Tennessee prosecutors are not immune to defamation lawsuits, an appeals court ruled this week, sending the case back to a lower court.
The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville on Tuesday ruled against Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston.
The ruling by Judge Thomas R. Frierson is available here from the Tennessee State Courts website.
The appeal came from a claim filed with the Tennessee Claims Commission against the state of Tennessee, seeking an award of damages for defamation allegedly committed by Pinkston in statements made to the media about Gatlinburg Police Department Detective Rodney Burns. The statements were made in regard to an alleged assault and rape of an Ooltewah High School basketball player with a pool cue by teammates during a December 2015 team trip to a tournament in Gatlinburg.
In February 2016, Burns testified during a preliminary hearing conducted in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court concerning charges of failure to report child abuse that had been brought against the high school’s athletic director and men’s basketball coaches by Pinkston. Several media news outlets reported that Burns allegedly had testified during the preliminary hearing that the assault did not constitute rape because the alleged assailants were not seeking sexual gratification.
At issue are statements Pinkston allegedly made to the media regarding Burns’ testimony. The DA issued a statement saying his office would investigate Burns for alleged perjury, and later said he believed perjury had occurred. Burns then sued for defamation.
The state argued Pinkston had not committed defamation, and that he was protected as an official against defamation for statements made in the course of his job. The state cited a ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court’s holding in Jones v. State involving statements made to the media by the Tennessee Department of Correction commissioner saying “cabinet-level executive officials ‘have an absolute privilege to publish defamatory matter concerning another in communications made in the performance of [their] official duties.’”
The perjury charge was later dropped.
The Tennessee Claims Commission ruled it could not give prosecutors the Cabinet-level exemption. The state appealed.
In its conclusion, the appellate court said:
We hold that the Executive Official Privilege, the absolute privilege afforded to state executive officials for statements made in the course of their official duties, as recognized in Jones v. State, 426 S.W.3d 50 (Tenn. 2013), does not extend to district attorneys general. We therefore affirm the Commission’s judgment in this regard.
The case was sent to the Tennessee Claims Commission for further proceedings.
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Jason M. Reynolds has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist at outlets of all sizes.