Appeals Court Finally Shuts Down Bogus Lawsuit Targeting A School Official For Words A Journalist Wrote

from the PERRY-MASON-MOMENT-INCLUDED dept

At long last, one of the stupider defamation lawsuits in recent history is finally over. Last year, the ousted director of a Tennessee culinary school (Tom Loftis) sued over an article appearing in a local paper. The article, written by journalist Jim Myers, insinuated the departure of Loftis signaled a return to quality for the culinary program. It also spoke highly of his replacement, Randy Rayburn.

The article featured few direct quotes from Rayburn. The bulk of it consisted of Myers' take on the program's declining quality while Loftis was at the helm. So, naturally, Tom Loftis decided to sue his replacement, Randy Rayburn, who was responsible for none of the supposedly defamatory content contained in the article.

Loftis argued this was "defamation by innuendo," all the while refusing to target the journalist and paper responsible for the alleged innuendo. He not only lost his lawsuit, but now owes legal fees for that attempt. Rather than accept this loss and cut a check, Loftis appealed. This recent state appeals court decision [PDF], via Randy Rayburn's legal representative, Daniel Horwitz, has nothing positive to say about Loftis' bogus lawsuit.

First, the court points out the obvious: Rayburn didn't say the things Loftis is suing about.

To prevail on his defamation by implication or innuendo claim, Mr. Loftis must establish in his complaint that Mr. Rayburn published the statements and that the meaning reasonably conveyed by the statements was defamatory.

[...]

Mr. Rayburn is not the author of the article, and he is not quoted anywhere in the article. However, Mr. Loftis asserted in his amended complaint that during an interview with Mr. Myers, Mr. Rayburn spoke the words that Mr. Myers printed.

Even "liberally construing" Loftis' argument doesn't help. The court agrees that giving his allegations an extremely favorable reading supports his claim for "defamation by implication," but when all the facts are in, the allegation is baseless.

Mr. Loftis does not question the literal truth of the statements in the article, but he argues they imply that he personally was to blame for the unqualified line cooks in Nashville. We do not agree. Mr. Myers’ statement that the school’s culinary program was not turning out qualified students appears to have been based on the feedback Mr. Rayburn got from other chefs in the area. The article does not suggest that all of the unqualified line cooks in the area received training at the culinary program at Nashville Tech or that Mr. Loftis was to blame for the dearth of qualified line cooks, as Mr. Loftis argues. Mr. Loftis is not mentioned at all until the second page, toward the end of the article, when Mr. Myers wrote: “They started by cleaning house from the top by removing director Tom Loftis.” Mr. Myers does not clarify who “they” were, and the article does not impugn Mr. Loftis personally. Contrary to Mr. Loftis’s argument, we do not believe the article can reasonably be interpreted as depicting Mr. Loftis as “personally responsible for the perceived deficiencies of the culinary program.”

It follows this up with a blunt take on Loftis' creative legal thinking.

We are not bound by Mr. Loftis’s interpretation of the statements because we find they do not reasonably have the meaning he ascribes to them.

It also disposes of his "false light invasion of privacy" claim. While the statements made to the Tennessean reporter might satisfy the publicity requirement (in essence, Rayburn could assume that by speaking to a reporter his comments would be published in some form), this claim similarly fails because the statements were made by the reporter -- not Randy Rayburn. And even if they were, they do not even approach the the "false light" standard.

We do not, however, believe that the statements can be considered “highly offensive to a reasonable person,” as they must be for Mr. Loftis to proceed with this claim. For the reasons we found the statements in Mr. Myers’ article fail to imply a defamatory meaning, we also find they are not susceptible to the requisite inferences casting Mr. Loftis in a false light. We do not believe a reasonable person would be justified, in the eyes of the community, of being seriously offended and aggrieved by the statements at issue.

Finally, there's this: Tom Loftis' attorney made a stunning admission during oral arguments. It's a fact common to many bogus defamation cases, but one rarely stated so baldly by legal representation while still engaged in bogus litigation. Defamation lawsuits are a handy way to silence critics, especially when the target of the lawsuit is perceived to be ill-equipped to tackle the case in court. In response to the court's logical question as to why Loftis chose to sue Randy Rayburn rather than the journalist or paper whose article Loftis found defamatory, his lawyer had this to say:

Judge Neal McBrayer: “Why isn’t the Tennessean the proper party here?”

Gary Blackburn (Attorney for Mr. Loftis): “Your Honor, there were practical reasons for that . . . . It is easier to bring a lawsuit against the person who uttered the words than against a publication that buys ink by the barrel, as they say, and has lots of resources.

This is Loftis' lawyer saying he felt he had a better chance of winning against Randy Rayburn than against a newspaper that might have the legal team and resources to put up a fight. Blackburn tries to disguise it by saying Rayburn "uttered the words," but the oral argument [beginning at 6:05] includes the court's rebuttal that the article contains "no direct quotes." This statement lays bare the lawsuit's true aims: to ruin a replacement school official who seems to be better liked by Tennessean journalists, if nothing else.


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  • identicon
    David, 2 May 2018 @ 1:58pm

    Ah, the old joke

    Gary Blackburn (Attorney for Mr. Loftis): “Your Honor, there were practical reasons for that . . . . It is easier to bring a lawsuit against the person who uttered the words than against a publication that buys ink by the barrel, as they say, and has lots of resources.“

    "Are you sure you lost your key here?" "No, over there." "Why are we looking here then?" "It's cleaner and we have better light."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Wyrm (profile), 2 May 2018 @ 2:19pm

    We do not believe a reasonable person would be justified, in the eyes of the community, of being seriously offended and aggrieved by the statements at issue.

    And Loftis was offended and aggrieved... That says a lot about what the court thinks of him. And probably his lawyer too. :D

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 2 May 2018 @ 2:24pm

    Time for retirement, like it or not

    I suspect that 'sued his replacement for something said replacement didn't say' probably won't go over too well with any potential bosses, so I hope he's got enough saved up for retirement, he might need it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 May 2018 @ 3:34pm

    For Sale: One Unemployable Culinary School Director

    Loftis rendered himself unemployable the moment he filed his lawsuit. Let's face it, a man who takes that much umbrage for critical comments is a risk to the next employer he might have who downchecks him.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 2 May 2018 @ 3:57pm

    Might I suggest the "Gary Blackburn Special"?
    It is a lightly pan seared shoe, perfect for putting into your mouth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 May 2018 @ 4:16pm

    Simply put: don't sue the organ grinder sue the monkey.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 4 May 2018 @ 5:12am

    Might as well sue the squirrel instead of the comedy show's network.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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