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Deangelis v. Hill

May 11, 2004

DENNIS DEANGELIS, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JAMES F. HILL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this defamation case against a police officer, the Court considers whether the trial court properly denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment based on plaintiff's alleged failure to demonstrate the required "actual malice" necessary to maintain a defamation action against a public official.

Defendant, James Hill, and the Township of Woodcliff Lake Police Department became involved in a parking dispute. In December 1999, although the Township had an ordinance that prohibited parking on its streets between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., Hill had received permission from the police to park his trailer on the street in front of his home for a three-day period. Later that month, he sought an extension on the permission, which ultimately was denied. That notwithstanding, Hill continued to park his trailer on the street and received parking summonses for the violation on two occasions in December. Thereafter, Hill again attempted to obtain permission to park his trailer on the street, which was again denied. When Hill questioned the police dispatcher on the denial, the dispatcher offered to send an officer out to his residence to discuss the issue. Hill accepted that offer, and plaintiff, Officer Dennis DeAngelis, was dispatched to Hill's home.

Although Officer DeAngelis did not know Hill personally, he was aware of the dispute. During their conversation, which Hill taped without DeAngelis' knowledge, the officer stated that he was under strict orders from his supervisors not to give permission to park overnight on the street and that he would have to issue a summons if Hill elected to park on the street during prohibited hours. Although Hill continued to question Officer DeAngelis about the apparently inconsistent enforcement of the overnight parking ban, the Officer reiterated his lack of authority to approve the request. Subsequently, Officer DeAngelis prepared an offense report describing the encounter with Hill.

In February 2000, Hill sent Officer DeAngelis a letter complaining that the offense report was inaccurate and included with his letter a copy of the tape-recorded conversation. The officer did not respond to that letter, nor did the mayor respond to a subsequent letter from Hill containing the same allegations. In May 2000, Hill appeared pro se in municipal court to defend against the two parking summonses he had received. He called the officer as a witness and questioned him about several of the recorded statements from their December 1999 conversation. The officer denied making the statements and the judge ultimately found Hill guilty of the parking violations.

Thereafter, Hill asked the Bergen County Prosecutor and the Attorney General to pursue perjury charges against the officer, based on the alleged discrepancies between his testimony in municipal court and the December 1999 tape recorded encounter. Neither office took action on Hill's request.

In early April 2001, Hill published a newsletter and distributed it to every home in Woodcliff Lake. The large print headline at the top of the first page of the newsletter read: "Woodcliff Lake Police Accused of Perjury." The newsletter went on to describe Hill's letters to the Prosecutor and to the Attorney General, as well as the events leading up to the December encounter with Officer DeAngelis. The newsletter then declared that Hill's tape recording of the encounter contained statements DeAngelis later denied under oath in municipal court. The second page of the newsletter contained several examples of the alleged discrepancies between DeAngelis' testimony and the recorded statement. The remainder of the newsletter contained a general discussion of asserted perjury by police officers and other public officials both locally and throughout the country. It further declared that the mayor and council should be called to account for their roles "if police perjury becomes proven."

DeAngelis filed a complaint against Hill seeking compensatory and punitive damages, based on claims of defamation, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, harassment, and actual malice. During subsequent discovery proceedings, DeAngelis stated that he thought the newsletter was damaging to his reputation in the community and that the publication had caused him loss of sleep, stress, and embarrassment. He nevertheless did not seek treatment or counseling. The officer admitted that the newsletter did not affect his relationship with his co-workers in any way other than to subject him to some practical jokes. Officer DeAngelis further admitted that he had not suffered any specific financial loss as a result of the newsletter.

Hill moved for summary judgment, arguing that DeAngelis had failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Hill had acted with actual malice and that the publication was simply an opinion based on the facts. In opposition, DeAngelis did not dispute the material facts, but argued that there was sufficient evidence of actual malice for a jury to decide whether the publication was made with some form of wrongful motive or ill will.

The trial court dismissed DeAngelis' claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress and harassment, but denied Hill's motion for summary judgment on the remaining claims, summarily rejecting his argument that the alleged defamatory statements were non-actionable opinion. The trial court found evidence of actual malice based on Hill's motive to discredit DeAngelis and concluded that the underlying facts were disputed. The Appellate Division denied Hill's motion for leave to appeal.

The Supreme Court granted Hill's motion for leave to appeal.

HELD: It was error for the trial court to deny the defendant's motion for summary judgment in this defamation action brought by a Woodcliff Lake police officer, a public official, because no reasonable fact finder could find by clear and convincing evidence that defendant knew his publication was false or that he published the newsletter with reckless disregard for its truth.

1. Summary judgment practice is particularly well-suited for the determination of libel and defamation actions because those actions tend to inhibit comment on matters of public concern. When a public figure is the plaintiff in a defamation case, the court should grant summary judgment dismissing the complaint if a reasonable jury could not find that the plaintiff had established actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. (pp. 10-11)

2. The law of defamation exists to achieve the proper balance between protecting reputation and protecting free speech. In addition to the other elements of defamation, when the plaintiff is a public official, plaintiff must establish that the defendant knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth, published false statements. This standard has been referred to as "actual malice." To satisfy the actual malice standard, plaintiff must prove that the statements were published with a "high degree of awareness of their probable falsity, or with serious doubts as to the truth of the publication. (pp. 11-13)

3. The heightened actual-malice standard exists for public officials because otherwise would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism. Although spite, hostility, hatred, or the deliberate intent to harm demonstrate possible motives for making a statement, only evidence demonstrating that the publication was made with knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard for its truth will establish the actual malice requirement. (p. 13)

4. Whether a statement is susceptible of a defamatory meaning is a question of law for the court. In making this determination, courts must consider three factors: the content, the verifiability, and the context of the challenged statements. Statements of opinion, as a matter of constitutional law, enjoy absolute immunity. But the more factbased the statement, the greater likelihood that it will be actionable. (pp. 13-15)

5. Actual malice has nothing to do with hostility or ill will; rather it concerns a publisher's state of knowledge of the falsity of what he published - not his motivation in publishing it. Although Hill was clearly upset with DeAngelis and the Woodcliff Police Department, the evidence does not suggest that Hill doubted that his statements in the newsletter were true. (pp. 18-19)

6. A reasonable person reading the entire newsletter would recognize that the accusation was not based on formal perjury charges. Thus, neither the absence of formal perjury charges against DeAngelis, nor Hill's failure to publish that fact, provided sufficient proof of actual malice to avoid summary judgment. (pp. 19-20)

7. Any omitted portions of the taped conversation here were insufficient to demonstrate actual malice. (pp. 20-21)

8. No reasonable fact finder could find by clear and convincing evidence that Hill knew his publication was false or the he published the newsletter with reckless disregard for its truth. On the contrary, the evidence clearly demonstrated that Hill believed the statements were true. Thus, it was error to deny Hill's motion for summary judgment on the defamation count. (p. 21)

9. A false light claim against a public official, similar to a defamation claim, utilizes the actual malice standard. Because DeAngelis failed to prove that Hill acted with actual malice, Hill was entitled to summary judgment on this claim as well. (pp. 21-22)

10. As a public plaintiff, similar to the defamation and false light claims, plaintiff DeAngelis must show actual malice to recover on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Moreover, beyond his failure to establish actual malice, DeAngelis failed to prove the type of severe distress required in an emotional distress claim. Thus, the trial court erred in denying Hill's motion to dismiss the count for intentional infliction of emotional distress. (pp. 22-24)

The decision of the trial court is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for dismissal of the complaint.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, and ALBIN join in JUSTICE WALLACE's opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace

Argued December 2, 2003

In this defamation case, plaintiff, a police officer, claims that defendant defamed him by publishing a newsletter accusing him of perjury. The Law Division denied defendant's motion for summary judgment, and the Appellate Division denied defendant's motion for leave to appeal. We granted leave to appeal, 177 N.J. 487 (2003), and now reverse because plaintiff failed to demonstrate the required "actual malice" necessary to maintain a defamation action against a public official.

I.

This appeal arises from a parking dispute between defendant, James Hill, and the Township of Woodcliff Lake Police Department. Woodcliff Lake has an ordinance that prohibits parking on its streets between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. In December 1999, defendant received permission from the police to park his trailer on the street in front of his home for three days, after which he planned to drive the trailer to Florida. He contacted Woodcliff Lake Administrator Jack Doyle on December 21, 1999, and requested an extension of time to park the trailer on the street until approximately January 6, 2000. Doyle could not respond immediately to defendant's request, but indicated he would call back.

Later that day, defendant traveled to Pennsylvania and left the trailer parked on the street in front of his home. He planned to return on December 24, 1999. While defendant was away, Doyle called and informed defendant's wife that the police chief would not extend permission to park the trailer on the street. Defendant's wife explained that defendant would be away from home until December 24, 1999, and Doyle then agreed that the trailer could remain parked on the street until then.

Defendant returned home a day early and contacted the mayor's office to obtain a copy of the overnight parking ordinance. Thereafter, defendant wrote a letter thanking the mayor for her assistance and complaining about the treatment he received from the police. However, defendant continued to leave his trailer parked on the street.

On December 27 and 28, 1999, defendant received parking summonses for violating the overnight parking ban. He called the police dispatcher on December 28, 1999, to again request permission to park his trailer overnight on the street. After checking with the tour commander, the dispatcher informed defendant that his request was denied. Defendant questioned the denial, because despite the ordinance he had previously received permission to park on the street. The dispatcher offered to send ...


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