Articles Posted in Privileges

If you work for the federal government and a co-worker spreads false and malicious rumors about you that damage your reputation, it will be very difficult to pursue a claim for libel or slander against the individual in question. The recent Maryland case of Shake v. Gividen demonstrates the hurdles a prospective plaintiff would face in pursuing such an action.

Donald Shake worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs until he was terminated in 2011. Teresa Gividen and Brian Sexton also worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Gividen was the Assistant Human Resources Chief. Shake claimed that Gividen and Sexton accused him of accessing the medical records of a veteran and not completing hundreds of work orders. He asserted that Gividen and Sexton started rumors that Shake was the subject of disciplinary proceedings and that numerous complaints had been lodged against him. Shake sued Gividen and Sexton for defamation, alleging that they slandered his name and reputation by making false and malicious statements about him. Shake alleged that he lost his job and retirement benefits as a result of the slander and that his reputation was harmed such that he was unable to secure subsequent employment.

The United States filed a motion contending that Gividen and Sexton should be dismissed because they were acting within the scope of their employment, and it asked to be substituted as the sole defendant in the case pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The United States further argued that Shake’s defamation claim should then be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies and on sovereign immunity grounds. The court agreed.

Workplace defamation suits will usually raise privilege issues. When one employee complains to a manager or supervisor about another employee and falsely maligns the other employee’s reputation in the process, the court will need to sort out whether the complaint is protected by qualified privilege. If it is, the statement can’t form the basis for a claim unless it was made with common-law malice or made to persons having no business hearing it. Common-law malice is different than the constitutional “New York Times” malice so often discussed in analyzing defamation liability. Common-law malice generally refers to some form of ill will on behalf of the speaker, motivated by things like hatred or a desire for revenge. In Virginia, there is a presumption that the speaker acted without malice.

When a slanderous statement occurs at work, it often involves an accusation that a co-worker is unfit to perform the duties of his or her job, due to a lack of competence or lack of integrity. Statements such as these which prejudice a person is his or her profession fall into the defamation per se category, which means that a jury can presume the statement was harmful to the plaintiff, even if special damages are not proven.

Earlier this month, a case from Stafford County was removed to federal court in Alexandria. Suzanne Brown, the plaintiff, was an FBI agent assigned to the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) within the Critical Incident Response FBI.jpgGroup (CIRG). The BAU handles cases involving threatened violence against public officials, and as a program manager, Brown was responsible for assessing such threats. Katherine Schoeneman, the defendant, is a psychologist who had formerly worked with Brown on some threat assessment cases under a contract with CIRG. Schoeneman offered her psychological observations while Brown provided investigative and law enforcement expertise.

Judicial privilege (also known as judicial immunity) allows a party to litigation or other judicial proceeding to make statements during the course of the proceeding that would otherwise be considered slanderous or libelous. The Virginia Supreme Court recently held that judicial privilege will also apply to certain statements made in advance of such proceedings where the following conditions are met: (1) the statement is made preliminary to the proposed proceeding; (2) the statement is material, relevant or pertinent to the proceeding; (3) the proceeding is contemplated in good faith and is under serious consideration; and (4) the communication is disclosed only to persons having an interest in the proposed proceeding. The Circuit Court of Loudoun County had occasion to apply the test in Hubbard v. Goehring.  (Note: at issue in the Loudoun case was whether absolute judicial immunity applied to false statements made to the police. Such statements will generally be protected by qualified privilege, even if absolute privilege is found not to apply.)

Deanne Hubbard managed Jack and Mary Goehring’s rental properties. Ms. Hubbard and her family also occupied commercial and residential properties owned by the Goehrings. Mr. Goehring filed a criminal theft affidavit against Ms. Hubbard alleging identity theft, fraud, embezzlement and bank fraud. The Goehrings told the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney that they intended to file civil charges against Ms. Hubbard. Mr. Goehring found out when Ms. Hubbard would be arrested and arranged for a photographer to photograph the arrest. The pictures were published on the front page of a local newspaper, on the evening news and on YouTube. Ms. Hubbard was acquitted of embezzlement charges, and she and her family brought a defamation action against the Goehrings. The Goehrings contend that statements made to the public prosecutor and police regarding Ms. Hubbard’s alleged criminal activity are subject to the judicial privilege.

Relying on the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the court added a good-faith requirement to the immunity test, finding that in addition to the elements laid out by the Virginia Supreme Court, good faith is required on the part of the private individual bringing the criminal charges and that such good faith must persist throughout the R2T.jpgprosecution.

Emmett Jafari sued the Greater Richmond Transit Company for defamation and retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Jafari was a Specialized Transportation Field Supervisor for a Virginia company that transported clients enrolled in a state economic program. John Rush, a GRTC driver, told Jafari’s Chief Operating Officer, Eldridge Coles, that (1) he had seen Jafari in a heated discussion with a client in front of her home and (2) when the client boarded the van, she said Jafari had told her, “If you have something to say, say it to my face.” Coles allegedly told Jafari’s supervisor, Von Tisdale, “a customer had complained that Mr. Jafari told her ‘if you have something to say, say it to my face.'” When Jafari was later fired, he sued, alleging Coles’ statement to Von Tisdale was defamatory.

In Virginia, defamation requires (1) a publication, (2) an actionable false statement, and (3) negligence or malicious intent (depending on the circumstances). Statements made between co-employees and employers in matters pertaining to employee discipline and termination enjoy a qualified privilege, which insulates those statements from liability unless they are made with malice or shared with people (including fellow employees) who have no duty or interest in the subject matter. If a defendant makes a statement within the scope of a qualified privilege, then the statement is not actionable, even if false or based on erroneous information. The law presumes absence of malice.

To defeat this privilege, Jafari had to show, with “clear and convincing” evidence, the statements met the common law malice requirement, i.e., that they were said with “some sinister or corrupt motive such as hatred, revenge, personal spite, ill will, or desire to injure the plaintiff; or … made with such gross indifference and recklessness as AbsenceOfMalice21.jpegto amount to a wanton or willful disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.” This he could not do, so the court entered summary judgment in favor of the employer.

On October 4, 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a personal trainer, represented by Virginia Beach lawyer Jeremiah A. Denton III, and allowed to stand the summary judgment order entered by the Norfolk Circuit Court against the trainer on her defamation claim. This shows just how serious the Virginia Supreme Court is about the absolute privilege that extends to defamatory statements made in demand letters preliminary to contemplated litigation and sent in good faith. Summary judgment is appropriate if a defamation claim is based on a privileged statement.

Darryl and Julie Cummings were members of the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club (“NYCC”). Deborah Allison, a personal trainer at NYCC and at Norfolk Academy, pursued and entered into a physical relationship with Julie. Darryl reported Addison’s actions to NYCC management. Though the NYCC warned her not to pursue Julie Cummings on NYCC property, Addison disobeyed and was fired. Cummings and his wife ultimately divorced.

Darryl sued Addison for intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference, and professional malpractice. Addison counterclaimed for intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with norfolk.JPGcontract, tortious interference with a contract expectancy, and defamation. Addison’s claims stemmed from Cummings’ email to the NYCC president, a draft complaint he sent to NYCC’s attorney, and emails he sent to Norfolk Academy’s headmaster.

Earlier I wrote about the case of Mansfield v. Bernabei, in which Fairfax Circuit Court Judge R. Terrence Ney sustained demurrers to a defamation claim based on statements made in a draft complaint forwarded to a small group of prospective defendants for settlement purposes. Judge Ney ruled that the statements were privileged from defamation liability because they were preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding and sent in good faith. The Virginia Supreme Court has now affirmed that decision and set forth a new test for determining applicability of the judicial privilege in Virginia.

Under the new test, communications made outside of court but preliminary to proposed judicial proceedings will be absolutely privileged from defamation liability where (1) the statement is made preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding; (2) the statement is “material, relevant or pertinent” to the proceeding; (3) the proceeding is contemplated in good faith and is under serious consideration; and (4) the communication is disclosed only to persons having an interest in the proposed proceeding.

(Note: The court enumerated only three elements, combining (2) and (3) above. Because the test contains four distinct concepts, I find it easier to think of this as a four-part test. But that’s just me.)

Employment reviews often lead to libel allegations due to the fact they often contain harmful statements perceived by the employee to be false and defamatory. In most cases, however, even if the performance review contains a false statement, no defamation claim will lie because (1) statements of opinion are not actionable under Virginia law (or the United States Constitution); and (2) communications between people on a subject in which they both have an “interest or duty” are deemed privileged.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered–and rejected–the defamation claims of Claudine Nigro, a former medical resident at the Shenandoah Valley Family Residency Program. After a semiannual performance review in 2009, Nigro was notified that she would not be renewed for another year of residency with the program. measuring_tape.jpg Nigro appealed this decision, but then resigned a few months later. She brought an action against the residency program’s director and the hospital itself, claiming that she was defamed during the appeals process by the director of the program, who discussed her perceived shortcomings with the faculty appeals committee, and by employees of the hospital, who reported Nigro for allegedly recording her conversations with physicians.

Nigro alleged the Program Director defamed her with statements he made in various meetings and notices, including “There has been no evidence of improvement or intention to improve in weak areas,” “There is no change in apathetic/disinterested approach or demonstrated interest in learning despite 3-4 months of discussion and coaching,” and “There is faculty consensus that [Nigro] may be suffering from depression or poor career choice.” The court found that all the alleged statements were either opinion, factually true, not defamatory, or were protected by the qualified privilege applicable to statements made to another with a corresponding interest or duty.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia has found that negative comments a customer service representative made to a customer may form the basis of a defamation action.

Charles and Donna Bates operate a school photography business. They entered a contract with Strawbridge Studios, Inc., also a school photography business, under which Strawbridge purchased the Bates’ accounts and employed them to handle certain accounts. The relationship deteriorated and ended in the Bates filing a breach of contract action again Strawbridge. The parties resolved their dispute and entered a settlement agreement which included a non-disparagement clause providing that neither party would “say, write, publish, broadcast, or in any other way participate in negative or disparaging comments about the other.”

Later, when a customer called Strawbridge looking for a photograph she believed the Bates had taken, Strawbridge’s customer service representative told the customer that the Bates were “not reputable” and “could not be trusted.” The representative also stated that “things got so bad” that Strawbridge “had to get involved in a lawsuit.” The Bates filed a second suit against Strawbridge and included a claim for defamation.

The elements of a defamation claim in Virginia are (1) publication, (2) of an actionable statement and (3) the requisite level of intent. A statement regarding a person’s professionalism may constitute defamation per se (meaning the plaintiff need not prove actual damage to reputation) if it implies that the person is unfit to perform the duties of his job, lacks integrity in performing those duties, or if it would tend to “prejudice” the plaintiff in his profession. Fairfax Judge Robert J. Smith, in a detailed opinion, recently made clear that to survive demurrer, a plaintiff must also state the exact words alleged to be defamatory, and must show that the defamation occurred in a non-privileged setting.

In Tomlin v. IBM, three former IBM employees brought defamation claims against IBM and five individuals. IBM received an anonymous letter alleging that Ms. Tomlin acted unethically by hiring her brother, Mr. Tomlin. After an investigation, IBM terminated the employees. Plaintiffs claimed that IBM and the individual defendants made the following false and defamatory statements to IBM colleagues: that Ms. Tomlin acted unethically in hiring her brother and that she and Mr. Tomlin and plaintiff Williams conspired to cover up the unethical hiring; that Mr. Tomlin falsely claimed to have certain skills in his job application and did not meet the minimum qualifications for his consulting position; and that Mr. Williams submitted a fraudulent hiring form regarding Mr. Tomlin. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant Ms. Minton-Package told IBM employees that Ms. Tomlin was fired because she had hired her brother and tried to “cover it up.”

Although a plaintiff does not need to plead specifics such as the identity of the speaker and other details surrounding purportedly defamatory statements, the complaint must contain the exact words spoken or written. Tomlin’s complaint, however, merely alleged the general nature of the defamatory statements; only the statements imputed to Ms. Minton-IBM_mouse.jpgPackage contained exact words. The court found that the plaintiffs failed to plead the defamatory statements with sufficient particularity except as to Ms. Minton-Package, and it proceeded to examine publication only as to her.

Workplace defamation suits can result in high damages awards. A former pilot and federal flight deck officer (FFDO), William Hoeper, successfully sued his former employer, Air Wisconsin, for defamation after one of its managers, Patrick Doyle, reported Hoeper to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as a potential threat to airline security. Last month, the Supreme Court of Colorado, applying Virginia law, upheld a $1.4 million jury verdict against Air Wisconsin.

Hoeper had been taking a test to fly a new plane. According to test administrators, Hoeper ended the test abruptly, raised his voice at the administrator, and used profanity. Afterwards, while Hoeper was waiting for his flight home, Doyle called TSA to report that Hoeper may be carrying his government-issued FFDO firearm and that he was concerned about Hoeper’s mental stability because Hoeper had been terminated that day.

When a plaintiff alleges defamation involving a “matter of public concern,” the defendant is entitled to First Amendment free speech protection unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the statement was false and made with actual malice. Actual malice is present if the statement was made by the defendant with (1) knowledge of the statement’s falsity or (2) reckless disregard as to the AW plane.jpgstatement’s falsity. However, even before the plaintiff presents his case, an airline defendant may be able to avoid liability altogether under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which provides immunity from civil suits to “an air carrier who voluntarily discloses any suspicious transaction relevant to certain aircraft security statutes.” If the disclosures are made with actual knowledge or reckless disregard as to the statement’s falsity, however, ATSA immunity is lost and the plaintiff can proceed to demonstrating that a statement was defamatory.

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