DC Circuit grants congressman immunity in Haditha defamation suit

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [official website] on Tuesday dismissed [opinion, PDF] a defamation suit [complaint, PDF; JURIST report] filed by a former US Marine against Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) [official website] after ruling that Murtha was acting in an official capacity when he made allegedly defamatory statements to the press in 2006. Former US Marine Corps sergeant Frank Wuterich [JURIST news archive] alleged that Murtha's comments suggesting that Wuterich had participated in killing innocent Iraqi civilians were made outside of the scope of official duty on the grounds that they were not "of the kind he is employed to perform" and that they were intended to serve his private interests. The three judge panel held that Murtha was acting in his official duty and that the Westfall Act [text], which grants federal employees absolute immunity from tort claims arising out of actions taken in the course of official duties, applied:

[I]t is clear that Wuterich has not alleged any facts that even remotely suggest that Congressman Murtha was acting outside the scope of his employment when he spoke about the Haditha incident… [T]he underlying conduct – interviews with the media about the pressures on American troops in the ongoing Iraq war – is unquestionably of the kind that Congressman Murtha was employed to perform as a Member of Congress. [citations omitted]
Wuterich has not indicated if he plans to appeal or seek an en banc rehearing.

Murtha made the statements at issue in May 2006 regarding the alleged November 2005 murders of 24 Iraqi civilians [JURIST reports] in the city of Haditha. Wuterich filed suit for defamation and invasion of privacy in August 2006, and Murtha initially responded to the suit in a public statement [text] explaining that his goal had been to raise awareness regarding the intense pressure on Marines in Iraq and on the cover-up of the incident. In December 2006, Wuterich and seven other Marines were formally charged with various counts of unpremeditated murder after the completion of military investigations [JURIST reports]. Shortly after the convictions, a Naval Criminal Investigative Serice (NCIS) report detailing Wuterich's point blank shootings of several Iraqi students was leaked to the Washington Post [Washington Post report]. Last September, former Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt filed a separate defamation suit [JURIST report] against Murtha based on the same comments. Sharratt was cleared of all charges [JURIST report] stemming from the Haditha incident in 2007.


 

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