Because libel is an intentional act claim, the first critical issue was whether the suit constituted an action against a public official in his official capacity. The plaintiff’s complaint, however, did not specify whether the plaintiff had sued the department head in his individual or official capacity. Despite this technical omission, the Court of Appeals had concluded that the complaint was drafted in a way that clearly indicated an intent to sue the defendant in his individual capacity. As such, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s determination that sovereign immunity did not bar the claim.
The Supreme Court disagreed on the basis of earlier precedent stating that a pleading should indicate in the caption the capacity in which a plaintiff intends to hold a defendant liable. In its opinion, the Court concluded that this earlier directive “is mandatory rather than precatory.” In the absence of such clarity, the Court ruled, it must be presumed that the defendant is being sued only in his official capacity.