Hey, I Didn't Rob a Bank Today – Mugshots, Defamation, and the TCPA

CBS Stations Group of Texas, LLC v. Burns
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-21-00042-CV (September 27, 2021)
Before Justices Molberg, Nowell (Opinion), and Goldstein
        Unlike most of the appeals in the Fifth Court involving the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), CBS Stations Group of Texas, LLC v. Cedric Burns did not involve a dispute about whether the TCPA applied to the claims asserted—claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) arising out of CBS’s mistaken use of Mr. Burns’s mugshot while airing a story on an armed bank robbery and subsequent high-speed chase. Instead, the issue before the Court was whether Mr. Burns had met his burden to “establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of [his] claim.”

        A Cedric Burns was arrested for bank robbery. But, it was not the Cedric Burns depicted in the mugshot provided to CBS by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office as it prepared to air a story on the crime. People who knew the Cedric Burns whose mugshot was displayed on TV notified him of the story, and he promptly contacted CBS about its mistake. CBS then removed all references to the story and the photograph from its digital platforms.

        Burns sued CBS for defamation and IIED. In response to CBS’s TCPA motion, Burns admitted that the story was a matter of public concern, thus making the TCPA applicable, but asserted that he had established all elements of his causes of action. The trial court apparently agreed, and denied the motion. The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed, rendered judgment granting the motion, and remanded for determination of fees and possible sanctions.

        A key issue decided by the Court was whether CBS acted with the “requisite degree of fault” for a defamation claim when it used the mugshot provided by the Sheriff. The applicable degree of fault is determined by whether Burns was a public figure. A public figure must prove malice, while a private individual must only prove negligence. Here, because Burns had nothing to do with the story, and was not otherwise widely known, the Court considered him a private individual, and therefore analyzed the evidence for CBS’s negligence.

        For broadcasters, defamation requires that the person knew or should have known that the statement at issue was false. The content must warn a reasonably prudent editor or broadcaster of its defamatory potential. Here, there was nothing in the record showing that CBS knew or should have known that the mugshot provided to it by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office was not the correct Cedric Burns arrested earlier in the day. The Court of Appeals found that lack of proof to be determinative, and rendered judgment dismissing the defamation claim under the TCPA.

        Likewise, the Court dismissed the IIED claim. IIED is a “gap filler” claim limited to rare circumstances when egregious conduct causes emotional harm, but no other cause of action applies. Burns’s allegations and evidence forming his IIED claim were the same as his defamation claim. Therefore, it also failed.
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