The place plaintiff actual property skilled introduced an motion for defamation and false gentle primarily based on a web-based evaluate written by defendant, defendant moved to dismiss the motion pursuant to the Tennessee Public Participation Act (TPPA).
In Charles v. McQueen, No. M2021-00878-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 4490980 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2022), plaintiff was an actual property skilled concerned in some capability with Durham Farms, which was a big residential group. Defendant was a resident in the neighborhood who wrote a damaging on-line evaluate of the developer of the group and plaintiff. Relating to plaintiff, the evaluate acknowledged: “Invoice Charles, particularly, makes use of deceptive techniques to lure in house patrons solely to deceive them.”
Based mostly on this evaluate, plaintiff filed this motion for defamation and false gentle towards plaintiff. Defendant filed a petition for dismissal pursuant to the TPPA, and after discovering that the TPPA utilized, that plaintiff was a limited-purpose public determine within the context of this motion, and that plaintiff “had not established a prima facie case for precise malice,” the trial courtroom dismissed the case. This ruling was affirmed partially and reversed partially on enchantment.
The TPPA, Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-101 et seq., is Tennessee’s model of an anti-SLAPP statute and was designed to “encourage and safeguard the constitutional proper of individuals to petition, to talk freely, to affiliate freely, and to take part in authorities to the fullest extent permitted by regulation and, on the identical time, defend the rights of individuals to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable damage.” (quoting Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-102). “The TPPA offers aid for events who partake in protected exercise constituting both the train of the fitting of affiliation, the train of the fitting of free speech, or the train of the fitting to petition.” (inner citations omitted). If a celebration petitions for dismissal underneath the TPPA and “makes a prima facie case that they’ve participated in a protected exercise underneath the TPPA, the courtroom could then dismiss the motion towards them, except the responding celebration establishes a prima facie case for every important ingredient of the declare within the authorized motion.” (inner citations, citation and emphasis omitted).
Right here, the primary problem was whether or not the TPPA utilized to the details of this case. The trial courtroom dominated that defendant’s statements constituted a matter of public concern as a result of they associated to a very good within the market, however the Courtroom of Appeals discovered that the TPPA utilized primarily based on completely different reasoning. The TPPA applies when the petitioner has participated in an “train of proper of free speech,” which implies “a communication made in reference to a matter of public concern…” (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-103(3)). The TPPA additional offers that “a matter of public concern” consists of points associated to, amongst different issues, “environmental, financial or group well-being.” (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-103(6)). Though Tennessee had no case regulation on this problem, the Courtroom famous that different states have interpreted their very own related legal guidelines to imply that “neighborhoods are sometimes thought of to represent communities and implicate issues of ‘public curiosity’ or ‘public concern’ within the context of anti-SLAPP litigation.” The Courtroom of Appeals thus dominated that the assertion at problem right here “concern[ed] a difficulty that [was] associated to ‘group well-being’” as contemplated by the TPPA, and that the TPPA subsequently utilized.
Having discovered that the TPPA utilized, the Courtroom moved on to contemplating whether or not plaintiff had proven a prima facie case for every ingredient of his two claims. A crucial problem on this evaluation was whether or not the trial courtroom appropriately dominated that plaintiff was a limited-purpose public determine, as that meant plaintiff needed to present precise malice for defamation relatively than simply negligence. When contemplating whether or not plaintiff was a public determine, “the trial courtroom should decide that there was in reality a public controversy and that Plaintiff injected himself into the controversy by his personal voluntary motion.” (inner quotation omitted). Plaintiff raised a number of evidentiary points on enchantment associated to the query of whether or not he was a public determine, and the Courtroom of Appeals agreed that the trial courtroom incorrectly relied on sure newspaper articles and assembly minutes from fee conferences and householders’ affiliation conferences, neither of which have been admissible. Per the TPPA itself, solely admissible proof ought to have been thought of (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-105(d)), and as soon as the Courtroom of Appeals took the inadmissible reveals out of consideration, there was no proof to assist the discovering that plaintiff “had voluntarily injected himself into the controversy” and no proof relating to “the prominence of the position Plaintiff allegedly performed within the alleged public controversy.” The discovering that plaintiff was a limited-purpose public determine was accordingly reversed.
The Courtroom subsequent thought of whether or not plaintiff had made a prima facie case for the important components of his two claims. Relating to defamation, as a result of plaintiff was not a public determine, he solely wanted to point out negligence relatively than precise malice. Contemplating the weather of defamation and the details of this case, the Courtroom dominated that plaintiff confirmed at the very least a prima facie case that defendant printed an announcement, that the assertion was defamatory, and that defendant acted with negligence as a result of she admitted in her deposition that she was “largely unaware of the extent of Plaintiff’s involvement in [the neighborhood]” and that she didn’t attempt to confirm plaintiff’s degree of involvement. Accordingly, dismissal of the defamation declare was reversed.
For the false gentle declare, the Courtroom identified that though plaintiff shouldn’t be thought of a public determine, “precise malice is the suitable commonplace for false gentle claims when the plaintiff is a public official or public determine, or when the declare is asserted by a non-public particular person a few matter of public concern.” (inner quotation omitted). Based mostly on an identical reasoning to the TPPA evaluation, the Courtroom discovered that the assertion at problem right here associated to a matter of public concern, and plaintiff thus needed to make a prima facie case of precise malice. Whereas the Courtroom discovered that plaintiff might make a case for the opposite components of false gentle, it agreed with the trial courtroom that plaintiff couldn’t present precise malice. Defendant “genuinely believed the veracity of her statements regarding Plaintiff’s purported involvement with Durham Farm’s growth and the rental items,” and thus plaintiff couldn’t present that defendant acted with precise malice or with reckless disregard. Dismissal of the false gentle declare was subsequently affirmed.
As a result of the TPPA is a comparatively new statute, it has not been interpreted in lots of opinions. This case is accordingly an necessary learn for anybody litigating a case which may implicate the TPPA.
This opinion was launched 4 months after oral argument on this case.
Be aware: Chapter 28, Sections 12 and 14 of Day on Torts: Main Instances in Tennessee Tort Regulation has been up to date to incorporate this resolution.
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