Fired Preschool Teacher Loses Defamation, False Light Claims Against Church Preschool Due to Common Interest Privilege, Absence of Damages

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

Kelly Love McGuffey began working for the Belmont United Methodist Church in December 2007, where she was employed as a preschool teacher.  During an evacuation drill in January 2015, a child was left in the bathroom in the classroom where Ms. McGuffey and another teacher worked.  Following the incident, Ms. McGuffey was terminated.  In an email sent to parents of the children in Ms. McGuffey’s classroom, the preschool also stated: “[Ms. McGuffey] will not be working for Belmont Weekday School any longer due to a supervision mistake during a fire drill.”

After her termination, Ms. McGuffey sued the Church preschool for (among other things) defamation and false light based on the email at issue.  The case reached trial, and following which the Davidson County Circuit Court granted a directed verdict in favor of the preschool as to both claims and dismissed them.  In a unanimous opinion issued on May 27, 2020, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s dismissal.

With respect to her defamation claim, the question presented was whether Ms. McGuffey had presented sufficient evidence to enable her claim to reach a jury.  In Tennessee, to establish a prima facie case of defamation. a plaintiff must prove that: (1) the defendant published a statement with (2) “knowledge that the statement is false and defaming” to the plaintiff, or with “reckless disregard for the truth of the statement,” or “negligence in failing to ascertain the truth of the statement.”[1]  Even if a publication would otherwise be considered defamatory, however—an issue of law that the preschool (curiously) did not contest—there are a number of circumstances in which a defendant is privileged to make a defamatory statement and cannot be held liable for doing so.  Legislators and litigants, for example, are absolutely immunized from defamation suits under specified circumstances.

More commonly, however, a “conditional” or “qualified” common interest privilege will permit a defendant to make a defamatory statement under circumstances when a communication is made in good faith based on a legal interest or duty.  The purpose of this allowance is to prevent liability under circumstances “where the interest which the defendant is seeking to vindicate or further is regarded as sufficiently important to justify some latitude for making mistakes.”[2]  Thus, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that:

[A] [q]ualified privilege extends to all communications made in good faith upon any subject-matter in which the party communicating has an interest, or in reference to which he has a duty to a person having a corresponding interest or duty; and the privilege embraces cases where the duty is not a legal one, but where it is of a moral or social character of imperfect obligation. Newell on Libel & Slander (5th Ed.) § 493; Odgers (5th Ed.) p. 227; Townsend (4th Ed.) 299; Chambers v. Leiser, 43 Wash. 285, 86 Pac. 627, 10 Ann. Cas. 270. The rule announced is necessary in order that full and unrestricted communication concerning a matter in which the parties have an interest or a duty may be had.  It is grounded in public policy as well as reason.[3]

The common interest privilege is frequently invoked with respect to “communications between employees or agents of the same business or corporation,”[4] and it has been applied to negate defamation claims in several cases.[5]  It is not, however, restricted to corporate communications, and upon review, the Tennessee Court of Appeals sensibly held that “the common interest privilege [applies] to school communications with parents.”[6]  Consequently, to overcome the privilege, Ms. McGuffey was obligated to demonstrate that the preschool acted with actual malice in sending the email at issue to parents.  Because, during her case-in-chief, Ms. McGuffey failed to “point to any evidence that [the preschool] did not send the email at issue in good faith,”[7] however, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s directed verdict against her.

The Court of Appeals also determined that a directed verdict was proper for a separate reason: Ms. McGuffey’s failure to prove damages.  In Tennessee:

To make out a claim for defamation, a plaintiff must prove that “the defamation resulted in injury to the person’s character and reputation.” Brown, 428 S.W.3d at 50. In a defamation suit, damages cannot be presumed; rather, a plaintiff must sustain and prove actual damages. Id. at 51 (citing Davis v. The Tennessean, 83 S.W.3d 125, 128 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001)). As to damages, “‘the issue is whether the record contains any material evidence of impairment of reputation and standing in the community, personal humiliation, or mental anguish and suffering.’” Id. (quoting Murray v. Lineberry, 69 S.W.3d 560, 564 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001)).[8]

As to damages, Ms. McGuffey introduced the testimony of a school parent, who testified that she was shocked by the school’s action toward Ms. McGuffey.  The parent also testified, however, that she remained so comfortable with Ms. McGuffey that she continued to employ Ms. McGuffey as a babysitter after the preschool terminated her.  Thus, the Court of Appeals concluded, “Ms. McGuffey failed to establish that the [email] at issue actually caused harm to her reputation and standing in the community. Reduced earnings alone is not sufficient.”[9]  Notably, Tennessee courts’ scrutiny of unproven damages claims represents a welcome trend in Tennessee’s defamation jurisprudence.  See, e.g., McMillin v. Realty Executives Assocs., Inc., No. E2018-00769-COA-R3-CV, 2019 WL 1578704, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 12, 2019) (affirming sanctions award against a plaintiff who “filed and maintained an action for slander when he either knew or should have known that he suffered no damages and that such a claim was, therefore, without merit.”).

With respect to Ms. McGuffey’s false light claim, the Court of Appeals “concluded that Ms. McGuffey’s false light claims fail for much the same reasons as her defamation claims.”[10]  For reasons that are increasingly difficult to justify, Tennessee law occasionally permits false light claims to move forward even where overlapping defamation claims fail as a matter of law.[11]  However, Tennessee courts have recognized that “there is a significant and substantial overlap between the torts of defamation by implication or innuendo and false light invasion of privacy,”[12] and as a consequence, false light claims and defamation claims typically—thought not uniformly—rise and fall together.  Thus, in Ms. McGuffey’s case, the Court of Appeals held that because “the reasoning discussed above with respect to defamation and the common interest privilege applies with respect to the false light claim” as well, and because she “failed to establish the element of damages necessary for a claim of false light invasion of privacy,” Ms. McGuffey’s false light claim was properly dismissed for the same reasons.

Read the Court of Appeals’ unanimous opinion in KELLY LOVE MCGUFFEY V. BELMONT WEEKDAY SCHOOL ET AL., authored by Judge Andy Bennett, here.

Daniel Horwitz is a free speech lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.  If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.

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[1] Sullivan v. Baptist Mem’l Hosp., 995 S.W.2d 569, 571 (Tenn. 1999) (citing RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 580 B (1977), and Press, Inc. v. Verran, 569 S.W.2d 435, 442 (Tenn. 1978)). In this context, “‘[p]ublication’ is a term of art meaning the communication of defamatory matter to a third person.” Quality Auto Parts Co., Inc. v. Bluff City Buick Co., Inc., 876 S.W.2d 818, 821 (Tenn. 1994); Brown v. Christian Bros. Univ., 428 S.W.3d 38, 50 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013).

[2] Pate v. Serv. Merch. Co., 959 S.W.2d 569, 576 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1996) (citing W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 115, at 825 (5th ed.1988)).

[3] S. Ice Co. v. Black, 189 S.W. 861, 863 (Tenn. 1916); see also Trotter v. Grand Lodge F. & A.M. of Tenn., No. E2005-00416-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 538946, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 6, 2006); Pate, 959 S.W.2d at 576.

[4] Pate, 959 S.W.2d at 576 (citing Woods v. Helmi, 758 S.W.2d 219 (Tenn.App.1988); Southern Ice Co., 136 Tenn. 391, 189 S.W. 861).

[5] See, e.g., Woods, 758 S.W.2d at 223; Evans v. Amcash Mtg. Co., No. 01A01–9608–CV–00386, 1997 WL 431187, at *4–5 (Tenn. Ct. App., filed Aug 1, 1997); Perry v. Fox, No. 01A01–9407–CV–00337, 1994 WL 715740, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App., filed Dec. 21, 1994); Dickson v. Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp., U.S.A., 1988 WL 9805, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App., filed Feb. 10, 1988).

[6] KELLY LOVE MCGUFFEY V. BELMONT WEEKDAY SCHOOL ET AL. Additional Party Names: Belmont United Methodist Church, Jean Voorhees, Weekday Children’s Ministries Comm., No. M2019-01413-COA-R3-CV, 2020 WL 2754896, at *16 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 27, 2020).

[7] See id. at *17.

[8] Id. (emphasis added).

[9]  Id.

[10] Id. at *18.

[11] Patterson v. Grant-Herms, No. M2013-00287-COA-R3CV, 2013 WL 5568427, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2013) (“We affirm the grant of summary judgment on the defamation claim and reverse the grant of summary judgment on the claim for invasion of privacy; we remand the case for further proceedings.”).

[12] Loftis v. Rayburn, No. M201701502COAR3CV, 2018 WL 1895842, at *9 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 20, 2018).