October 30, 2020

Qualified privilege in an action seeking damages for alleged defamation

 In this action to recover damages for alleged defamation, the several defendants [jointly "Respondents"] separately appealed from an order of Supreme Court denying their separate motions to dismiss the complaint insofar as asserted against each of them.

The president [Plaintiff] of a local branch of a labor union representing the workers of the Respondent private sector employer [Company] commenced this action to recover damages for defamation, alleging that the Company, together with the Company's owner [Owner]  and the Company's attorney [Attorney] made certain defamatory statements about Plaintiff, which were then widely distributed to the Company's employees in an effort to influence the outcome of an affiliation contest between the Plaintiff's union and a rival union.

Plaintiff further alleged, among other things, that the several Respondents made the defamatory statements with knowledge of their falsity and for the purpose of damaging the Plaintiff's reputation among the Company's employees and impugning his ability to continue acting as president of the union's local branch. The Plaintiff also alleged that, as a result of the conduct of the several Respondents he suffered actual, compensable damage to his reputation.

Affirming the decision of the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division explained that where, as here, either party to a labor dispute is alleged to have circulated false and defamatory statements during the course of labor negotiations, "a qualified privilege attaches," which renders the action preempted by federal law. In order to overcome this qualified privilege and retain state court jurisdiction over the matter, the court said that the plaintiff's pleadings must allege both that the statements were made with malice and that they injured the plaintiff. *

Holding that contrary to their contention, and with respect to "the appellants appearing separately and filing separate briefs," the court opined that Plaintiff's pre-answer motions must be assumed to be true and are sufficient to overcome the qualified privilege relied upon by these appellants.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court's determination denying the separate motions of the appellants appearing separately to dismiss the complaint insofar as asserted against each of them, with one bill of costs payable by the appellants appearing separately and filing separate briefs.

* See O'Neil v Peekskill Faculty Assn., 120 AD2d 36 at 42

The decision is posted on the Internet at http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2020/2020_06090.htm

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