Ousted Educator Tries To Talk Appeals Court Into Letting Him Sue Someone For Things Someone Else Said
from the self-screwing-intensifies dept
Because prudence is always in short supply but stupid is the world’s foremost renewable resource, an ousted director of a Tennessee culinary school is appealing the dismissal of a defamation suit he brought against his replacement for things a journalist said.
The original lawsuit didn’t live long, fortunately. Heavily quoting a Tennessean article by journalist Jim Myers, Tom Loftis — the former head of the culinary school at the Nashville university — sued Randy Rayburn (Loftis’ replacement) over things Myers said.
Loftis apparently expected his status as a private person (given more reputational protection by courts than public figures) to overcome the deficiencies of his lawsuit. But the deficiencies won and Loftis lost, having failed to show how words written by Jim Myers were somehow libelous statements issued directly by Randy Rayburn.
Loftis should have quit while he was behind. He’s already on the hook for the legal fees racked up by Rayburn’s defense at this point, but apparently feels the best use of a university severance package is as an accelerant for the fire consuming what’s left of his reputation.
Daniel Horwitz, who defended Rayburn against Loftis’ first legal leap of faith, is back on board defending against the appeal. According to Loftis, the lower court erred by refusing to read his defamation lawsuit the way Loftis would prefer it to be read: as a false light invasion of privacy lawsuit.
There are shades of difference, but the latter tort allows negative impressions to be actionable, rather than relying on actual defamatory statements made by the defendant. This is about the only choice Loftis has (other than walking away from this) considering there’s no indication the statements he’s suing about are anything other than Jim Myers’ (not Randy Rayburn’s) opinions.
It won’t make any difference. The allegations remain unchanged. Loftis is still trying to twist the words of a journalist into statements made by his replacement. But nowhere in Myers’ article on the cooking school will you find a direct quote of Randy Rayburn. For that matter, you’ll find almost nothing in the piece that indicates the statements Loftis is suing over are anything more than Myers‘ take on the Nashville culinary scene. This is hammered home in Rayburn’s reply brief [PDF], something neither he nor his representation probably thought they’d ever have to do.
The entirety of Mr. Loftis’s complaint concerned statements that were neither made by nor attributed to the Defendant, Mr. Randy Rayburn. In fact, at no point in the article was Mr. Rayburn even quoted. Further, nearly all of the objectively innocuous statements referenced in the article did not mention Mr. Loftis, were incapable of conveying any defamatory meaning or inference as a matter of law, and could not seriously be considered “highly offensive” by any reasonable person. Critically, Mr. Loftis also pleaded that the only statements in the article that did mention him were accurate—rendering this lawsuit “possibly unprecedented” in its frivolousness.
It goes on to point out the negative implications of the court treating this appeal with any more respect than it actually deserves.
Despite its frivolousness, however, the implications that the instant lawsuit will carry if its dismissal is not forcefully affirmed by this Court are anything but. Simply put: forcing the supposed source of a news story to defend against a $1.5 million lawsuit for the transgression of being mentioned alongside coverage that a hypersensitive plaintiff considers unflattering poses serious and severe risks to the viability of newsgathering in Tennessee. Consequently, if allowed to move forward, this lawsuit would threaten both free speech and the public’s willingness to engage with journalists at all.
I don’t think Loftis has any better chance on appeal. His brief [PDF] claims the court never considered his false light claim, but Rayburn’s reply points out the lower court clearly did so… and it did so right out of the gate.
Looking to the Trial Court’s actual Order, the Order’s first paragraph specifically referenced both of Mr. Loftis’s theories of relief, noting that “Mr. Loftis has filed claims for false light invasion of privacy and defamation by implication or innuendo based on statements contained in a newspaper article attached to his Amended Complaint that was written by Jim Myers and published by the Tennessean.”
Next, Paragraph 3 of the Trial Court’s Order recited the legal standards that govern both defamation and false light claims, and it correctly noted that “there is significant and substantial overlap between false light and defamation.”
Thereafter, Paragraph 4 of the Trial Court’s Order applied the law to the facts of Mr. Loftis’s Amended Complaint. After so doing, the Court held that “the statements contained in the Tennessean article are not capable of conveying a defamatory meaning and that they do not give rise to liability as a matter of law.”
At this point Loftis is doing more than just wasting his own money. He’s wasting his opponent’s money. Considering he’s going to be on the hook for both sets of legal fees, he really should have allowed the suit to peacefully expire when the lower court declared it dead.