Session: May 17, 2017
from the Circuit Court for Rutherford County No. 68401 Howard
W. Wilson, Chancellor
February 6, 2014, defendant Judy Goodwin, principal of
Barfield Elementary School, received an anonymous telephone
call. The caller said she was a nurse and the grandparent of
a child that she had just picked up at the school. The caller
reported that she had seen a teacher, as it turned out,
plaintiff Jerretta Certain, who appeared to the caller to be
in an altered state. The caller said Ms. Certain was putting
children in danger. Principal Goodwin decided to investigate
the caller's claim. She asked Ms. Certain, school nurse
Jessica Floyd, and Student Resource Officer Ward Bates, to
come to Ms. Certain's classroom. All three observed Ms.
Certain. Generally speaking, each considered her to be in an
altered state. They described her as appearing drowsy, slow,
and walking with difficulty. They discovered in her bags
seven bottles of medications, all prescribed for Ms. Certain,
in properly-marked childproof containers. Ms. Certain alleges
that Principal Goodwin stated, "I believe what we're
looking at is an addiction to prescription drugs." The
principal asked Nurse Floyd, "would you want your child
in her classroom next year knowing that she's addicted to
prescriptions like this?" Ms. Certain brought this
action against Principal Goodwin for defamation, invasion of
privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The trial court granted Principal Goodwin summary judgment on
all claims, holding as a matter of law that Ms. Certain could
not establish the following essential elements: (1) actual
malice; (2) that the alleged statements were defamatory; and
(3) that the statements were published. Ms. Certain appeals.
As modified, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; As Modified, the Judgment of
the Circuit Court is Affirmed; Case Remanded
Steven Waldron, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellant,
A. McCreary, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellee, Judy
Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the
court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S, and Brandon O.
Gibson, J., joined.
CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., JUDGE.
events giving rise to this lawsuit occurred at the school
after the school day was over. Ms. Certain suffers from
health conditions including spinal stenosis, spurs on her
spine and feet, degenerative disc disease, neuropathy, carpal
tunnel, brachial neuritis, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and
neuromas on both feet. On the day in question, she was
assigned to car duty, which means she was responsible for
overseeing the children as they lined up and left the school
premises for the day. Ms. Certain testified that she had
taken various prescription medicines either before or during
school, including Gabapentin (a nerve pain medication), Mobic
(non-steroid anti-inflammatory), Armour Thyroid (for
hyperthyroidism), and Zanaflex (muscle relaxer). She said she
took one-half of an alprazolam (generic of Xanax, an
anti-anxiety medicine) and a muscle relaxer at lunchtime. She
took an additional one-half of a muscle relaxer tablet during
her planning period, after lunch. Ms. Certain also testified
that she suffers from insomnia and had not slept in the two
days prior to this school day.
Certain was outside for car duty. It was very cold, and she
was having "pretty severe spasms" in her back and
neck. She leaned against a pole or column, trying to stretch
out her back muscles. Shortly thereafter, the anonymous phone
call was made to the school. The caller said it was "a
matter of life and death." Principal Goodwin twice asked
for the caller's name, but she refused to provide it.
According to Principal Goodwin's deposition testimony,
said that, I'm a grandparent. I just picked up my
grandchild. She didn't identify sex. I have just picked
up my grandchild from the green car rider line, and I believe
that there is a teacher who is putting children in danger.
She said, [s]he is leaned up against the post, her eyes are
half closed, and she's unsteady on her feet. And I know
who she is. It's Ms. Certain.
made her way to where Ms. Certain was engaged in car duty,
Principal Goodwin encountered Nurse Floyd, and then Officer
Bates, and asked them to accompany her. When they got to Ms.
Certain, Principal Goodwin instructed her to come with them
to Ms. Certain's classroom.
Floyd, and Bates each testified that they observed Ms.
Certain to be in what they described as an "altered
state." Nurse Floyd said that Ms. Certain
couldn't keep her eyes open. She was slow to answer the
questions. She had a very flat affect. She couldn't walk
in a straight line coming down the hallway back to the
Bates testified by deposition as follows:
[Ms. Certain's] eyes appeared to be half shut, I guess
would be the best way to describe it. She was slow in making
some statements. Like if you asked her a question, she was
slow to come up with a response to the question.
And then I noticed ‒ as I followed behind, as we were
headed back to where Ms. Goodwin was taking Ms. Certain,
which ended up being [Ms. Certain's] classroom, I just
noticed that she seemed at times to struggle to walk down the
they got to the classroom, Nurse Floyd asked Ms. Certain to
check her blood sugar levels, which she did. They were within
a normal range. Ms. Certain testified that Principal Goodwin
directed her to get her purse, and she complied. According to
Ms. Certain, Principal Goodwin began to examine the
purse's contents, pulled out her bottles of medication,
and asked Nurse Floyd to write down the name of each one.
Certain stated that she additionally had prescription bottles
of Opana, an opioid pain medication, and Adderall, an ADHD
medication. It is undisputed that they found at least seven
bottles of prescribed medications. Ms. Certain testified that
she objected to the examination of her purse. She also had
another bag, referred to as her teacher's bag. She said
that Principal Goodwin asked to see it, but did not search
it. Regarding the allegedly slanderous statements, Ms.
Certain testified as follows in pertinent part:
Q. What I wrote down is you said that Ms. Goodwin said,
"I believe what we are looking at is an addiction to
prescription drugs." Is that what you said?
Q. And your testimony is that's a quote. That's
verbatim what she said.
A. It may not be verbatim.
A. She may have said --
Q. It's very similar to that?
A. Very, very similar to that.
Q. Okay. Then what did Ms. Goodwin say?
A. She said that she felt that we were dealing with an
addiction to prescription drugs.
Q. She felt that. Is that what she said, "I feel that we
are dealing with" ‒ what did she say?
A. No. She said, "It looks like we're dealing with
an addiction to prescription drugs." And then she looked
at Nurse Floyd and she said, "Would you want your child
in her classroom next year knowing that she's addicted to
prescriptions like this?" And Nurse Floyd responded,
Goodwin and Nurse Floyd testified that what Goodwin asked
was, "is it possible that we have an addiction problem
here?" Ms. Certain became upset and called her husband
to come get her. She told him on the phone that she had just
been accused of being a drug addict.
Ms. Certain received no disciplinary action from the
occurrences of that day. She immediately went on medical
leave, and at the time of her deposition, April 7, 2015, had
continually remained on such leave. Ms. Certain filed her
"amended complaint" against Principal Goodwin on
February 25, 2015. Following discovery, Principal Goodwin
filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted
the motion, holding, as regards the defamation claim, that:
(1) "from the undisputed facts presented that the
Plaintiff is without the necessary ability to demonstrate
with 'convincing clarity' the facts that make up
actual malice"; (2) "Plaintiff cannot show the
statements uttered by Ms. Goodwin were defamatory in
nature"; (3) "the alleged statement at the heart of
Plaintiff's claim was not the subject of
'publication' as the term is used in the context of
defamation, " and (4) "[t]he facts of this case
show that the common interest privilege may be invoked to
cover the statements at issue." The trial court further
Ms. Certain's claim for invasion of privacy fails most
obviously because she openly admitted to being an active
participant in Ms. Goodwin taking control of the purse. Not
only did Ms. Certain bring the purse to Ms. Goodwin without
objection, she did not try to take it back once prescriptions
began being removed. Further, Ms. Certain was a participant
in the process of removing the medicine bottles. Although it
is clear from the deposition testimony of Ms. Certain that
she claims to have told Ms. Goodwin that her purse was
private and that Ms. Goodwin did not "need to be in
there, " it is also clear that she made no attempt to
protect her privacy by remaining in control of the purse or
by standing up, taking her property, and leaving the room.
the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress,
the trial court held that "the circumstances in which
the meeting and alleged statements took place indicate that a
reasonable member of civilized society would not recognize
the alleged statements as being outrageous" and that
"a mere opinion and cursory investigation of Ms.
Certain's prescription drug [use] within the contest of
such exigency simply does not rise to the level of ...