Former Missouri Gov. Blunt Claims Immunity From Defamation Suit

By | March 12, 2009

Attorneys for former Gov. Matt Blunt are citing executive privilege while asking an appeals court to dismiss a defamation lawsuit by a former staff lawyer.

Blunt lost a similar argument before a trial judge last fall, but his latest filing claims Jackson County Judge Circuit Michael Manners didn’t properly evaluate Blunt’s dismissal motion.

Former governor’s office legal counsel Scott Eckersley sued Blunt for defamation and wrongful termination after he was dismissed in September 2007. Eckersley says he was fired after raising concerns about whether Blunt’s office was properly applying the Sunshine Law to e-mails.

As Eckersley prepared to go public with his assertions in October 2007, Blunt’s administration distributed a packet of information to media defending Eckersley’s firing by claiming he had registered for a “group sex Internet site.” The materials also said Eckersley had been questioned by the governor’s chief of staff about illegal drug use, among other things.

Eckersley’s lawsuit denies the charges, calling them “patently false” and “designed to injure, defame and smear.”

In November 2008, Manners rejected Blunt’s argument that he had an absolute executive privilege as governor against defamation lawsuits for comments made in his official capacity.

Manners wrote in his ruling that allowing Blunt to use the absolute executive privilege defense could help “mask official misconduct.” Instead, Manners concluded that the governor was entitled to limited immunity from defamation claims, meaning Eckersley would have to prove that Blunt knew any defamatory statements were false or that he acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

In a court filing Friday, Blunt’s attorneys asked the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, to bar the defamation claim against Blunt.

Blunt’s attorneys argue that judicial precedent provides an absolute executive privilege against alleged defamatory remarks “made in a judicial, executive or legislative proceeding.”

Their filing asks the appeals court to weigh whether Blunt, as governor, qualified as an “executive officer charged with responsibility of importance” and whether his “proceedings” included his communications with the media about personnel matters.

Blunt’s attorneys suggest the proper answer is yes to both of those tests and that Blunt should therefore be shielded from the defamation claim.

The court filing also asks the appeals court to bar Blunt from being sued in his individual capacity — as opposed to his official capacity — for other aspects of Eckersley’s lawsuit.

The trial court last month denied Blunt’s motion to dismiss him as a defendant in his individual capacity.

Blunt’s four-year term as governor ended Jan. 12.

Topics Lawsuits Claims Missouri

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