September 08, 2021

Matters of public concern alleged to be defamatory uttered by a public official are entitled to a qualified privilege of immunity from liability if they involve the discharge of a public duty

In deciding this action brought by an individual [Plaintiff] alleging he had been defamed by a public officer, the Appellate Division observed that the elements of a cause of action to recover damages for defamation are the making of [1] a false statement that tends to expose a person to public contempt, hatred, ridicule, aversion, or disgrace; [2] published without privilege or authorization to a third party; [3]  amounting to fault as judged by, at a minimum, a negligence standard; and [4] either causing special harm or constituting "defamation per se".*

However, as the Court of Appeals said in Stega v New York Downtown Hosp., 31 NY3d 661, an allegedly defamatory "statement is subject to a qualified privilege when it is fairly made by a person in the discharge of some public or private duty, legal or moral, or in the conduct of his own affairs, in a matter where his [or her] interest is concerned." Further, a plaintiff may defeat the claimed qualified privilege by showing either common-law malice - "spite or ill will", or may show actual malice, - "knowledge of the falsehood of the statement or a reckless disregard for the truth."

The Plaintiff in this action sought to recover damages for alleged defamatory statements about the Plaintiff by a county executive officer [Respondent] to the media and in a written press release, which Plaintiff claimed, among other things, had injured Plaintiff's reputation.

Respondent moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint contending that the allegedly defamatory statements were subject to a qualified privilege. Supreme Court agreed and granted Respondent's. Plaintiff appealed but the Appellate Division sustained the lower court's ruling.

The court explained that Respondent had established that his statements "constitute a matter of public concern and are thus entitled to a qualified privilege of immunity from liability" and that Plaintiff "failed to raise a triable issue that the statements were motivated by either common-law or actual malice."

Accordingly, said the Appellate Division, "Supreme Court properly granted the [Respondent's] motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint."

* The defamation per sein New York are statements which: charge the plaintiff with a serious crime; state false facts that tend to injure the plaintiff in his or her business trade or profession; allege that the plaintiff has a loathsome disease; or impute that the plaintiff is unchaste.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division decision.

 

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