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Cameron v. Jastremski

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

April 25, 2018

MARY M. CAMERON, Ph.D., Appellant,
v.
NICOLE A. JASTREMSKI, Ph.D., Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Cheryl A. Caracuzzo, Judge; L.T. Case No. 50-2016-CA-005118-XXXX-MB.

          William R. Amlong, Karen Coolman Amlong and Isha Kochhar of Amlong & Amlong, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, for appellant.

          Oscar E. Marrero and Lourdes E. Wydler of Marrero & Wydler, Coral Gables, for appellee.

          Gross, J.

         This is an appeal from an order granting a motion to dismiss based on absolute immunity in a defamation action between two teaching colleagues at a local university. We reverse because appellee's entitlement to claim absolute immunity does not appear on the face of the complaint. Rather, in this case, the issue is one of proof, which may be raised at a limited evidentiary hearing or on summary judgment.

         On an appeal from an order granting a motion to dismiss, we take the factual allegations of the complaint as true and consider them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See, e.g., Palm Beach-Broward Med. Imaging Ctr., Inc. v. Cont'l Grain Co., 715 So.2d 343, 344 (Fla. 4th DCA 1998).

         As alleged in her complaint, Mary Cameron is a senior member of the anthropology department at Florida Atlantic University ("FAU"). Nicole Jastremski is a visiting instructor of anthropology and an unsuccessful candidate for a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at the university. Following Jastremski's rejection for the position, she sent a letter to the dean complaining about a series of derogatory statements Cameron made to Jastremski about her fellow professors and the department. Jastremski also shared these statements with the department secretary, other colleagues in the department, and a former colleague who teaches at the University of Miami.

         Cameron denied making any of the statements attributed to her.

         Cameron filed a single count complaint for defamation against Jastremski.[1] Jastremski moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting she was entitled to absolute immunity as a matter of law because her actions were within the scope of her duties as a public employee. The circuit court granted the motion.

We have previously described an absolute privilege:
"[A]bsolute privileges" are based chiefly upon a recognition of the necessity that certain persons, because of their special position or status, should be as free as possible from fear that their actions in that position might have an adverse effect upon their own personal interests. To accomplish this, it is necessary for them to be protected not only from civil liability, but also from the danger of even an unsuccessful civil action. To this end, it is necessary that the propriety of their conduct not be inquired into indirectly by either court or jury in civil proceedings brought against them for misconduct in their position. Therefor[e] the privilege, or immunity, is absolute and the protection that it affords is complete. It is not conditioned upon the honest and reasonable belief that the defamatory matter is true or upon the absence of ill will on the part of the actor.

Cassell v. India, 964 So.2d 190, 193 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007) (quoting Fridovich v. Fridovich, 598 So.2d 65, 68 (Fla. 1992)). "In Florida, '[p]ublic officials who make statements within the scope of their duties are absolutely immune from suit for defamation.'" Id. (quoting Stephens v. Geoghegan, 702 So.2d 517, 522 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997)). As explained by the Fifth District in Alfino v. Dep't of Health & Rehab. Servs., 676 So.2d 447, 449 (Fla. 5th DCA 1996):

Conduct is within the scope of one's employment if it is the type of conduct which the employee is hired to perform, the conduct occurs substantially within the time and space limits authorized or requested by the work to be performed, and the conduct is ...

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