Articles Posted in Workplace Defamation

As a general proposition, libel and slander liability requires a defamatory statement of fact; expressions of opinion are not actionable. Distinguishing assertions of fact from expressions of opinion, however, is not always an easy task. Factual statements are generally those that contain—expressly or impliedly—a provably false factual connotation. “Mr. Smith drank ten shots of tequila last night” is a statement of fact; either he drank ten shots or he didn’t. Expressions of opinion, on the other hand, are relative in nature and depend largely upon the speaker’s personal viewpoint. They tend to consist of evaluative statements reflecting the speaker’s own political, moral, or aesthetic views. “I think Mr. Smith drinks more tequila than he really should” would likely be deemed an expression of opinion by most courts. But consider the statement “I think Mr. Smith must be an alcoholic.” Fact or opinion?

Statements that appear at first to be opinions but which could fairly be interpreted as implying the existence of facts not disclosed by the speaker are treated by Virginia courts as opinions “laden with factual content,” which is a sufficient predicate upon which to base a defamation action. (See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Lipscomb, 234 Va. 277, 298 n.8 (1987)). Ultimately, whether a statement of apparent opinion will be deemed sufficiently laden with factual content to support a defamation action will depend on a number of factors that would influence how a reasonable reader or listener would most likely interpret the statement. Considerations include the following:

Most Virginia litigators probably associate the Supreme Court’s decisions in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal with an increased pleading burden in federal court, requiring that lawsuits allege “plausible” claims rather than just remote possibilities. In the limited context of pleading defamation claims, however, the plausibility standard applicable in federal court appears to be making it easier to survive preliminary dismissal motions in federal court than in Virginia state court.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Potter v. Associated Press, in which a federal court allowed a defamation claim to go forward despite the absence of facts sufficient to show defamatory meaning, reasoning that it was plausible the claim was valid. Last month, in the latest example of this phenomenon, the Eastern District of Virginia held that unlike in state court, defamation claims can survive even if they do not allege the exact words used. Why? Because all that is needed to survive a motion to dismiss in federal court is a “short and plain” statement of the claim demonstrating a plausible right to relief. A complaint may be plausible on its face even if it fails to set forth the exact words allegedly used by the defendant.

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Last month, the Supreme Court of Virginia held in Pendleton v. Newsome that where defamatory meaning is not apparent from the face of a statement claimed to be defamatory, a plaintiff may introduce evidence to show that the statement was made in a context that would reasonably cause the statement to be interpreted in a defamatory sense. Allegations that the circumstances surrounding the making and publication of the statement were such as would convey a defamatory meaning, together with an explanation of meaning allegedly conveyed, “will suffice to survive demurrer if the court, in the exercise of its gatekeeping function, deems the alleged meaning to be defamatory.”

This language certainly seems to suggest that a court might properly dismiss a defamation claim if the full context of the statement is not pled in the complaint. In Potter v. Associated Press, however, the Eastern District of Virginia denied a motion to dismiss and allowed a defamation claim to go forward after expressly recognizing that the complaint omitted the full context of the statement and that the context was necessary to determine whether the statement could reasonably be interpreted to have defamatory meaning.
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As a general rule, both the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia enjoy sovereign immunity, which shields the government entities and their agencies from defamation lawsuits as well as most other types of litigation. The law becomes trickier when applied to the employees of those governments. Federal employees are immune from defamation claims based on things they said while acting within the scope of their employment. Those who work for the Commonwealth of Virginia, on the other hand, or one of its counties, cities, or towns, don’t have it so easy. Virginia employees do enjoy some degree of sovereign immunity for their actions, but–with limited exceptions–the protection they are afforded is less than the absolute protection federal employees receive. Like federal employees, state and local employees must be acting within the scope of their employment to be potentially entitled to claim immunity, but state employees need to meet additional criteria before they will be granted immunity.

The Virginia Supreme Court has described sovereign immunity as “a rule of social policy, which protects the state from burdensome interference with the performance of its governmental functions and preserves its control over state funds, property, and instrumentalities.” This rule of social policy is essentially based on the following goals: (1) to protect the “public purse” (i.e., to preserve tax dollars), (2) to address the concern that officials might be unwilling to carry out their public duties if they lived in constant fear of being sued, (3) to encourage citizens to take public jobs, and (4) to permit the orderly administration of government by discouraging improper influence through vexatious litigation. (See Messina v. Burden, 228 Va. 301, 308 (1984)). Consideration of these policies is what guided the Virginia courts to develop a rule affording immunity to some state and local employees but not others.
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Workplace defamation actions face a number of obstacles. The one that probably comes up the most is the issue of qualified privilege. Employees often claim that a manager or supervisor defamed them in the course of a termination or negative performance evaluation. These statements are usually protected from defamation claims, as a limited privilege applies to communications made on any subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest, or with reference to which he has a duty, if made to another person having a corresponding interest or duty. In other words, in situations where it is necessary or expected that one employee will make statements concerning the performance of another (such as a performance evaluation), a qualified privilege will apply.

Another defense that is sometimes raised in the employment context is that of “intra-corporate immunity.” This is a defense borrowed from the law of conspiracy. Because a conspiracy, by definition, requires at least two legally distinct persons, and because two employees acting within the scope of their employment duties are both acting as agents of their employer, a conspiracy cannot be formed between those two employees due to the unity of interest and absence of a second entity. “A corporation cannot conspire with itself,” is the oft-used way of describing the reasoning behind the doctrine.
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As a business owner, you can’t control everything your employees will do or say. What if one of them defames the character of another employee while on the job? Can the business be held responsible? If the employee uttered the defamatory words while performing the employer’s business and acting within the scope of his or her employment, then yes, the employer can be held liable for defamation. How does one determine whether an employee’s statements were made with the “scope of employment”? In Virginia, an act will be considered within the scope of employment if it was (1) expressly or impliedly directed by the employer, or is naturally incident to the business, and (2) performed with the intent to further the employer’s interest, or from some impulse or emotion that was the natural consequence of an attempt to do the employer’s business, and did not arise wholly from some external, independent, and personal motive on the part of the employee to do the act upon his own account. (See Kensington Assocs. v. West, 234 Va. 430, 432 (1987)). If a plaintiff alleges the existence of an employment relationship, it becomes the employer’s burden to prove that the statement was not made within the scope of employment. Absent such proof, the employer is on the hook.

Last week, a defamation case against Bio-Medical Applications of Virginia, Inc. (doing business as Fresenius Medical Care Dominion) was allowed to go forward. The Amended Complaint filed in the case alleges that a Fresenius employee emailed to coworkers various false statements suggesting that the plaintiff (a registered nurse) had a complete disregard for patient welfare. For example, the alleged emails attributed to the plaintiff statements such as “[the patient] just needs a little bleach in his lines” and, in reference to another patient, “all she needs is a good shot of air. That’ll take care of her.” Another email accused the plaintiff of saying, “Well isn’t it about time?” after another patient had died. Fresenius Medical Care filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the complaint failed to plead sufficient facts to hold the employer liable for the statements of its employees, and that the elements of defamation had not been satisfied. The court disagreed on both counts and denied the motion.
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Extortion is a crime. Statements that falsely accuse another of committing a crime often constitute defamation per se in Virginia, particularly where the crime is one involving “moral turpitude.” Does it follow, then, that false accusations of extortion will automatically qualify as defamation per se? The answer, which will undoubtedly surprise many of you, is no. The reason lies in the importance of context in defamation actions.

A good illustration comes from the Tenth Circuit, which issued its decision in Hogan v. Winder a few days ago. Chris Hogan worked as a consultant for the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (“UTOPIA”), a state agency charged with upgrading high-speed Internet access. In the spring of 2011, Hogan began to suspect that UTOPIA’s executive director unfairly favored a bid for a contract from the company where the director’s brother worked, and he expressed his suspicions to UTOPIA’s plant manager. He was terminated shortly thereafter. Believing that his termination was retaliatory, he hired a lawyer and sent UTOPIA a draft complaint along with certain settlement demands, pointing out that the public scrutiny that would result from filing the lawsuit would essentially destroy the company. In a response, UTOPIA’s attorney characterized Hogan’s demands as “extortion” and “blackmail.”
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Defamation claims arise frequently in employment settings. Employees often disagree with their performance reviews and, if they feel particularly aggrieved, resort to the courts to extract a modicum of revenge. Unfortunately for them, statements relating to employee discipline and termination made by managers and supervisors usually enjoy a qualified privilege against defamation claims. The privilege generally insulates such statements from liability absent clear and convincing evidence of malice or some other indicator that the privilege has been abused. When an employer makes a false and defamatory statement about an employee, but that statement is protected by a qualified privilege that has not been lost or abused, the statement is not actionable.

Of course, before the question of privilege even comes into play, there is the matter of whether the statement at issue is defamatory in the first place. In Regina M. Zarrelli v. City of Norfolk, Ms. Zarrelli sued the City of Norfolk, Virginia (her former employer) along with the City’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Gregory D. Underwood, based in part on being required to apologize to a vendor. It didn’t work, and the case was dismissed both because the statements were not defamatory, and because even if they were, they were protected by qualified privilege.
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In most (but not all) cases, absolute immunity applies to statements made by government contractors to government investigators in the course of an official investigation. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently addressed this issue in Kolakowski v. Lynch and found that statements made to the FBI in the course of an employment background check could not form the basis of a defamation action.

Daniel Kolakowski filed an employment discrimination charge with the EEOC against his former employer, MITRE Corporation, alleging he had been harassed because of his Polish ancestry. Kolakowski and MITRE eventually signed a mediation agreement resolving the dispute. Under the agreement, MITRE agreed to not discriminate or retaliate against Kolakowski for filing the charge.

When Kolakowski later applied for a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he signed a form authorizing the FBI to investigate his background and allowing former employers to release information about him. The FBI interviewed three of Kolakowski’s former supervisors at MITRE. The three employees allegedly told the FBI that FBI seal.jpgKolakowski took excessive days off work, exaggerated how much worked, lied about his wife having cancer, and was generally untruthful. When the FBI did not hire Kolakowski, he sued MITRE and the three supervisors for breach of contract and defamation. The defendants removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Sometimes the context in which a statement is made provides the speaker with a qualified privilege against defamation claims. A qualified privilege generally attaches to communications between persons on a subject in which the persons share an interest or duty. If such a privilege applies, the speaker will not be liable for slander unless the plaintiff can show by “clear and convincing” proof that the privilege has been lost or abused. In a published opinion released yesterday by the Supreme Court of Virginia, the court reversed its prior decisions mandating that the speaker have acted in good faith as a prerequisite to the privilege attaching, and clarified the situations in which the privilege can be lost or abused.

The case involved a dispute between Dr. Robert Smith, a trauma surgeon, and Dr. Bradley Cashion, an anesthesiologist. In November of 2009, the two were part of an emergency operating team providing care to a critically injured patient. The patient did not survive the procedure, and Dr. Smith blamed Dr. Cashion. In the presence of other members of the operating team, Dr. Smith claimed the patient “could have made it with better resuscitation” and directly accused Dr. Cashion of purposefully failing to resuscitate him. “You just euthanized my patient,” he allegedly told Dr. Cashion.

The trial court sustained Dr. Smith’s demurrer to the statements that the patient “could have made it with better resuscitation” and “[y]ou determined from the beginning that he wasn’t going to make it and purposefully didn’t resuscitate him,” finding them both to be non-actionable expressions of opinion. The Virginia Supreme Court disagreed, finding that both statements attributed the patient’s death to Dr. Cashion’s action or inaction, which it found to be an allegation of fact capable of being proven true or false. The latter statement was held to be the equivalent of the “you just euthanized my patient” statement, which the trial court correctly found to be a surgery.jpgstatement of fact. (Note: Justice McClanahan, however, found the euthanasia references to be mere rhetorical hyperbole, and wrote a detailed dissenting opinion explaining why she would find the statements not actionable).

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