Tenn. court throws out topless-club workers’ libel claim

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The owner of a topless club and three female employees failed to allege that a Shelby County, Tenn., commissioner specifically defamed them, a state appeals court has ruled.

Amanda Steele, Yolanda Spinks, Shonda Jones and Tennessee Entertainment Concepts sued Commissioner Michael Ritz over comments attributed to him in The Commercial Appeal of Memphis and other sources. Ritz allegedly said: “Almost without exception, these girls were sexually abused by a family member … and have an addiction to drugs or alcohol … these clubs feed on that.”

The plaintiffs failed to allege in their complaint that Ritz referred to them either explicitly or by implication. For that reason, a trial court dismissed the suit. On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed in its Dec. 16 opinion in Steele v. Ritz.

A plaintiff suing for defamation must show that the allegedly defamatory statement be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. The plaintiff must establish that he or she is named by the defendant or allege “extrinsic facts to show that the statement was made about the plaintiff.” In other words, a defamation lawsuit must show that the statements referred to the plaintiffs by name or show that a reasonable person would know that the comments were about the plaintiffs.

The U.S. Supreme Court relied on the so-called “of and concerning” requirement in its seminal libel decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) to support its holding that a newspaper did not libel a Montgomery County, Ala., commissioner named L.B. Sullivan. “There was no reference to respondent [Sullivan] in the advertisement, either by name or official position,” Justice William Brennan wrote in his famous opinion.

In his court papers, Ritz pointed out that “as presented in the complaint, the quote itself (attributed to Ritz) might just as easily be read by a third party to refer to biker bars, massage parlors, or pool halls, and the ‘girls’ who work in such clubs.”

“The plaintiffs’ complaint fails to offer so much as a conclusory allegation that a connection existed between the alleged statement and the plaintiffs, their profession, or adult establishments generally,” the Tennessee appeals court wrote.

“Whether by inadvertence or choice, the plaintiffs have not alleged an indispensable element of defamation — that Commissioner Ritz defamed them in the quote statement,” the appeals court concluded. “The plaintiffs’ complaint, read as a whole, is therefore insufficient to state a cause of action for defamation.”

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