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Hoesten v. Best - 2006 NY Slip Op 6373, 34 A.D.3d 143, 821 N.Y.S.2d 40 (App. Div. 2006)

Rule:

The Supreme Court of the United States has held that state law regulation of speech is partially preempted by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and federal labor law policy when the speech is uttered in the context of a "labor dispute" or arguably implicates the rights protected by §§ 7 or 8 of the NLRA. Federal preemption is only partial in this context because the NLRA does not protect speech uttered with actual malice, i.e., statements published with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were true or false.

Facts:

Plaintiff Raymond J. Hoesten was a former stage manager for the daytime television drama "One Life to Live" ("OLTL"). Hoesten filed a lawsuit in New York state court against defendants Constance Best, in her role as executive assistant to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, New York Local ("AFTRA"), and AFTRA itself, which was the union that represented the actors employed by the television network that aired OLTL. Hoesten's employment was terminated in 1998 based on complaints of misconduct and abuse that were reported by actors and investigated by Best. Hoesten alleged that his employment was terminated as a result of certain defamatory communications published by Best. The statements by Best generally criticized Hoesten's professional competence. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted as to AFTRA, but denied as to Best. Hoesten and Best filed cross-appeals.

Issue:

Were the complaints regarding the mistreatment of union members by Hoesten regarded as protected union activity that was not subject to state law defamation claims?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate division modified the trial court's order so as to grant Best's motion for summary judgment and dismiss Hoesten's complaint as to her. The appellate division affirmed the trial court's judgment in all other respects. Although Best's complaints to the network regarding Hoesten's alleged mistreatment of union members did not fall within the traditional format of a labor controversy, such as contract negotiations or strikes, Best's statements nevertheless fell within the broad definition of a "labor dispute" under federal labor law or "arguably" constituted protected union activity and were thus not subject to state law defamation claims in the absence of a showing of actual malice. Hoesten failed to show by the requisite clear and convincing evidence that Best made the defamatory statements while "highly aware" that the statements were probably false and thus failed to raise a triable issue regarding actual malice. The court further rued that the trial court properly granted AFTRA summary judgment. Under the law of New York, a plaintiff could not recover against a labor union for tortious acts committed by one of its members absent a demonstration that such acts were authorized or ratified by all of the union's members.

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