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Desantis v. Employees Passaic County Welfare Association

Decided: January 10, 1990.

EDMOND A. DESANTIS, SUZANNA BURIANI DESANTIS, AND ANN BURIAN, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
EMPLOYEES PASSAIC COUNTY WELFARE ASSOCIATION AND BRUCE JAMES, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



J.h. Coleman, Brody and Muir, Jr. The opinion of the court was delivered by Brody, J.A.D.

Brody

Judge Rumana granted defendants' motion for a summary judgment dismissing this defamation action. He held that allegedly defamatory statements given to a county legislative investigating committee are absolutely privileged and that the privilege is a defense even if the board of chosen freeholders had not established the committee in the manner prescribed by statute. We affirm.

The Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders (Board of Freeholders) adopted a resolution that appointed a seven-member "Advisory Commission" (Commission) to investigate the feasibility of abolishing the autonomous Passaic County Board of Social Services (Board) and having the Board of Freeholders assume its functions. The resolution provided in part:

[T]he said Advisory Commission shall be empowered to conduct an inquiry as to the present administration, management conditions and policies relating to the Board of Social Services; and

Two freeholders, including the freeholder director, and the Board of Social Services attorney were made members of the Advisory Commission.

Defendant Bruce James is the president of defendant Employees of Passaic County Welfare Association (Association), a

labor organization certified to represent employees of the Board. The Association blames the Board's Executive Director, plaintiff Edmond A. DeSantis, for undermining the Board's operations and its employees' morale by favoring plaintiffs Suzanna Buriani DeSantis and Ann Burian who are, respectively, Edmond DeSantis's wife and mother-in-law. Allegedly as the result of Edmond DeSantis's improper intervention, Suzanna DeSantis became the Board's Assistant Administrative Supervisor of Income Maintenance and Ann Burian became its Supervisor of Security Guards.

James detailed these grievances in a letter to the chairman of the Commission and later voiced them at a public hearing before the Commission where oral statements, not under oath, were received. Other Association members appeared at the hearing to provide corroboration. Plaintiffs contend in their complaint that those written and oral statements are defamatory and untrue.

Our highest court has long recognized that an absolute privilege or immunity must be accorded the statements of participants in judicial proceedings "even if malicious and intended to defame." Rogers v. Thompson, 89 N.J.L. 639, 640 (E. & A. 1916). The Supreme Court extended the absolute privilege to quasi-judicial proceedings conducted before the Director of Milk Industry for the revocation of a license. Rainer's Dairies v. Raritan Valley Farms, Inc., 19 N.J. 552 (1955). Although not holding that the privilege be further extended to a legislative proceeding, the Court in dictum has indicated a willingness to do so. "Certain statements, such as those made in judicial, legislative, or administrative proceedings, are absolutely privileged because the need for unfettered expression is crucial to the public weal." Dairy Stores, Inc. v. Sentinel Pub. Co., 104 N.J. 125, 136 (1986).

Several states have expressly recognized that a witness's testimony before a legislative committee is absolutely privileged. See, e.g., Scott v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 37 Cal.App. 3d 277, 285,

112 Cal.Rptr. 609, 614-615 (1974); Farish v. Wakeman, 385 So. 2d 2 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1980), app. dism., 394 So. 2d 1151 (1980); Tocco v. Piersante, 69 Mich.App. 616, 245 N.W. 2d 356 (1976); Jennings v. Cronin, 256 Pa.Super. 398, 389 A.2d 1183, 1185 (1978); Logan's Super Markets, Inc. v. McCalla, 208 Tenn. ...


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