Recent cases address liability of legislators for disparaging comments
In recent weeks, the Court of Appeals handed down two decisions bearing on the right of governmental actors to make stupid or ignorant comments which slander or defame other persons. In one case, Shupa, et al v. Moceri, Wiecek, Kamp and the City of Warren, local attorneys sued several City Council members, arguing that comments in a public meeting were disparaging to the attorneys and defamatory. The Court first noted that there is an absolute privilege for remarks made during legislative activities, but that this privilege "does not afford [a public official] an invitation to undertake an unrestricted slanderous campaign against whomever he pleases, concerning whatever he pleases."
The attorneys claimed that statements accusing them of attempting to "hoodwink" the City Council were both slanderous and defamatory, while the Defendants argued they were absolutely privileged. The Court agreed with the Defendants, but only to the extent that the statements were made during Council meetings: to the extent similar statements were made to newspapers, the Council Members will have to defend the truth and reasonableness of their actions.
A second case involving a nasty political dispute in Harrison Township of Macomb County came to a similar conclusion. In the latter case, plaintiff Michelle Baarck, the senior accounts bookkeeper in the township's finance department (and the union steward) was accused by a pair of Board members of wrongfully taking $7,000.00 of additional pay without proper authorization by her supervisors.
When the issue was raised initially, Baarck documented that she had been temporarily assigned to perfom a number of the tasks of the recently resigned township finance director. In conformity with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, she was compensated for performing this work at a higher rate on a temporary (less than 90 days) basis. Baarck also documented the fact that her hours and pay were fully documented and approved by her superiors.
Despite Baarck's documentation, several Board members continued to accuse her of "embezzlement" and attempted to use the issue to support their political activities. They complained to police agencies, and even after Baarck's conduct was investigated and approved by the Township's Human Resouces Department and the County Sheriff's office, the Board members continued to accuse her of illegal and improper self-aggrandizement. When the Sheriff's Department refused to re-open its investigation, they publicly (and unsuccessfully) sought to enlist the State Police and the County Prosecutor's office. When Baarck insisted on reading exculpatory conclusions by authorities into the public record at a meeting, the Defendants allegedly threatened her with administrative retaliation.
Ultimately, Baarck filed suit, alleging a violation of civil rights under section 1983, an invasion of privacy, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and gross negligence. The Defendants claimed they were immune from civil prosecution but the trial court allowed several of Baarck's claims to go forward. The Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that several allegations against the Defendants fell outside the immunity which Board members would otherwise enjoy for reasonable behavior in conducting the administrative affairs of the Township Board. Baarck's case was returned to the lower court for further proceedings.