When does ordinary workplace criticism become actionable defamation? While there’s no hard and fast rule, the answer usually lies in the extent to which the criticism involves provably false factual assertions. Expressions of pure opinion are not actionable, so a performance review that merely contains negative assessments of an employee’s performance won’t support a libel suit absent the inclusion of express or implied falsehoods. An accusation that an employee is slow to pay vendors? Not defamatory, because “slow” is relative and means different things to different people. An accusation that the employee is difficult to deal with? Also not defamatory, because calling someone “difficult” doesn’t convey any actual facts about the employee susceptible of being proven false. (How do you define “difficult”?) What about an accusation that the employee played favorites with vendors and paid preferred vendors before paying disfavored vendors? According to a federal judge sitting in Harrisonburg, Virginia, that statement crosses the line into defamatory territory as it can be proven false at trial.
The case of Christine A. Thompson v. Rockingham County presents the following facts. Christine Thompson worked in the Children’s Services Act (CSA) office for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County from 2005 to February 2020. Initially serving as the CSA coordinator and later promoted to CSA manager, her responsibilities included overseeing daily operations, facilitating invoice payments, and supervising employees. Thompson did not have the authority to approve payments to vendors, but she oversaw the generation of purchase orders for approved services and the submission of invoices by vendors. Once submitted, invoices were reviewed and signed by the Department of Social Services before being returned to the CSA office for payment processing. Payments were expected to be issued within 45 days of invoice submission, and adherence to procedural requirements was crucial for vendors to receive payment.