On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.
Botter, Polow and Brody. The opinion of the court was delivered by Brody, J.A.D.
This action arises out of circumstances related to the wrongful discharge by the New Brunswick Parking Authority ("Authority") of plaintiff, its executive director. A separate action resulted in his reinstatement with full back pay. In this action he seeks damages from the three commissioners who voted for his removal (Deiner, Glaser and Buono) and from the accountants (Rosenthal and Attinger) whose special audit allegedly contributed to his discharge. The trial judge reduced plaintiff's several theories of recovery against the accountants to defamation. Concluding that plaintiff's evidence did not overcome their qualified privilege, he granted the accountants' motion for involuntary dismissal pursuant to R. 4:37-2(b). The judge submitted to the jury plaintiff's defamation claims against the commissioners. They returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $2,000 compensatory damages and punitive damages in different amounts against each commissioner: $2,000 as to Deiner, $5,000 as to Buono and $11,800 as to Glaser. The commissioners and plaintiff appeal. The commissioners claim an absolute privilege by reason of their office. Plaintiff contends that the judge applied the wrong standard to define how the accountants' privilege is lost.
Plaintiff replaced Deiner as executive director in 1971. He served without a contract until 1975, not long after a new mayor brought with him a change in the city administration. The employment contract was for a term of five years. It provided that plaintiff could not be discharged except for specified misconduct including "inefficiencies in the discharge of his duties" and "[m]isappropriation or misuse of property of the Authority." Because of the involuntary dismissal of plaintiff's claims against the accountants and the favorable verdict he received with
respect to his claims against the commissioners, we will recite the evidence in the light most favorable to his contentions.
The new mayor made it clear that he wanted plaintiff removed. He filled the first vacancy on the five-member Authority by appointing Deiner. The employment contract, however, protected plaintiff unless there was cause thereunder for discharge. In June 1976 plaintiff's young daughter, who worked for the Authority as a parking attendant, confessed to having stolen two locked bank bags containing her shift's receipts for two successive days. It was part of her job to carry the bags to the bank after banking hours and deposit them in a chute. Their loss was promptly noticed. At first she claimed to have deposited them at the bank but she later broke down and confessed to plaintiff, who then fired her. The bags were recovered from the trunk of her car.
The incident received considerable notoriety and enabled plaintiff's political foes to focus public attention on his stewardship of the Authority's operations. By letter dated July 28, 1976, the city director of finances engaged the accountants to conduct "a detailed audit of the receipts as handled by [plaintiff's daughter]. . . ." The letter went on, "[T]he scope of the audit will be left to your professional judgment. We are interested in verifying that there are no other discrepancies in the receipts handled by Miss Burke and that our internal controls are sufficient to protect the assets of the Authority. We would, of course, welcome any recommendations you could make to improve our control."
The accountants were not strangers to the operations of the Authority. They had been the city's accountants for many years and in that capacity made annual audits for the Authority. Their special audit was submitted to the Authority August 10, 1976. In it they itemized ten specific "weaknesses and deficiencies in internal control" and made ten recommendations for
correcting them. Given plaintiff's position as executive director, there is an unmistakable implication that the alleged deficiencies reflected adversely on his office, business or employment, and are therefore defamatory as a matter of law. See Johnson v. Shields, 25 N.J.L. 116, 120 (Sup.Ct.1855); Charles Parker Co. v. Silver City Crystal Co., 142 Conn. 605, 610-612, 116 A.2d 440, 443-444 (1955). "[W]here the publication is not reasonably susceptible of a non-defamatory signification it is libelous as a matter of law. . . ." Herrmann v. Newark Morning Ledger Co., 48 N.J. Super. 420, 430 (App.Div.1958). If given the opportunity, a reasonable jury could have found from plaintiff's evidence that some of the criticized practices and omissions alleged in the report were knowingly false or deliberately put in a false light. For example, the first item of "weaknesses and deficiencies" is the alleged failure to deposit cash receipts daily. Plaintiff and his expert testified that this statement is based largely on the fact that the bank did not record deposits made after banking hours until the following business day.
After publication of the special audit, the mayor publicly called for plaintiff to resign. On October 28, 1976 the mayor filled two additional vacancies on the Authority with defendants Glaser and Buono. At a meeting held later that same day, the commissioners removed plaintiff by a vote of three to two. The resolution charged him with "negligent operation of the Parking Authority, which borders on misappropriation or misuse of the property of the Authority and . . . serious inefficiency in the discharge of his duties" for failing to follow the recommendations contained in the special audit. The resolution referred to "serious accounting and financial problems . . . uncovered by the Accounting Firm of Rosenthal & Attinger. . . ." The judge correctly found that ...