Ryan v. Wilson, 45775.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtBLISS, Justice.
Citation300 N.W. 707,231 Iowa 33
PartiesRYAN v. WILSON.
Docket Number45775.
Decision Date18 November 1941

300 N.W. 707

231 Iowa 33


No. 45775.

Supreme Court of Iowa.

November 18, 1941

Appeal from District Court, Polk County; Frank S. Shankland, Judge.

An action for damages for an alleged libelous statement. From a judgment on verdict directed by the court, the plaintiff has appealed.

Affirmed. [300 N.W. 708]

Ryan & Ryan and Ronald L. Ryan, all of Des Moines, for appellant.

Parrish, Guthrie, Colflesh & O'Brien, of Des Moines, for appellee.

BLISS, Justice.

The plaintiff is engaged in the practice of law in Des Moines, and was Assistant Attorney General of the State of Iowa from January 2, 1933, to December 31, 1936. The defendant has been Governor of Iowa since his inauguration in January, 1939. Sometime during the year 1939, the defendant asked the Auditor of the State to appoint examiners from his office to make an examination and investigation of the receivership division of the State Department of Banking, and to make a report of their findings to the defendant. The Auditor appointed from his office, Frank D. Johnson, state examiner, and Nat Buck, a county examiner, and instructed them to make the investigation and report thereon to the Governor. Later such a report was submitted to the Governor. It begins thus: " Des Moines, January 22, 1940. Hon. George A. Wilson, Governor of Iowa, Dear Sir: In accordance with your instructions we have made an investigation and herewith present our report." It contained 25 pages all related to other matters than the lines referring to the plaintiff. It ended with these words: " Respectfully submitted, Frank D. Johnson, State Examiner." The only part of the report referring to the plaintiff, and of which he complains, is this: " Mr. Ryan, while an Assistant Attorney General of the State of Iowa, collected a total of $605.00 from the receivership of the Nichols Savings Bank, Nichols, Iowa, for legal service rendered to that receivership. Said services were rendered during the year 1937 while Mr. Ryan was on the Attorney General's pay roll." The remainder of the report criticizes other matters in the administration of the receivership division.

The customary meeting place of the Executive Council of the State was in the private office of the Governor. Such a meeting was being held on March 11, 1940. As was the custom, representatives of the press and news associations were present. Some of the reporters knew of the investigation and had been expecting a report for some time. The Governor left the council meeting and walked into the outer office where his secretary, John Zugg, had his desk. A number of the reporters followed him into this room where the Governor was talking to his secretary. He had dictated a letter to accompany a report and was gathering them together preparatory to attaching the letter to the report and sending it to the Attorney General. This letter bears date of March 11, 1940, and was addressed to the Honorable Fred Everett, Attorney General, who passed away June 10, 1940. It stated:

" Dear Mr. Everett

I am enclosing herewith a report of auditors of their audit of bank receiverships which was recently completed. This is forwarded to you for the attention of your office and for such action as may be necessary.

Sincerely yours,

George A. Wilson."

A reporter for the Des Moines Tribune standing nearer than the others said in substance: " How about it? Is that the report?" The Governor stated that it was going to the Attorney General's office and turned aside to speak to the State Auditor who had come into the room. The same reporter persisted, addressing his remarks to Zugg: " Well, it is a public report, isn't it? It was made by public officials on a public matter." The secretary said " Yes." The reporter then said, " How about it John; can we get this?" And the secretary said, " Well, I guess so; it is going to the Attorney General; here it is." The reporter then picked up one of the copies of the report and walked into the other room. The Governor then remarked, in substance, that no partiality should be shown and all reporters should be treated alike. Excerpts [300 N.W. 709] and summaries from the report, one of them mentioning the Ryan matter, appeared in the Des Moines Tribune that afternoon.

The next day, March 12, 1940, Johnson, who had signed the report, sent to the Governor a letter, which, omitting the salutation, is as follows:

" Dear Sir: Re: Investigation of Bank Receivership Division of the Department of Banking, Page 23, Lehan T Ryan-$605.00

This letter is to inform you that the above captioned paragraph in our report dated January 22, 1940, is in error.

Mr. Ryan was paid for legal services to the Nichols Savings Bank in the amount indicated. However, we find that the original check of the pay roll was erroneous and that Mr. Lehan T. Ryan left the employ of the office of the Attorney General on December 31, 1936, while the services for which he was paid were rendered during the period from January 14, 1937, to October 17, 1937.

We regret this error and hereby assume all responsibility for the misinformation included in our report.

Respectfully submitted,

Frank D. Johnson."

Copies of this letter were given by the defendant on March 12, 1940, the day of its receipt, to the same gentlemen of the press, who had received the examiner's report the day before. It received the same publication as the report. On the day of its publication, March 12, 1940, the plaintiff began this action by filing petition and serving notice thereof upon the defendant. In his petition, he alleged:

" That the defendant for the purpose of attempting to deprive the plaintiff of the benefits of public confidence and of business in his profession circulated and caused to be circulated in the Des Moines Tribune and other newspapers a statement stating that while the plaintiff was Assistant Attorney General of Iowa that he received compensation in the sum of $605.00 from the receivership of the Nichols Savings Bank of Nichols, Iowa, and that for the purpose of attempting to hold the plaintiff up to ridicule and public hatred the defendant gave the said information to representatives of newspapers and press associations in the State of Iowa for the purpose of having the same circulated throughout the State of Iowa where the plaintiff is well known because of his practice of law and holding of office in the said state.

That the said statement of the defendant was a malicious defamation and was wholly false, * * *.

That the plaintiff believes that the defendant made the said statements for the sole and only purpose of injuring the plaintiff in his business and profession * * *.

That the defendant also stated in the press that he was turning the matter over to the Attorney General of Iowa for the necessary action and thus attempting to advise all who read the said statement that the plaintiff was guilty of some criminal act, all of which the defendant knew was false."

By reason of the alleged defamation, the plaintiff demanded judgment in the sum of $15,000. By an amendment to his petition, the plaintiff demanded judgment for $60,000 for " injury to his reputation $15,000; injury to his good name $15,000; injury to his credit as an attorney $15,000; injury to his practice as an attorney $15,000."

For answer, the defendant admitted that the report containing the statement of which plaintiff complains was made to him, and alleged the circumstances attending, and the reasons for procuring, the examiner's report, the publication of the examiner's letter admitting his error, all as stated herein. The answer denied all other allegations of the petition and its amendment, and denied that anything said or done by the defendant was with any intention of maliciously holding the plaintiff up to public ridicule or hatred or to in any way injure his good name. The answer denied that the defendant caused the report to be published or circulated in the press, and further alleged that he had nothing to do with the preparation of the report, and that whatever he did was in good faith and in discharge of a public duty, performed in his official capacity as Governor, and that in requesting the report from the Auditor of State, and in the receiving and transmittal of it to the Attorney General, and all of his acts in connection therewith were privileged and in accord with the requirements of the statutes of the State and the duties of his office.

In his reply to the answer, which was filed with plaintiff's motion for new trial, the plaintiff, after denying generally, re-alleged the malicious circulation of the report, and stated that it was not a correct [300 N.W. 710] copy of any public record, and that it was not privileged, but if it was, that privilege had been exceeded and abused, taken away and destroyed by the delivery and circulation of said report to the press before its transmittal to the proper officer. He denies that the report was a public record or was ever a part of the records of the State Auditor's office, but was a report to the defendant and that he had had ample time and opportunity to ascertain the truth of its statements, and that with these means at hand the defendant recklessly circulated and published the report, and used the ordinary and usual means of state officers in giving matters publicity.

The matters of fact herein stated were brought out at the trial by witnesses for the plaintiff. It appeared by the testimony of the State Auditor that the Governor had requested him to appoint examiners from his office to make an investigation of the receivership division of the Banking Department, and to make a report thereof to the Governor, and that he had complied with the request. He testified that he was familiar with the duties of his office and the statutes of the State respecting the right of the Governor to request and receive such reports....

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