The Tennessee Court of Appeals for the first time upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit under the state’s new Tennessee Public Participation Act (TPPA). The law is designed to protect citizens who exercise their expression rights from so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation — commonly known as SLAPP suits.
The dispute arose over a doctor’s visit by Kelly Beavers and her father to the office of Dr. Kaveer Nandigam, a neurologist, in early November 2019. Beavers wanted to video-record the visit because her father has neurological and memory trouble. Dr. Nandigam, however, has an office policy prohibiting such action.
After the office visit, Beavers posted the following review on Yelp:
“This ‘Drs’ behavior today was totally unprofessional and unethical to put it mildly. I will be reporting him to the State of TN Medical Review Board and be filing a formal complaint. How this guy is in business is beyond me. Since when did they start allowing Doctors to throw a complete temper tantrum in front of Patients and slam things when they get upset? He does not belong in the medical field at all.”
Nandigam Neurology and Dr. Nandigam sued Beavers in a Wilson County general sessions court for defamation and false-light invasion of privacy. Beavers responded by filing a special motion to dismiss under TPPA, the state’s new anti-SLAPP law.
The general sessions court granted the motion to dismiss the case based on the anti-SLAPP law. Nandigam appealed to a Tennessee circuit court, which concluded it did not have jurisdiction. Nandigam then appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which affirmed the general sessions court ruling in its June 18, 2021, opinion in Nandigam Neurology v. Beavers.
The appeals court emphasized the purpose of the anti-SLAPP law, quoting the purpose as “to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of person to petition, to speak freely, to associate freely, and to participate in government to the fullest extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of persons to the meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury.”
The appeals court noted that once a party files a motion under TPPA, the responding parties — in this case Nandigam Neurology and Dr. Nandigam — must produce evidence that they can establish a prima facie, or basic, case for their lawsuit.
“In this case, the communication at issue was an exercise of [Beaver’s] right of free speech as that right is defined for purposes of the TPPA,” the appeals court said. Beavers also filed a timely TPPA petition, contending that her Yelp review was not defamatory or an invasion of privacy. The plaintiffs failed to respond to this petition.
The appeals court concluded that the general sessions court was correct in granting Beavers’ motion to strike the lawsuit under TPPA.
“This precedent-setting victory for Ms. Beavers and her family sends a clear warning to anyone who would abuse the judicial process in an attempt to censor honest, critical consumer reviews and other constitutionally protected speech,” said Daniel Horwitz in a statement.
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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).