Key point 4-04 . Many states recognize “invasion of privacy” as a basis for liability. Invasion of privacy may consist of any one or more of the following: (1) public disclosure of private facts; (2) use of another person’s name or likeness; (3) placing someone in a “false light” in the public eye; or (4) intruding upon another’s seclusion.
A Michigan court ruled that a church school did not commit “false-light” invasion of privacy by its disclosure to parents that a coach had been terminated because of unprofessional conduct.
An errant photo leads to investigation, termination, and forced retirement
The plaintiff held two jobs: one in ministry with a Michigan Diocese and one at a Catholic high school as the boys’ varsity tennis coach.
One day after taking a shower, the plaintiff texted one of his players to bring “a pair of shoes belonging to another player” to that day’s practice. The plaintiff later alleged that, soon after sending the initial text, he went to check to see if the player responded and instead accidentally sent a nude picture of himself to the player. The plaintiff then attempted to call and text the player to explain what had happened.
One of the plaintiff’s text messages stated: “… Delete and disregard the prior pic!! I took it accidentally after getting out of the shower and texting you about the players shoes. Again, please delete and ignore!!! A complete accident!”
The plaintiff followed this message with another asking, “Please acknowledge!!". The plaintiff received no response from the player but still hoped to speak with him before that afternoon's tennis practice.
Later that day, the plaintiff received a phone call from the Diocese’s human resources director telling him he’d been placed on administrative leave and should avoid coming to his office.
The plaintiff later surrendered his phone to the police and was later told by his supervisor that he “had 24 hours to either resign or be terminated.”
The plaintiff was never charged by police and retired from his position with the Diocese effective October 16, 2017.
The next day, the school’s athletic director emailed the plaintiff to tell him the school would not be bringing him back as a tennis coach for the remainder of the tennis season and that plaintiff’s contract would not be renewed.
About six months later, the plaintiff “stopped by” the school’s tennis courts. Several players witnessed his presence, and he encountered a former student who asked him why he was there and remarked that she thought he was banned from the campus. A few days later, the plaintiff received a text message from the school asking him to not come to the school or attend any tennis matches.
The next day, the school’s principal alerted tennis team parents via email that the plaintiff had shown up at tennis practice, that he had been fired for inappropriate behavior, and that he had agreed to stay off of school grounds, not interact with students nor attend any boys or girls tennis matches, whether at home or away.
In April 2019, the plaintiff sued the diocese, high school, and bishop (the “defendants”) for “invasion of privacy false light." The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim, and the plaintiff appealed.
“False-light invasion of privacy” not in play
The Michigan Court of Appeals began its opinion by observing:
The tort of invasion of privacy is based on a common-law right to privacy, which is said to protect against four types of invasion of privacy: (1) intrusion upon the plaintiff’s seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs; (2) public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff; (3) publicity that places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye; and (4) appropriation, for the defendant’s advantage, of the plaintiff’s name or likeness.
In order to maintain an action for false-light invasion of privacy, a plaintiff must show that the defendant broadcast to the public in general, or to a large number of people, information that was unreasonable and highly objectionable by attributing to the plaintiff characteristics, conduct, or beliefs that were false and placed the plaintiff in a false position.
Further, the defendant must have known of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the plaintiff would be placed. A plaintiff claiming false-light invasion of privacy must prove that the defendant acted with malice.
The appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s claim of false-light invasion of privacy because (1) the defendants said nothing that was false regarding the plaintiff, and (2) the defendants did not act with malice. In this context, malice means that the defendants knew that what they said about the plaintiff was false or they acted with a reckless disregard as to its truthfulness.
What this means for churches
Church leaders should be familiar with the concept of invasion of privacy. According to many courts, invasion of privacy consists of four distinct violations of a person’s privacy:
(1) intrusion upon the plaintiff’s seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs;
(2) public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff;
(3) publicity that places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye; and
(4) appropriation, for the defendant’s advantage, of the plaintiff’s name or likeness.
This case addressed the third variant of invasion of privacy—publicity that places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye.
Under this variant, the court noted false-light invasion of privacy consists of the following elements:
- dissemination to a large number of persons,
- of information that was unreasonable and highly objectionable,
- by attributing to the plaintiff characteristics, conduct, or beliefs that were false and placed the plaintiff in a false position, and
- the defendant acted with malice, meaning that the defendant must have known of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the plaintiff would be placed.
Church leaders should become familiar with these elements and carefully word any public messages about current or former pastors, employees, or members. For instance, in a 1997 case, a court found a minister placed a female member of the congregation in “false light,” based on the way the minister described a sexual relationship the woman had with another pastor.
Landfair v. Catholic Diocese, 2022 WL 413623 (Mich. App. 2022)