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Loftis v. Rayburn

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

April 20, 2018


          Session February 5, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 17C-295 Kelvin D. Jones, Judge No. M2017-01502-COA-R3-CV

         The former director of a culinary program filed a complaint alleging defamation by implication or innuendo and false light invasion of privacy against an individual he claimed was the source of statements made in a newspaper article. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that the statements were not actionable as a matter of law. The trial court dismissed the complaint, and the former director appealed. We affirm the trial court's judgment dismissing the complaint and remand the issue of attorney's fees to the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed and Remanded.

          William Gary Blackburn and Bryant Beatty Kroll, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Thomas Nathan Loftis, Sr.

          Daniel Alexander Horwitz and Alan Mark Sowell, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Randy Rayburn.

          Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         An article was published in The Tennessean on March 2, 2016, that was titled, "Tennessee Flavors offers way to eat, drink, aid cooking arts." Jim Myers was the author, and he wrote about Tennessee Flavors, which he described as "a food and drink throwdown with more than 75 vendors from across Middle Tennessee" that served as "the big kahuna fundraiser that benefits the culinary arts program of Nashville State Community College." The relevant portions of the article include the following:

I've written before about the dearth of qualified line cooks in town, from our best restaurants to the hotels and convention centers that need to feed the burgeoning throngs. If you're willing to work hard, love food and cooking and want a stable job, every kitchen door in Nashville will fling open.
[Randy] Rayburn recognized this need every day in his kitchens at the old Sunset Grill, Midtown Cafe and Cabana, so he decided to do something about it by dedicating himself to helping build the culinary arts program at what used to be called Nashville Tech.
To honor him, the school named its new facility at the old Hickory Hollow mall in Antioch The Randy Rayburn School of Culinary Arts ( at Nashville State Community College. However, Rayburn will tell you it hasn't been easy. When he enlisted the help of local restaurateurs and chefs to offer feedback on the program and the quality of its graduates, the reports he got back weren't flattering. The program was simply turning out unqualified students.
Rayburn didn't flinch because a career of running successful restaurants teaches you how to cut losses and move on quickly. With his name on the building, he rolled up his sleeves and decided to get more involved. He went back to his dissatisfied cadre of chefs, including OGC (original gangsta Chef) Deb Paquette of Etch, City House's Tandy Wilson, Kim Totzka of the Turnip Truck, Edgar Pendley from Urban Grub, barbecue honcho Pat Martin, John Stephenson of the Family Wash and Max Knoepfel, executive chef of the Music City Center, and asked for more help.
They started by cleaning house from the top by removing director Tom Loftis. It was a politically inexpedient move last year since Loftis was the brother-in-law of Bill Freeman who was running for mayor at the time. If the election had gone a different way, it might have affected funding for the school.
Rayburn's group knew they needed fresh blood and launched a nationwide search, eventually hiring Paul Brennen over more than 50 other candidates. Today, the ship seems to be righted and on a good course. There's scholarship money galore for young, and older, students interested in the culinary arts, and the new facility is a showplace.

         The plaintiff Thomas Nathan Loftis, Sr., is the "Tom Loftis" referenced in Mr. Myers' article. Mr. Loftis filed a complaint against Randy Rayburn on February 3, 2017, asserting that Mr. Rayburn was liable to him for false light invasion of privacy and defamation by implication or innuendo. Mr. Rayburn filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on February 24, and Mr. Loftis responded by moving to file an amended complaint, which the trial court allowed. In his amended complaint, Mr. Loftis alleged that the information in the article came from Mr. Rayburn and constituted his spoken words. Mr. Loftis claimed that Mr. Rayburn's "words of self-aggrandizement portray Rayburn as the savior of culinary arts from the incompetence of Plaintiff." Mr. Loftis asserted that Mr. Rayburn's "boastful and unseemly comments were reckless and made with a conscience [sic] indifference to the truth." He further asserted that Mr. Rayburn "intentionally and recklessly impugned the competence and maligned the reputation of the Plaintiff in order to embellish his own role in the Nashville culinary community." According to Mr. Loftis, Mr. Rayburn's words and conduct "caused Plaintiff great embarrassment, humiliation and emotional distress. As a direct consequence, Plaintiff has been unable to find comparable work in Nashville, Tennessee."

Mr. Loftis described his false light cause of action as follows:
Pursuant to an interview with Mr. Jim Myers of The Tennessean, the Defendant Randy Rayburn spoke words that were of and concerning the Plaintiff. The words spoken by Rayburn were thereafter published by Mr. Myers in The Tennessean article dated March 2, 2016. Mr. Rayburn placed the Plaintiff before the public in a false light and is therefore liable to the Plaintiff for invasion of his privacy. The false light in which Plaintiff was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, in this instance accusing the Plaintiff of incompetence and personally responsible for alleged and unsubstantiated deficiencies of unnamed persons. The tenor of the article and of Mr. Rayburn's comments suggested that a list of well-known local chefs unanimously agreed with this proposition, but that was not true. The Defendant had actual knowledge of or acted with reckless disregard to the falsity of the matters asserted and the false light in which the Plaintiff was placed.

         Mr. Loftis described his claim for defamation by implication or innuendo as follows:

The publication complained of and the words of Rayburn therein plainly implied that the lack of proper performance by unidentified employees of unnamed chefs in restaurants or as [sic] a consequence of the incompetence of the Plaintiff, even though that statement was not literally made. When read and construed in the sense in which a reader would ordinarily understand it, the clear implication was that any failure of a restaurant employee who had attended the school was the fault of the Plaintiff.

         Mr. Loftis sought compensatory damages in the amount of $500, 000 and punitive damages in an amount up to $1, 000, 000.

         Mr. Rayburn moved to dismiss Mr. Loftis's amended complaint asserting, inter alia, that the statements complained of were not capable of defamatory meaning or inference as a matter of law. The trial court held a hearing on July 10, 2017, and it entered an order dismissing the amended complaint on July 19, 2017, ruling that the statements complained of were not defamatory and failed to create liability as a matter of law. The court wrote:

1. The Plaintiff has filed claims for false light invasion of privacy and defamation by implication or innuendo based on statements contained in a newspaper article attached to his Amended Complaint that was written by Jim Myers and published by The Tennessean. The Plaintiff has alleged that the statements contained in the article were spoken by the Defendant.
2. Under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6), the Court construes the Plaintiff's Amended Complaint liberally in favor of the Plaintiff, taking all allegations of fact as true, and will deny the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss unless it appears that the Plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claims that would entitle him to relief.
3. Under applicable law, the statements contained in the article must be read as a person of ordinary intelligence would understand them in light of the surrounding circumstances; the Court is not bound by the Plaintiff's interpretations of the statements contained in the article; there is significant and substantial overlap between false light and defamation; and whether any statement contained in the article is capable of being understood as defamatory is a question of law to be determined by the Court.
4. Applying these standards to the instant case, the Court is of the opinion that the statements contained in The Tennessean article are not capable of conveying a defamatory meaning and that they do not give rise to liability as a matter of law.
5. THEREFORE, the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is GRANTED. The Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, and each cause of action therein, is hereby DISMISSED with prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         Mr. Loftis filed a notice of appeal followed by a notice that no transcript or statement of evidence would be filed. Mr. Rayburn then filed a notice that a transcript or statement of the proceedings would be filed as part of the appellate record pursuant to Tenn. R. App. P. 24(d). Mr. Rayburn asked the trial court to assess Mr. Loftis for the cost of preparing the transcript of the proceedings if the court deemed a full transcript to be necessary. The trial court issued an order on August 8, 2017, stating that "the transcript of proceedings is necessary to convey a complete account of what transpired at the hearing" and directing Mr. Loftis to assume the expense of preparing the transcript. Mr. Loftis filed a motion to alter, amend, and to set aside the August 8 order regarding the transcript, which the trial court denied.

         On appeal, Mr. Loftis raises the following arguments: (1) whether Mr. Rayburn's public comments placed Mr. Loftis in a negative and unfair light; (2) whether Mr. Rayburn should have known that Mr. Loftis, as a reasonable man, would be seriously aggrieved and offended by publicity suggesting that pervasive incompetence among line cooks in Nashville was directly attributable to him; (3) whether the trial court's order dismissing the amended complaint should be set aside for failure to rule upon the theories Mr. Loftis advanced; (4) whether the order requiring Mr. Loftis to bear the cost of the transcript should be reversed; and (5) whether Mr. Rayburn should be sanctioned for characterizing Mr. Loftis's attorney's statement at the hearing as a judicial admission.

         Mr. Rayburn raises the following additional issues on appeal: (1) whether he is entitled to attorney's fees pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-113; (2) whether he is entitled to attorney's fees for defending against a meritless claim for sanctions; and (3) whether Mr. Loftis's appeal is frivolous within the meaning of Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-1-122.

         II. Analysis

         The trial court dismissed Mr. Loftis's complaint for failing to state a claim for which relief could be granted. See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6). A motion to dismiss is resolved "by an examination of the pleadings alone." Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422, 426 (Tenn. 2011).[1] A defendant filing a motion to dismiss "'admits the truth of all of the relevant and material allegations contained in the complaint, but . . . asserts that the allegations fail to establish a cause of action.'" Id. (quoting Brown v. Tenn. Title Loans, Inc.,328 S.W.3d 850, 854 (Tenn. 2010)). When ruling on a motion to dismiss, courts are required to '"construe the complaint liberally, presuming all factual allegations to be true and giving the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences."' Id. (quoting Tigg v. Pirelli Tire Corp.,232 S.W.3d 28, 31-32 (Tenn. 2007)). "A trial court should grant a motion to dismiss 'only when it appears that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief"' Id. (quoting Crews v. Buckman ...

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