Defamation Claims Require Proof of Fault

A former bank teller’s defamation and wrongful termination action against Wells Fargo, filed in the Western District of Virginia, has been decided in Wells Fargo’s favor. Judge Samuel G. Wilson granted the bank’s motion for summary judgment due to the failure of the teller to make a coherent, factual showing that the bank was at fault, or that the alleged defamatory statements were false.

The teller, Adrienne Sewell, was terminated for violating the bank’s policies and procedures. Wells Fargo rules limited the amount of cash tellers could retain in their cash drawers. To stay below the maximum, sellers would “sell” cash to a second teller, record the transaction electronically then deliver the cash in person. On several occasions, teller Adrienne Sewell and others failed to physically move the cash, thereby misstating their balance sheets and having too much cash in their bank drawers. At the end of the day, they would “buy back” the cash, thereby righting the balances, but the practice violated bank rules. The bank investigated her activities, gathered documents, and obtained admissions from Sewell and others that they had violated bank policy and procedure.

Sewell sued Wells Fargo for defamation, breach of contract, and wrongful termination. She argued the bank defamed her by telling others she had falsified documents and had violated bank procedures.

Under Virginia law, a private individual (as opposed to a public figure) suing for defamation must show that the defendant was at fault for publishing a false, defamatory statement. To establish fault, a private individual must show that the defendant knew that the statement was false, or, believing that the statement was true, lacked a reasonable basis for such belief, or acted negligently in failing to determine the facts on which the publication was based.

The Court found that, even if Wells Fargo had told others she failed to follow procedure or falsified documents, as she claimed, Sewell offered no evidence that Wells Fargo knew the statements were false or, believing them to be true, lacked a reasonable basis for that belief, or that it negligently failed to determine the underlying facts. Because she failed to demonstrate either falsity or fault, the Court granted Wells Fargo’s motion for summary judgment.

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