Court Rejects Individual Defendant’s “Truth” Defense to Defamation Claim and Municipal Defendant’s Argument that Plaintiff’s Negligence Claim was “Duplicative” of the Defamation Cause of Action
In Olney v. Town of Barrington, 2020 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 1011 (4th Dept. 2020), the plaintiff commenced an action against The Town of Barrington, the Town’s Code Enforcement Officer, and an individual named John Griffin (Mr. Griffin’s relationship to the other defendant’s is not specified in the opinion), asserting causes of action for, among other things, defamation and negligence.
This case presented an appeal of a Supreme Court Order denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s amended complaint with respect to the first cause of action, for defamation, and the fifth cause of action, for negligence.
The defendants argued that the lower court should have dismissed the plaintiff’s defamation cause of action on the grounds that the allegedly defamatory statement was true. Under New York’s common law, “truth” constitutes a complete defense to a defamation claim. In other words, where the alleged defamatory statements are, in fact, true, the individual who made those statements cannot be found liable for defamation. To establish this defense, a defendant must “establish the truth of the specific libel [and slander] claimed by the plaintiff.” Here, however, the Court rejected the defendants’ truth defense, because it was “aimed at establishing the truth of a charge different from that identified” in the plaintiff’s complaint. Stated differently, the defendants did not claim that the allegedly defamatory statement identified in the plaintiff’s complaint was actually true, but rather attempted to establish the truth of some other statement. Thus, the Court rejected their defense.
With respect to the plaintiff’s second cause of action for negligence, as asserted against John Griffin, the defendants argued that it should be dismissed on the grounds that it was duplicative of the first cause of action. The Court agreed that the negligence cause of action should be dismissed, but only in so far as it was asserted against the defendant, John Griffin. The Court pointed to the fact that the claim against Griffin was “based on the same facts, alleg[ed] the same wrongs, and [sought] he same relief as the first cause of action, which is asserted only against Griffin.” The Court explained that, in New York, “a defamation cause of action” cannot be transformed into a negligence of action by simply “casting it as such.” The Court further explained that where a plaintiff alleges an injury to his or her reputation as a result of defamatory statements, the plaintiff “is relegated to whatever remedy he [or she] might have under the law of defamation and cannot recover under principles of negligence.” Thus, the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s negligence claim as against Mr. Griffin as it was duplicative of the defamation claim.
On the other hand, the Court declined to dismiss the plaintiff’s negligence claim against the Town of Barrington, explaining that it was not duplicative of the plaintiff’s defamation cause of action, because “the [defamation] cause of action [was] not asserted against the Town.”
Prepared by Dominick F. Roa