disclose in requesting approval of the settlement — [Schrader] further recommended that [Van Donsel’s] office be investigated 'for a possible criminal conspiracy and unethical behavior.'"

The Appellate Division held that Schrader’s statements to the legislative committee were protected by an absolute privilege and thus Schrader's motion for summary judgment should have been granted by Supreme Court.

The Appellate Division explained that "A privileged communication is one which, but for the occasion on which it is uttered, would be defamatory and actionable," citing Park Knoll Assoc. v Schmidt, 59 NY2d 205. Further, said the court, “As a matter of public policy, an absolute privilege protects ‘communications made by individuals participating in a public function, such as executive, legislative, judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings,'” citing Rosenberg v MetLife, Inc., 8 NY3d 359.

The comments objected to, however, must have been made in the context of official communications by "a principal executive of State or local government [or] those entrusted by law with considerable administrative or executive policy-making responsibilities." In contrast, merely participating in such proceedings is insufficient to trigger the privilege.

There is little question, said the court, that Schrader, the County's chief administrative officer and executive, constituted a high official to whom the absolute privilege doctrine applies. Further, the Appellate Division noted that both Schrader's memorandum and the statements therein were prepared in furtherance of his official duties, which included reviewing claims submitted for payment by the County, supervising its department heads, and making appropriate recommendations to the County Legislature.

Van Donsel did not dispute that public disclosure of Schrader’s memorandum was "required by law" but, said the court, contrary to Van Donsel's argument, the fact that it received attention in the news media did not remove Schrader's comments from falling within the ambit of the privilege.

While the Appellate Division noted that a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress “is not flatly barred by absolute privilege,” it said that Van Donsel “failed to raise a [question] of fact as to whether [Schrader's] conduct was so extreme, outrageous, and beyond the bounds of human decency as to constitute" that tort. 

* See, also, a summary addressing the Doctrine of Qualified Immunity posted on the Internet at: http://publicpersonnellaw.blogspot.com/2011/05/qualified-immunity-from-civil-lawsuits.html

The decision is reported on the Internet at: 

See, also, Leonard v Schrader, 2011 NY Slip Op 03699, decided with this action and posted on the Internet at http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2011/2011_03699.htm 

In Leonard Supreme Court held “the defenses of absolute and qualified privilege in abeyance.” The Appellate Division ruled that “for the reasons stated in Van Donsel v Schrader (supra), we agree with Schrader that he is entitled to summary judgment dismissing the complaint.”

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