Bienvenu v. Angelle

Decision Date05 May 1969
Docket NumberNo. 49427,49427
Citation254 La. 182,223 So.2d 140
PartiesJoseph Andrew BIENVENU et al. v. Robert ANGELLE.
CourtLouisiana Supreme Court

Domengeaux, Wright & Bienvenu, Bob F. Wright, Lafayette, for plaintiffs-relators.

J. Minos, Simon, Lafayette, for defendant-respondent.

BARHAM, Justice.

Joseph A. Bienvenu, Jr., and his wife, Mrs. Lite B. Bienvenu, brought this action against Robert Angelle for damages alleged to have been caused by defamatory remarks made by him about Mrs. Bienvenu. After a mistrial a second jury returned a verdict for the defendant, and the Court of Appeal affirmed. 211 So.2d 395. We granted writs on the application of the plaintiffs.

In 1962 Mrs. Bienvenu applied for the position of Director of Public Welfare for St. Martin Parish. After passing an examination and meeting other requirements, she was placed on the eligibility list for the position. On November 15, 1962, she was notified that she had been selected for the position, and that her employment would begin November 26. The defendant Robert Angelle was a well known public figure in St. Martin Parish and at the time of the alleged defamation had for many years been a member of the Louisiana Legislature. It is obvious that he objected to Mrs. Bienvenu's receiving the appointment of director, and that he tried to prevent her obtaining it. After Mrs. Bienvenu was informed of her appointment but before a letter of confirmation was sent by Mr. Mary Evelyn Parker, State Director of Public Welfare, the defendant Angelle went to Baton Rouge to discuss the appointment with Mrs. Parker. According to Mrs. Parker's testimony, Angelle told her that Mrs. Bienvenu had abandoned some school children in her charge and gone off with a man, that she did not have a good reputation in the community, and that '* * * this lady was a lady of very poor reputation in the community as to character and morals * * *'. Angelle himself testified that he told Mrs. Parker that Mrs. Bienvenu had a bad reputation in her community. Later, George Hamner, an investigator for the Civil Service Commission, talked with Angelle, who again stated that Mrs. Bienvenu had a poor reputation in her community. Mrs. Bienvenu was notified that her appointment was cancelled, but after civil service proceedings and an appeal in the matter, In Re Bienvenu, 158 So.2d 213 (La.App.1st Cir. 1963), her appointment was affirmed.

Plaintiffs base their suit for personal damages for defamation as well as for loss of income upon the allegation that the utterances made by Angelle to Mrs. Parker and to Hamner were false and malicious. They urge a reversal of the Court of Appeal judgment and an award of damages by this court or, alternatively, a remand for a new trial by jury with proper instructions.

The plaintiffs, relators here, rely upon four alleged errors. They first urge error in the determination by both courts below that Mrs. Bienvenu was a public official as a matter of law. Although Louisiana has a long line of cases setting forth its law in regard to defamation, the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964), and in subsequent decisions has set forth new criteria which supersede state law in defamation suits against 'public officials'. If in fact Mrs. Bienvenu was a 'public official', these decisions and their rule of law apply. In the New York Times Co. case the court said:

'* * * In deciding the question now, We are compelled by neither precedent nor policy to give any more weight to the epithet 'libel' than we have to other 'mere labels' of state law. * * * It must be measured by standards that satisfy the First Amendment.

'* * * The constitutional safeguard, we have said, 'was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.' Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 484, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1308, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498 (1506). * * *

'The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a Federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with 'actual malice'--that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. * * *' (Emphasis supplied.)

Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966), held that an appointed employee of the county government who managed a recreation area was a public official within the meaning of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra. In Rosenblatt the court said:

'Turning, then, to the question whether respondent was a 'public official' within New York Times, we reject at the outset his suggestion that it should be answered by reference to state-law standards. States have developed definitions of 'public official' for local administrative purposes, not for purposes of a national constitutional protection. * * *

'* * * It is clear, therefore, that the 'public official' designation applies at the very least to those among the hierarchy of government employees who have, or who appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.'

According to the decision in In Re Bienvenu, supra, Mrs. Bienvenu's appointment as Director of Public Welfare for St. Martin Parish was confirmed to be effective before the date of the alleged defamatory utterances. 1 The plaintiffs argue that Mrs. Bienvenu's employment under civil service with restrictions upon engaging in politics and speaking politically removed her from the category of a public official. There is no merit in such an argument, for it is one's status and one's power to manage affairs affecting the public which subject one to the federal rule. 2

We hold that Mrs. Bienvenu was a 'public official' when the alleged defamation occurred. Under the applicable law, as a public official she must prove that the defendant made a false statement 'with 'actual malice'--that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not'. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra; Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 85 S.Ct. 209, 13 L.Ed.2d 125; Rosenblatt v. Baer, supra. Thus Angelle, like any private citizen, had a qualified privilege based upon the principle '* * * that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials'. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,supra. Although Angelle enjoyed a Qualified privilege in statements concerning the character and reputation of Mrs. Bienvenu, he did not have an Absolute privilege which would allow him to make a defamatory statement with 'actual malice' about this plaintiff. 3

Plaintiffs next strongly urge that the Court of Appeal should not have rendered a judgment on the record when there had been serious and fatal errors of law in the trial judge's instructions to the jury.

Plaintiffs contended before the appellate court and now contend before us that the trial judge erred in charging the jury that any statements made to George Hamner, an investigator of the Civil Service Commission, were absolutely privileged. This charge read:

'I further charge you that Title 14, Section 50 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, in part pertinent to this litigation, provides:

"There shall be no prosecution for defamation in the following situations:

"(2) When the statement is made by a witness in a judicial proceeding, or in any other legal proceeding where testimony may be required by law, and such statement is reasonably believed by the witness to be relevant to the matter in controversy. * * *'

'Therefore, any statement made by Mr. Angelle to investigators of the Civil Service Commission in answer to questions put to him is privileged and Cannot form the basis of an action for slander.' (Emphasis supplied.)

The charge was erroneous for two reasons: First, a statute creating a privilege from criminal prosecution for defamation has no application to a civil proceeding for damages for defamation, and, more importantly, the charge conferred an absolute privilege upon Angelle's communication to the Civil Service Commission's investigator when in fact such a privilege did not exist.

It is true that communications made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings carry an absolute privilege. This protection is offered in such proceedings so that the witness, who is bound by his oath to tell the truth, may speak freely without fear of civil suit for damages for defamation. The privilege is extended to an administrative agency only when that agency is exercising judicial or quasi-judicial functions. Investigatory work in the field, such as was performed by Hamner, is not the exercise of an adjudicative or quasi-adjudicative function, for those who are questioned are not under oath or subject to sanctions for making a false statement, and such investigations are not encompassed within quasi-judicial hearings or proceedings. Communications made during such an investigation are not accorded an absolute but only a qualified privilege, and the communication from Angelle to Hamner falls into this category. The instruction that the communication to Hammer could not form the basis for defamation directed the jury to disregard one of the two defamatory utterances alleged as a basis for this suit, and granted an absolute privilege to the communication from Angelle to Hamner which did not exist in law.

Plaintiffs further assign as error the instruction to the jury that 'He who asserts a claim for slander arising from a privileged communication, has the burden to prove that there was malice in fact, that the defendant was Actuated by motives of personal spite or ill will, independent of the occasion on which the...

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