In Virginia, employers can fire their employees for any reason or no reason at all, subject to certain limited exceptions. Employers aren’t required to articulate a reason for letting go an employee (see Johnston v. William E. Wood & Assocs., 292 Va. 222, 225 (2016)), but they often do anyway. As you might expect, the employees getting fired don’t always agree with the reasons being offered for the termination. A common response of disgruntled employees is to sue their former employer not only for wrongful termination but for defamation as well, theorizing that their reputation was harmed as the result of false accusations made about them. This approach rarely succeeds.
In a ruling from earlier this month, a federal court threw out an employee’s defamation claim based primarily on two concepts: lack of publication, and qualified privilege. Publication refers to the requirement that an actionable statement be transmitted to some third person so as to be heard and understood by such person. Qualified privilege refers to the special protection afforded to defamatory statements made in certain contexts (like the context of a performance review or exit interview).