We've covered a lot of ridiculous defamation lawsuits here at Techdirt. A ton. MANY. We like covering them so much we bought the company. But this defamation lawsuit passed on to us by Adam Steinbaugh is just baffling. Even more baffling, it's been filed with professional representation. Its attempt to fashion a libel lawsuit out of nothing bears far more resemblance to those filed by plaintiffs with fools for lawyers.
In March of last year, Jim Myers of the The Tennessean wrote an article about some staff changes at a local university's culinary arts program. If this seems like extraordinarily innocuous subject matter, you're obviously not former director Tom Loftis or his legal representation. Loftis has formally shouted "defamation" in a crowded courthouse. But his accusations aren't levied against Myers or The Tennessean, but rather against someone featured in the article: new culinary arts director Randy Rayburn.
His complaint [PDF] tries to turn Rayburn into the libelous villain by attributing things Myers wrote about Loftis and Rayburn into direct quotes by Rayburn.
On March 2, 2016, The Tennessean published an article, which is attached hereto as Exhibit A and incorporated herein by reference, under the byline of Jim Myers. The words in the article were spoken by Randy Rayburn and published by Mr. Myers in The Tennessean.
This opening assertion is then immediately proven false by Loftis' next allegations. (Emphasis mine.)
"It starts and ends on the cooking line," wrote Mr. Myers, "regardless of the talent of the chef or the quality of the wait staff." The article promoted an event called "Tennessee Flavors," purportedly the product of the Defendant, Randy Rayburn, as a benefit for the culinary arts program of Nashville State Community College.
Myers claimed to have written before about "the dearth of qualified line cooks in town, from our best restaurants to the hotels and convention centers ...." Rayburn, according to Myers, "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 a Culinary Arts program at what used to be called Nashville Tech." These words of self-aggrandizement portray Rayburn as the savior of culinary arts from the incompetence of Plaintiff. The school had chosen to name its new facility at the former Hickory Hollow Mali in Antioch, "The Randy Rayburn School of Culinary Arts."
Reputation isn't zero-sum. Self-aggrandizement isn't defamation, even if it makes someone else look worse by comparison. And we still have yet to see any direct quotes from Rayburn -- only the columnist's impression of Rayburn and his activities.
Myers quoted Rayburn as willing to tell you "it hasn't been easy." When he sought the help of local restaurateurs and chefs to offer feedback on the program and the quality of his graduates, he was quoted, "the reports he got back weren't flattering. The program was simply turning out unqualified students."
Rayburn, "with his name on the building" chose to apply his experience in "how to cut losses and move on quickly," and "decided to get more involved."
Myers then wrote: "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."
And we still have yet to see Rayburn quote with anything more damning in it than his assessment of returned assessments. But Loftis isn't going to let facts stand in the way of a $1.5 million defamation suit.
These boastful and unseemly comments were reckless and made with a conscience [sic] indifference to the truth. No specific deficiencies were described nor was it revealed in this article whether any of the individuals about whom complaints were made had even attended the school much less graduated from it. No effort was made to determine whether these deficiencies were a function of a failure of instruction rather than an inadequacy of the individual. Among the chefs mentioned in the article were individuals who, to the knowledge of the Plaintiff, had never employed a graduate of the school.
And on and on it goes. Normally, a stupid defamation lawsuit is filed against the biggest target, be it Google or Yelp, etc., rather than the person actually engaging in alleged libel. This suit goes for the smaller target -- Randy Rayburn -- either out of spite (because Rayburn replaced Loftis and had a building named after him and appears to be better liked by local writers, etc.) or because Loftis thinks Rayburn will put up less of a fight than The Tennessean.
The motion to dismiss [PDF], filed by Rayburn's lawyer, Daniel Horwitz, does a thorough job explaining why this should be laughed out of court. It points out that Rayburn is never directly quoted -- at least not saying anything remotely defamatory -- and that the lawsuit states repeatedly that the words Loftis is bothered by were written by Myers and published by The Tennessean, neither of which are party to this lawsuit.
The problem here is Rayburn has to defend himself against these completely baseless allegations or get hit with an expensive default judgment. The best case scenario is the lawsuit being tossed as soon as a judge reviews the motion to dismiss. Unfortunately, this state has no anti-SLAPP law, so it will be extremely difficult to hold Loftis financially culpable for Rayburn's legal fees.
Hurt feelings often result in bogus lawsuits, but this one appears to be almost entirely motivated by the fact the plaintiff's successor at the university appears to be both better-liked and better at the job.