Defamation and Proof of Injury to Reputation

Injury to reputation is not always presumed in cases of false accusations.

Church Law and Tax

Defamation and Proof of Injury to Reputation

Injury to reputation is not always presumed in cases of false accusations.

Key point 4-02. Defamation consists of (1) oral or written statements about another person; (2) that are false; (3) that are “published” (that is, communicated to other persons); and (4) that injure the other person’s reputation.

Key point 4-02.02. Ministers are considered “public figures” and as a result they cannot be defamed unless the person making an otherwise defamatory remark did so with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the defamatory remark either had actual knowledge that it was false or made it with a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that defamation requires proof of actual injury to reputation, and that injury to reputation will not be presumed even in cases of false accusations of pedophilia, and as a result a pastor who was falsely accused of pedophilia could not sue the perpetrators for defamation without proof of actual damage to his reputation. A church board member compiled a packet of documents for presentation to a denominational agency (the “regional church”) pertaining to misconduct by the pastor. The packet included documentation related to financial problems at the church, an alleged lack of leadership shown by the pastor, and personal attacks against the pastor. One of the documents was an anonymous letter accusing the pastor of several acts of pedophilia. After the presentation of this information to the regional church, and at its recommendation, the pastor disclosed a summary of the allegations to the congregation during a Sunday service.

At some point after the pastor’s disclosure to the congregation, one or more board members offered to make copies of the packet for inquiring parishioners. The pastor later sued the board members who disclosed the full contents of the packets (the “defendants”), claiming that their actions amounted to defamation.

The defendants asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the pastor failed to establish a cause of action for defamation because he was unable to demonstrate that he had suffered any actual injury to his reputation as a result of the distribution of the material. The pastor insisted that falsely accusing a religious leader of pedophilia is always defamatory and that personal humiliation and mental anguish qualified as the necessary injury.

The trial court dismissed the case, finding that the pastor was unable to demonstrate actual injury to his reputation because he was never suspended from his position, nor did he suffer any “adverse employment consequences” or other related losses from distribution of the anonymous letter. It rejected the pastor’s argument that evidence of mental anguish and humiliation is sufficient to establish actual injury for liability purposes.

The state supreme court ruled that to prevail in a defamation lawsuit a plaintiff must prove actual injury to reputation, and it stressed that injury to reputation could not be “presumed” even in cases involving unfounded accusations of pedophilia.

The court concluded, “It is undoubtedly the case that a system that restricts recovery to actual loss will be imperfect, but so is any system that attempts to compensate human injury with money …. The interest served by allowing recovery for defamation, however, is the interest of compensating individuals for injury to reputation. Recovery for a mere tendency to injure reputation, or only upon a showing of mental anguish, is not only too speculative where the tort action for defamation has existed to redress injury to the plaintiff’s reputation.”

The court added the following observation regarding proof of actual injury to reputation:

A showing of actual injury to reputation is not so high a barrier to surmount that it limits recovery only to monetary loss and employment termination, however. Injury to reputation may manifest itself in any number of ways. Events indicating an injury to reputation in the present case might include a decline in [church] membership, an unwillingness for parishioners to allow children to participate in parish-related activities, or a decline in general social invitations from fellow parishioners—assuming such evidence could be proved and linked to the defamatory communication. There is no indication that plaintiff came forward with evidence of any kind to support an argument that his reputation was actually injured by the publication of the anonymous letter.

What This Means For Churches:
While many courts in other states have rejected presumed injury in defamation cases, this view is not unanimous. Other courts have been willing to accept the concept of presumed injury to reputation in egregious cases. Smith v. Durden, 276 P.3d 943 (N.M. 2012).

This article first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2013.

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