Absolute Immunity Protects Public Officials from Defamation
Thinking about suing a public official for defamation? Think twice (or three or four times) before doing so. Public officials acting within the scope of their duties enjoy absolute immunity from statements they make. Stated differently, they are absolutely immune from a defamation lawsuit.
In Quintero v. Diaz, 45 Fla. L. Weekly D51b (Fla. 3d DCA 2020), a former Director of Parks and Recreation for a city sued the Mayor of that City for defamation per se based on public defamatory statements contained in a termination letter. The parties stipulated that the Mayor was acting within the scope of his public duties when he issued the termination letter. And, for purposes of a summary judgment hearing, the parties stipulated that statements in the letter were false, i.e., defamatory.
Although the former Director of Parks and Recreation argued that absolute immunity should not apply when the statements are false, malicious, or badly motivated, irrespective of whether the public official was acting within the scope of his duties, the Third District Court of Appeal maintained that public officials enjoy the protection of absolute immunity when they are acting within the scope of their duties. Hence, the former Director of Parks and Recreation’s defamation per se lawsuit failed – the Mayor was immune. “[T]he controlling factor in deciding whether a public employee is absolutely immune from actions for defamation is whether the communication was within the scope of the officer’s duties.” Quintero, supra (citation omitted).
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