Appeals court denies hunting lodge owner's defamation suit against biologist who said he stocked deer

Steve Korris Jun. 5, 2008, 5:48am

The lodge at Whitetail Junction Ranch in Kimble County

The 9th District appeals court has thrown out a defamation suit that hunting lodge owner James Shrieve filed against a state biologist for telling a review panel he stocked deer in violation of his wildlife management plan.

The 9th District on May 22 reversed Montgomery County District Judge Michael Mayes, who denied biologist Fielding Harwell's motion for summary judgment.

Justices Charles Kreger, Hollis Horton and Steve McKeithen agreed that even if Harwell defamed Shrieve, he enjoyed absolute privilege as a state employee.

Absolute privilege applies to any communication in connection with a proposed or current judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding, Kreger wrote.

He quoted a 1959 decision holding that absolute privilege shields responsible government officials against "vindictive or ill founded damage suits brought on account of actions taken in the exercise of their official responsibilities."

Harwell works for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Shrieve owns Whitetail Junction Ranch in Kimble County. Prior to 2004, he operated it under a Parks and Wildlife managed land deer permit.

In 2004 Harwell's supervisor, district director Max Traweek, declared Shrieve ineligible for a permit for three years.

Shrieve requested review before a panel of the director of the wildlife division, the regional director, the big game program director and the white tailed deer program leader.

The panel upheld Traweek, finding that Shrieve increased the deer population when his permit called for him to decrease it.

"TPWD records indicate that over 400 deer were added to the property over a three year period although the population reduction goal had not been achieved," the panel wrote.

Harwell "was not notified of these stockings that were in direct contradiction to the wildlife management plan," they wrote.

Shrieve sued the department in Travis County, seeking a temporary injunction and damages for tortuous interference and business disparagement.

A judge denied relief and the 3rd District appeals court in Austin affirmed.

In 2005 Shrieve sued Harwell in Montgomery County, alleging defamation.

"Harwell's slander suggests Shrieve was involved in illegal conduct and is dishonest," Shrieve's petition stated.

Shrieve argued that absolute privilege applied to judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings, and that the action of the review panel did not constitute a quasi-judicial proceeding.

Harwell's statements were not privileged and he had no immunity, Shrieve claimed.

Judge Mayes would have heard the claim, but the 9th District stopped him.

"It is readily apparent from the facts and circumstances contained in the record that the review panel does qualify as a quasi-judicial body," Kreger wrote.

"Shrieve does not direct our attention to any evidence contained in the record which indicates Harwell's letter was communicated to anyone other than the members of the review panel, and our review of the record revealed none," he wrote.

Ronal Keister represented Harwell. Douglas Drucker represented Shrieve.

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