A judge has thrown out a lawsuit claiming that Chattanooga City Councilman Jack Benson defamed a developer wanting to build an International House of Pancakes on Gunbarrel Road.
In her ruling, Circuit Court Judge Marie Williams wrote that Benson had every right to make his statements about Bassam Issa, owner of ANT Group, within his role as a council member.
"The Court finds that City Council's scope of authority extends beyond the limited window of open council meetings," Williams wrote.
Benson said Friday he was not surprised by the ruling.
"I knew when the judge saw the facts she would know it's a frivolous lawsuit," he said.
Issa sued Benson in February after trying to get a tract of land rezoned so he could build an IHOP. Benson did not support the proposal, saying it went against the area's land-use plan. The council later voted not to grant the rezoning.
In the lawsuit, Issa claimed Benson defamed him by telling council members that Issa had tried to offer Benson a bribe.
Benson said he knew Issa could appeal the ruling, but he thinks any kind of appeal would be a "waste of time and money."
Issa said Friday he was considering an appeal.
"I'm talking to my lawyer right now," he said.
Williams stated in her opinion that, as a council member, Benson has privileges to talk about issues facing the council and those privileges extend beyond the council chambers. She stated that all Benson's statements specifically dealt with the rezoning case and that he could talk with others about that case.
Travis McDonough, Benson's attorney, said Friday it was important that the law uphold the council members' rights.
"The law protects good people willing to serve their community from lawsuits like this one," he said. "This result will allow Councilman Benson to focus his efforts on public service rather than litigation."
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...