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Defamation - Exception to Fair Reporting Privilege - State Immunity

Birmingham Broadcasting LLC v. Leslie Wayne Hill, [Ms. 1180343, 1180370, Feb. 28, 2020] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2020). The Court (Stewart, J.; Parker, C.J., and Bolin, Sellers, Mendheim, and Mitchell, JJ., concur; Shaw and Bryan, JJ., concur in the result) reverses a $250,000 judgment entered by the Jefferson Circuit Court on a jury verdict on a defamation claim in favor of plaintiff Hill. The Court also affirms a summary judgment entered in favor of former Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale and two of his officers.

After an assistant district attorney concluded that probable cause existed that the plaintiff was in violation of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”), the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department issued warrants for Hill’s arrest for failure to register as a sex offender. Ms. *3-4. As part of an ongoing weekly news segment entitled “To Catch A Predator,” WVTM broadcasted a segment featuring then Sheriff Hale and detailing the warrants issued against Hill. The day after the broadcast, Hill, through his attorney, contacted the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office and the D.A. agreed that Hill’s convictions did not constitute an offense requiring registration under SORNA. Ms. *6-7. Neither Hill nor his attorney contacted WVTM to request a retraction or provide an explanation or a contradiction of the December 6 broadcast. However, on a December 13 broadcast, a WVTM news anchor stated in a broadcast that the warrants against the plaintiff had been recalled. Ms. *7.

In reversing and rendering judgment for WVTM, the Court construed § 13A-11-161’s exception to the fair reporting privilege (upon which the jury verdict was based) as requiring

[T]he plaintiff to provide the defendant a reasonable explanation or contradiction of the initial report. Only after defendant has been provided an explanation or contradiction and only after defendant refuses or neglects to publish that explanation or contradiction “in the same manner” as the original publication can an exception be triggered. ... It is undisputed in this case that Hill did not contact WVTM after the December 6 broadcast, much less supply WVTM with an explanation or contradiction of the information contained in the December 6 broadcast.

Ms. *20-21.

In affirming the summary judgment for Sheriff Hale and his officers, the Court noted that “[s]tate immunity applies ‘whenever the acts that are the basis of the alleged liability were performed within the course and scope of the officer’s employment’” Ms. *25, quoting Ex parte Davis, 930 So. 2d 497, 500-01 (Ala. 2005). Citing the undisputed fact that the Sheriff’s Office requested a legal opinion from the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office prior to issuing the warrants, the Court concluded “that Hill failed to demonstrate the sheriff defendants acted in bad faith or that they acted under a mistaken interpretation of the law sufficient to exempt them from application of state immunity under §14.” Ms. *28.

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