Immunity from Libel Suits In a Judicial Proceeding
What immunity does a complainant or witness have in a judicial proceeding ?
The first Texas Supreme court case to adopt the privilege was Runge v. Franklin, 72 Tex. 585, 10 S.W. 721 (Tex. 1889), in which the plaintiff complained he had been libeled by allegations made in a petition filed in court seeking an injunction, the allegations later being publicized by a newspaper.
The court examined English and American cases and held that no cause of action for libel could be predicated upon allegations contained in pleadings, no matter how false or malicious.
That rule of absolute immunity for libel was applied to complaints made to public bodies that had judicial like functions.
In Aransas Harbor Terminal R. Co. v. Taber, 235 S.W. 841 (Tex. Com. App. 1921) libelous statements were made in a letter to the Texas Railroad Commission.
The court held that the commission performed judicial functions: "The power to hear complaints and to investigate them, to summons and compel the attendance of witnesses, to compel persons to testify in transactions being investigated, and the power to render judgment in the matters being investigated are expressly provided by these statutes.
What more can any judicial body do?" Id. at 842.
"That communications made in the course of a judicial proceeding are absolutely privileged is no longer a debatable question in this state." Id. at 843 (citing Runge v. Franklin, 72 Tex. 585, 10 S.W. 721).
The court held the letter to the commission was absolutely privileged and no action for libel would lie.
Similarly, a document filed with the Board of Insurance Commissioners, "whether true or false, real or forged," was absolutely privileged, and could not support an action for libel. Reagan v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 140 Tex. 105, 166 S.W.2d 909 (Tex. 1942).
The court said that this rule of privilege "is not founded on the theory that the communications furnish any defense, but on the fact that the law allows absolute privilege or immunity on account of the occasion upon which the communication is made. 166 S.W.2d at 913.
The court construes Aransas Harbor Terminal R. Co. to hold that "communications made to such a body stand on the same footing as regards libel as do communications made in a court of justice." That is, absolutely privileged. Reagan, 166 S.W.2d at 912.
Section 81.106 of the government code provides:
(a) the unauthorized practice of law committee, any member of the committee, or any person to whom the committee has delegated authority and who is assisting the committee is not liable for any damages for an act or omission in the course of the official duties of the committee.
(b) a complainant or a witness in a proceeding before the committee or before a person to whom the committee has delegated authority and who is assisting the committee has the same immunity that a complainant or witness has in a judicial proceeding. TEX. GOV'T CODE ANN. 81.106 (Vernon 1997).