Perruccio v. Arseneault, 3126

Decision Date20 May 1986
Docket NumberNo. 3126,3126
Citation508 A.2d 831,7 Conn.App. 389
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
Parties, 12 Media L. Rep. 2208 Salvatore J. PERRUCCIO v. Wallace ARSENEAULT et al.

William Howard, Middletown, for appellant (plaintiff).

John M. Creane, Milford, with whom, on brief, was Konstant W. Morell, Norwich, for appellees (defendants).

Before DUPONT, C.J., and BORDEN and BIELUCH, JJ.

DUPONT, Chief Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment rendered for the defendants in accordance with a verdict directed at the close of the plaintiff's case. The plaintiff sued the defendants for allegedly libelous statements made by the named defendant, Wallace Arseneault, concerning the plaintiff's management of a labor union. The parties concede that the plaintiff is a public figure as defined in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3008, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974), and, therefore, that the plaintiff cannot recover for defamatory falsehoods, absent clear and convincing evidence that the statements were made with actual malice. See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). The trial court granted the defendants' motion for a directed verdict, stating that the plaintiff failed to show that the statements were false and made with actual malice. On appeal, the plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in directing a verdict for the defendants and by excluding certain evidence relevant to show that the statements were false, were made with actual malice and injured the plaintiff's reputation. We find no error. The plaintiff was the president of the Connecticut Employees Union Independent (CEUI). CEUI represented the maintenance workers employed by the state of Connecticut at the University of Connecticut at Storrs (UConn). The defendant, Arseneault, was a maintenance worker at UConn and a member of the CEUI, holding various offices in the union, including that of vice president. In November, 1979, Arseneault resigned as vice president of CEUI to campaign for another union bargaining representative. The co-defendant, District 1199, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (1199), sought to take over representation of the maintenance workers at UConn and engaged the services of Arseneault as a field organizer for that campaign.

The campaign began during the last week of November, 1979, and was the subject of several newspaper articles. Arseneault made statements which were quoted in these articles. The first count of the plaintiff's complaint alleges that Arseneault made a public statement in the Middletown Press charging the plaintiff with "dictator leadership" of the union and failure to follow the by-laws of the union's constitution. Arseneault also accused the plaintiff of circulating "slanderous" fliers, maintaining a private checking account with union funds and using union funds without "having authority and/or approval of the executive board to spend funds of the union." The second count of the complaint alleges that Arseneault, by statements printed in the Hartford Courant, accused the plaintiff of making out checks "when he sees fit" even though "the by-laws say anything up to $1,000 requires the executive board's approval and anything more than $1,000 [requires] the members' approval." The third count of the complaint alleges that Arseneault accused the plaintiff, through statements in the Willimantic Chronicle, of being "a dictator who spends [union] money as he sees fit," and "[a]ny big decision--[Perruccio] makes it--its a dictatorship union. He signs checks with the Treasurer and they spend the money as they see fit. If anybody's going to jail, its not going to be me, because I don't want any part of it." The fourth count alleges that Arseneault libeled the plaintiff in a letter to the maintenance workers at UConn by stating "Sal Perruccio does not tell the whole truth to our Union's members." The fifth count alleges that Arseneault, in an article in the Willimantic Chronicle, accused the plaintiff of mishandling union funds.

In its direction to the jury to render a verdict for the defendants, the trial court assumed that Arseneault's statements were factual, rather than statements of opinion. The court, however, found that the plaintiff failed to establish that the statements were false and failed to produce clear and convincing evidence that Arseneault made the allegedly defamatory statements with actual malice. Judgment was rendered on the verdict for the defendants. The plaintiff moved to set aside the verdict and for a new trial. This motion was denied without articulation and the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff claims that the trial court erred in directing a verdict because the jury could reasonably have found that the published statements were false, made with actual malice and caused actual damage. The plaintiff also claims that the trial court erred by excluding certain evidence relevant to these same issues.

In cases where actual malice must be shown, the burden of proving the falsity of the defendant's statements is on the plaintiff. See Cox Broadcasting Corporation v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 490, 95 S.Ct. 1029, 1043, 43 L.Ed.2d 328 (1975); Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 290-91, 91 S.Ct. 633, 639-40, 28 L.Ed.2d 45 (1971) (relying on New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra); Wilson v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., 642 F.2d 371, 374-76 (6th Cir.1981); Meiners v. Moriarity, 563 F.2d 343, 351 (7th Cir.1977); Goodrich v. Waterbury Republican-American, Inc., 188 Conn. 107, 112 n. 6, 448 A.2d 1317 (1982). A directed verdict can be upheld only if the jury could not reasonably and legally have reached any other conclusion. Bleich v. Ortiz, 196 Conn. 498, 500-501, 493 A.2d 236 (1985); Pinto v. Spigner, 163 Conn. 191, 192-93, 302 A.2d 266 (1972). " 'In reviewing the trial court's decision directing a verdict [for the defendant] and denying a subsequent motion to set it aside, this court considers all the evidence, including reasonable inferences, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Pinto v. Spigner, supra; Leary v. Johnson, 159 Conn. 101, 104, 267 A.2d 658 (1970).' Sestito v. Groton, 178 Conn. 520, 522, 423 A.2d 165 (1979)...." (Brackets in original.) Bleich v. Ortiz, supra, 501, 493 A.2d 236.

During the plaintiff's presentation of his case, he admitted to irregular practices regarding the disbursement of union funds. Specifically, he admitted that not all expenditures were approved by the executive board as required by the union by-laws. While this practice may have been an accepted procedural deviation from the union's by-laws, the fact that such deviations existed demonstrates that Arseneault's statements concerning Perruccio's failure to comply with the union's by-laws, mishandling of union funds, "making checks when he sees fit" and using funds without "authority and/or approval of the executive board" were technically and substantially true. For a publication to be libelous in any sense, it must be false. Hogan v. New York Times Co., 313 F.2d 354, 355 n. 1 (2d Cir.1963). These statements, therefore, were protected as free speech.

The plaintiff also alleged that Arseneault's accusations of "dictator leadership" were libelous. Such a statement should not be viewed in isolation but must be considered within the context in which it was made. Arseneault was a union member criticizing the union leadership. He was also a field representative for a competing union seeking to represent the UConn maintenance workers. While defamatory statements made during labor controversies are not immunized from civil liability; see Letter Carriers v. Austin, 418 U.S. 264, 279, 94 S.Ct. 2770, 2778, 41 L.Ed.2d 745 (1974); such statements must be gauged by " 'the conventional give-and-take in our economic and political controversies' " to determine whether they are statements of fact or opinion. Gregory v. McDonnell Douglas Corporation, 17 Cal.3d 596, 602, 552 P.2d 425, 131 Cal.Rptr. 641 (1976), quoting Cafeteria Union v. Angelos, 320 U.S. 293, 64 S.Ct. 126, 88 L.Ed. 58 (1943). We also note that this allegation may properly be characterized as opinion because it is not objectively capable of being proven true or false. See Buckley v. Littell, 539 F.2d 882, 894 (2d Cir.1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1062, 97 S.Ct. 785, 50 L.Ed.2d 777 (1977) (allegation that plaintiff was a "fascist" not defamatory in its context). Given the context in which the statement was made, a reasonable reader would not take such a statement literally. We hold that within the context of this union representation contest, Arseneault's statement that the plaintiff is a "dictator," without more, is a statement of opinion insufficient to sustain an action for libel. We also find that the statement, "Sal Perruccio does not tell the whole truth to our Union's members" (emphasis added), to the extent that it is objectively capable of being proven...

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  • Johnson v. Schmitz
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
    • September 29, 2000 these cases were not capable of being proved true or false, and therefore could not be defamatory. See Perruccio v. Arseneault, 7 Conn.App. 389, 393-94, 508 A.2d 831 (1986) (holding statement accusing plaintiff of "dictator leadership" is a statement of opinion); Torok v. Proof, No. CV 9......
  • Miles v. Perry
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
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    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • May 23, 2005
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    • November 9, 2006 proven, the burden to demonstrate that the defendant's statements are false lies with the plaintiff. See Perruccio v. Arseneault et al., 7 Conn.App. 389, 392, 508 A.2d 831 (1986). Even when a private individual seeks recovery for statements of public concern, the plaintiff must prove fal......
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