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Posted by: Brittany Sims on Dec 23, 2013

Court: TN Supreme Court

Attorneys 1:

Pamela S. Lorch, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, State of Tennessee.

Attorneys 2:

Jeffery Scott Frensley, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Zoyle Jones.

Judge(s): LEE

The issue presented in this case is one of first impression: whether cabinet-level state executive officials are absolutely immune from defamation claims arising out of statements made while performing their official duties. An employee of the Tennessee Department of Correction (“TDOC”) was disciplined for double-billing claims for his job-related travel expenses to both the state and a private organization. After the TDOC Commissioner responded to media inquiries about the employee’s demotion for violating the state’s travel billing policy, the employee sued the State of Tennessee and the TDOC for defamation. The State moved for summary judgment, asserting that the TDOC Commissioner had an absolute privilege to make the allegedly defamatory statements to the media. The Tennessee Claims Commission denied the State’s motion. Upon review, we hold that the State is absolutely immune from the employee’s defamation claims that relate to the TDOC Commissioner’s statements in response to media inquiries about the employee’s demotion. This ruling allows cabinet-level officials to perform their governmental duties free from legal harassment and uninhibited by the fear of potential lawsuits arising out of their job-related speech. It also furthers the vital free-expression principle that the public has a right to receive critical information from the government and its public officials, who must be free to speak with complete candor about matters of public importance. The judgment of the Claims Commission is reversed.