In Priore v. Haig, SC20511 (Conn. September 13, 2022), the plaintiff brought a defamation claim in connection with statements that the defendant made about them during a public hearing on a special permit application. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss after concluding that the defendant’s statements were entitled to absolute immunity. The appellate court agreed and the plaintiff appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The Connecticut Supreme Court explained that statements uttered or published in the course of judicial proceedings are absolutely privileged as long as they are in some way pertinent to the subject of the controversy. Thus, even if the statements are defamatory, damages cannot be recovered for their publication. This absolute privilege also attaches to statements made during administrative proceedings that are quasi-judicial in nature.
The Court explained that a quasi-judicial proceeding is one in which the entity conducting the proceeding has the power of discretion in applying the law to the facts within a framework that contains procedural protections against defamatory statements.
In determining whether a proceeding fits this definition, courts may consider the relevant factors enumerated in Kelley v. Bonney (221 Conn. 549, 606 A.2d 693). These factors include whether the body has the power to exercise judgment and discretion, to hear and determine or to ascertain facts and decide, to make binding orders and judgments, to affect the personal or property rights of private persons, to examine witnesses and hear the litigation of the issues, and to enforce decisions or impose penalties. Additionally, courts may consider other relevant factors including the procedural safeguards of the proceeding and the authority of the entity to regulate the proceeding. The Court also emphasized that courts must carefully scrutinize whether applying absolute immunity in a particular context is justified by sound public policy.
In this case, the Court found that the commission had the discretion to apply the law, namely zoning regulations, to the facts before it. Additionally, the commission was empowered to make binding orders and judgments and had the power to affect the property rights of private persons.
However, the Court found that the hearing had almost no procedural safeguards to ensure the reliability of the information presented. Statements made at the hearing were not made under oath and there was no practical opportunity to challenge the truthfulness of statements made by a member of the public. There was also no remedy if a witness gave knowingly false information. Additionally, the commission did not have the discretion to reject evidence or testimony that was submitted, could not strike information from the record, and did not have the power to subpoena witnesses.
The Court explained that the public policy consideration of ensuring public participation in local government had to be considered alongside the private interest of protecting individuals from false and malicious statements. The Court found that given the lack of procedural safeguards to ensure the reliability of a proceeding before the planning and zoning commission, granting statements made in those proceedings absolute immunity was not warranted.
The Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court and remanded the case for further proceedings.