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Certain v. Goodwin

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

November 17, 2017


          Session: May 17, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Rutherford County No. 68401 Howard W. Wilson, Chancellor

         On 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.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; As Modified, the Judgment of the Circuit Court is Affirmed; Case Remanded

          R. Steven Waldron, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jerretta Certain.

          Josh A. McCreary, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellee, Judy Goodwin.

          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.



         The 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.

         Ms. 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, the caller

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.

         As she 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.

         Goodwin, 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 classroom.

         Officer 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 hallway.

         When 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.

         Ms. 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?
A. Yes.
Q. And your testimony is that's a quote. That's verbatim what she said.
A. It may not be verbatim.
Q. Okay.
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, "Absolutely not."

         Principal 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.

         Ultimately, 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.[1] 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 held:

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.

         Regarding 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 ...

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