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Defamation action against Township Treasurer is dismissed

The plaintiff, John Underhill, was hired as the Township Attorney for Burt Township to investigate issues of improper income tax withholding by the Township Treasurer, James Seibert.  After an investigation, no criminal charges were filed against Seibert, who then told the Marquette Mining Journal that he had been the victim of a "witch hunt," carried out by "King John Underhill" and the township supervisor, who "delayed reporting the results of the audit and fed the people distorted information, half truths, no truths and downright lies in order to justify their existance [sic]." The Journal published Seibert's statement.

Needless to say, Underhill wasn't pleased with that characterization of his efforts; when Seibert refused to publish a retraction, Underhill sued for defamation.  The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Underhill's claim, finding that he was a "limited public figure" and therefore was required to prove actual malice in order to pursue a defamation claim.  According to the Court, anyone who "projects himself into the arena of public policy, public controversy and pressing public concern" is a public figure. 

Public figures are deemed to have "voluntarily exposed [themselves] to the risk of defamation."  To prevail in such a claim, they must prove that the libellous statements made by their detractors are made with "reckless disregard for the truth."  Actual malice must be shown, which means proving more than "ill will, spite, or even hatred, standing alone."  The allegedly defamed public figure must show by clear and convincing evidence that the statements were false and that the defaming individual either "acted with knowledge they were false or with serious doubts concerning the truth of the statements."

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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