58 F.3d 222 (6th Cir. 1995), 94-5194, Holbrook v. Harman Automotive, Inc.

Docket Nº:94-5194.
Citation:58 F.3d 222
Party Name:Ova HOLBROOK, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. HARMAN AUTOMOTIVE, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:June 22, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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58 F.3d 222 (6th Cir. 1995)

Ova HOLBROOK, Plaintiff-Appellant,


HARMAN AUTOMOTIVE, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 94-5194.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

June 22, 1995

Argued March 7, 1995.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Peter Alliman (argued and briefed), Madisonville, TN, for plaintiff-appellant.

Robert R. Davies (argued), Daryl R. Fansler (briefed), Stokes & Fansler, Knoxville, TN, H. Alan Arfken, Jr., Arfken & Elliott, Chattanooga, TN, for defendant-appellee.

Before: KENNEDY, KRUPANSKY, and NORRIS, Circuit Judges.

ALAN E. NORRIS, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in this defamation action. Because the record is devoid of evidence tending to establish an essential element of the plaintiff's cause of action, we affirm.


Defendant-appellee Harman Automotive, Inc. ("Harman") fired plaintiff-appellant Ova Holbrook from his position on the assembly line at Harman's Sevierville, Tennessee automotive part plant. The termination occurred during a contentious union organization campaign in which Holbrook vocally supported the unionization effort. Shortly before firing Holbrook, Harman's management employees discovered that some of the mirror housings being produced at the plant contained defects. Personnel manager Von Merritt, with the help of two other members of Harman's management, investigated the product damage. Merritt periodically updated Fred Loepp, the manager of the Sevierville plant, about the progress of the investigation. Loepp, however, did not participate in the investigation. Merritt eventually reported to Loepp that Holbrook had sabotaged the mirror housings in question and recommended that Harman therefore terminate Holbrook's employment. Based on Merritt's suggestion, Loepp fired Holbrook and informed him that his employment had been terminated for "sabotaging [the] production line."

In response to rumors that more sabotage was forthcoming and the union organizing committee's distribution of a flier condemning Holbrook's firing, Loepp, with the assistance of an attorney, drafted a memo ("Loepp memo") that was distributed to plant employees. The Loepp memo criticized the union for "continuing to exploit the termination of Ova Holbrook's employment" and for failing to "com[e] out strongly against intentional damaging of product and any other attempt to hurt our company." The memo went on to state that Harman "owe[s] it to you ... to be firm and take immediate action against anyone ... who decides to intentionally damage ... the products we make." The memo then decried a variety of "low tactics on the part of union supporters" and added, "[t]he last thing we need is for anyone to do things to hurt our products."

Holbrook, invoking the district court's diversity jurisdiction, sued Harman in federal district court in Tennessee. His complaint alleged that the Loepp memo contained false, defamatory, and malicious allegations. His suit was not based on the distribution of the Loepp memo to Harman employees; instead, it was based on the subsequent dissemination of the memo in his community. The complaint named only Harman as a defendant and alleged that the company was vicariously liable--under the doctrine of respondeat superior--for Loepp's publication of the Loepp memo. The complaint made no mention of any other Harman management employees or their communications with Loepp.

The district court granted summary judgment in Harman's favor. One of the several grounds upon which the district court rested its order was that the publication of the Loepp memo was conditionally privileged. The district court ruled that, because the Loepp memo was not published with "actual malice," the conditional privilege had not been abused, and it therefore defeated Holbrook's cause of action. Holbrook challenges this determination and the other bases upon which the district court relied in granting summary judgment in Harman's favor.

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In reviewing the district court's grant of summary judgment, we proceed de novo. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n v. Univ. of Detroit, 904 F.2d 331, 334 (6th Cir.1990). Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, affidavits, and fruits of discovery "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Summary judgment will be entered against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to his case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552-53, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

When, as here, a federal district court exercises diversity jurisdiction, it applies the substantive law of the state in which it sits. Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 71-80, 58 S.Ct. 817, 818-23, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). Thus, the substantive law of Tennessee governs. When a defamation action is based on an utterance that is related to a labor-management dispute and is made in the context of that dispute, however, federal law supplants state law with respect to the degree of fault that a plaintiff must establish. Linn v. United Plant Guard Workers of America, 383...

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