The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Chief Judge Kane)
Presently pending before the Court is a motion for summary judgment nunc pro tunc filed by Defendants Sugarloaf Township, Robert Stanziola, Earl Miller, Joyce P. Stevens, and James Schneider ("Township Defendants"). (Doc. No. 187.) For the reasons stated more fully herein, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny the motion in part.
According to Plaintiffs, Defendants Robert Stanziola, who serves as a Sugarloaf Township supervisor, and James Schneider, who serves as the Sugarloaf Township solicitor, referred to Plaintiffs as "tax cheats" during at least one Sugarloaf Township meeting, which was held "on or after December 2005."*fn1 (Doc. No. 56 ¶¶ 11, 13; Doc. No. 188-1 at 141:9-21, 141:23-24, 142:1-4, 142:5-9.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege in their amended complaint that "Defendants Schneider and Stanziola intentionally and fraudulently announced at a Public Meeting that the Plaintiffs refused to pay their taxes for, presumably, numerous years immediately previous to 2006." (Doc. No. 56 ¶ 191.) Plaintiffs also assert that Defendant Schneider made similar defamatory statements about Plaintiffs to John McGill, a local businessman. (Doc. No. 191 at 7.)
The exact date or dates of the Township meetings at which Defendants Schneider and Stanziola made the defamatory statements are in dispute. The Township Defendants allege that the meeting that Plaintiffs refer to in their amended complaint was held on January 10, 2006. (Doc. No. 188 ¶ 7.) They also assert that an audio recording of, and minutes from, this meeting reflect that no person said the words, "tax cheat." (Doc. No. 188 ¶ 8.) Plaintiffs, however, have not identified the date of the meeting or meetings upon which their defamation claim is based. (See Doc. No. 191 at 3-4, 9-11.) In fact, in their counter statement of facts, they make clear that "the evidence produced by them, [has] never mentioned the specific date upon which the Defendants seek to base the entire claim." (Id. at 2.)
Plaintiffs initiated this action by filing a twenty-count complaint on April 24, 2006.*fn2
(Doc. No. 1.) Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on August 7, 2009. (Doc. No. 56.) Trial was scheduled for August 16, 2011 (Doc. No. 159), but the Court continued trial on August 8, 2011 after finding that the parties were not prepared to proceed to trial (Doc. No. 171). On August 10, 2011, the Township Defendants filed a motion for leave to file a motion for summary judgment nunc pro tunc, addressing the issue of absolute privilege with respect to Plaintiffs' defamation claim. (Doc. No. 174.) The Court granted the motion on December 22, 2011 (Doc. No. 186), and the Township Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment, a brief in support, and statement of facts on January 5, 2012 (Doc. Nos. 187, 188, 189). Plaintiffs filed a brief in opposition and counter statement of facts on January 20, 2012. (Doc. No. 191.)
Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment is warranted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A factual dispute is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law, and it is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). At summary judgment, the inquiry is whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law. Id. at 251-52. In making this determination, the Court must "consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." A.W. v. Jersey City Pub. Schs., 486 F.3d 791, 794 (3d Cir. 2007).
The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2004). Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's claims, "the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument." Berckeley Inv. Grp., Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). If the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial," summary judgment is warranted.
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. With respect to the sufficiency of the evidence that the non-moving party must provide, a court should grant summary judgment where the non-movant's evidence is merely colorable, conclusory, or speculative. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. There must be more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the non-moving party and more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Id. at 252; see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).
The sole issue that the Township Defendants raise in their motion for summary judgment is whether the doctrine of absolute privilege under Pennsylvania law immunizes Defendants Schneider and Stanziola from liability arising out of the allegedly defamatory statements they made about Plaintiffs during at least one Sugarloaf Township meeting. (Doc. No. 189 at 6.) The doctrine of absolute privilege for high public officials under Pennsylvania law is unlimited and exempts a high public official from all civil suits for damages arising out of false defamatory statements and even from statements or actions motivated by malice, provided the statements are made or the actions are taken in the course of the official's duties or powers and within the scope of his authority, or as it is sometimes expressed, within his jurisdiction.
Heller v. Fulare, 454 F.3d 174, 177 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Matson v. Margiotti, 88 A.2d 892, 895 (Pa. 1952) (emphasis in original)). The privilege "rests upon the . . . idea that conduct which otherwise would be actionable is to escape liability because the defendant is acting in furtherance of some interest of social importance, which is entitled to protection even at the expense of uncompensated harm to the plaintiff's reputation." ...