Ray v. Connell, 2016 MT 95 (April 26, 2016) (McKinnon, J.) (5-0, aff’d)
Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in granting Connell summary judgment on Ray’s defamation claim based on a conversation between Connell and Ronquillo; (2) whether the district court erred in granting Connell summary judgment on Ray’s defamation claim based on comments Connell made at two Billings City Council meetings; and (3) whether the district court erred in granting Connell summary judgment on Ray’s claims of tortious interference and general damages based on Connell’s alleged defamation of Ray’s character.
Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; and (3) no.
Facts: Ray and Connell are real estate agents who own land in the East Billings Urban Revitalization District (EBURD). Property owners within EBURD make up a non-profit organization called the Billings Industrial Revitalization District (BIRD), which advocates for development in EBURD. Connell is president of BIRD.
In May 2013, Ray requested two variances from the EBURD Code to develop property within the district. The Board of Adjustments denied one request and granted the other. BIRD and several landowners appealed the granted variance, and Ray appealed the denied variance.
Ray wrote a letter to the city council asking it to rescind or modify the EBURD Code. At a meeting in October 2013, the council discussed the EBURD Code. Connell spoke to the council and said, “[T]he simplest way to summarize Jerry T. Ray is he’s like a broken watch. He’s right twice a day, and he in-fills a lot of stuff. So there’s a lot of things that you’ve been told that are not factual.” ¶ 4.
At a January 2014 city council meeting, Ray advocated for rezoning the EBURD. Connell also spoke and accused Ray of misrepresentations, saying, “if they held a hearing with sworn testimony, it would be found that what Mr. Ray had told Council was not true.” ¶ 5. He accused Ray of ex parte communications with Board of Adjustment members, and giving them false information.
Ray filed suit against Connell, alleging Connell’s comments at these meetings defamed his character. He also accused Connell of defamation based on Connell having told Ronquillo, a city councilman, that Ray had stolen something from Connell’s business. Ronquillo signed an affidavit attesting to Connell having made this statement to Ronquillo, and saying the statement was defamatory. In a later deposition, Ronquillo testified he “probably didn’t read the whole doggone thing,” and his testimony contradicted many of the statements made in his affidavit. Specifically, Ronquillo testified that he thought Connell’s statement was a joke, that he had conveyed the story only to Ray, and that he did not think it could cause Ray financial harm.
Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court held that (1) Connell’s statements to the city council were absolutely privileged, (2) Connell’s statement to Ronquillo was not defamation because Ronquillo thought it was a joke, and (3) the underlying conduct for Ray’s tortious interference and mental anguish claims was the same conduct that the Court had already determined was not defamatory. The district court granted summary judgment to Connell on all of Ray’s claims. Ray appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.
Reasoning: (1) When statements made in an affidavit are repudiated in a later deposition, the affidavit statements do not raise a genuine issue of material fact. A joke is not defamatory. Connell was entitled to summary judgment on Ray’s claims regarding Connell’s statement to Ronquillo.
(2) A statement made in an official proceeding authorized by law is absolutely privileged. § 27-1-804(2), MCA. Therefore, Connell’s statement to the Billings City Council were privileged, and Connell was entitled to summary judgment on Ray’s claims based on those statements.
(3) The Supreme Court agrees that Ray’s additional claims relied on the same underlying conduct that is not actionable, and Connell was entitled to summary judgment.