Articles Posted in Workplace Defamation

Having trouble finding a new job? That doesn’t necessarily mean that your former employer is spreading defamatory disinformation about you. Any defamation claim you might file against your former employer in federal court is going to be dismissed unless you can both identify exactly what was said about you, and produce evidence of those statements sufficient to support a jury verdict in your favor. On October 8, 2013, the Eastern District of Virginia granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in Gierbolini v. SAIC, illustrating these principles.

Catherine Gierbolini was working for Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) as a Personnel Coordinator in Kuwait under the supervision of Raymond Mattes and alongside subordinate Heather Hudson when her poor relationship with Hudson eventually led to her termination. Gierbolini accused Hudson of disobeying orders and reporting false claims of misconduct to management. Gierbolini and Hudson frequently bickered, and each submitted complaints about the other to Mattes who issued them both a written reprimand for unprofessional conduct. Mattes eventually gave Gierbolini a written memo terminating her employment.

Gierbolini was unable to secure employment after her termination and suspected that SAIC issued a “letter of release” – a document that the military uses to bar personnel from returning to an active theater of war. She also surmised that Mattes and Hudson gave poor references to potential employers. Gierbolini sued SAIC for defamation and other claims. SAIC moved for summary judgment on the defamation claim, arguing that it was time-barred and that Gierbolini had failed to produce sufficient evidence of the statements claimed to be defamatory.

Where an otherwise defamatory statement is subject to a qualified privilege, a plaintiff can overcome that privilege by showing that the defendant acted with actual malice. However, “actual malice” in the context of a defamation action–also known as “New York Times malice,” is a different concept than the common-law malice ordinarily required to support an award of punitive damages. Actual malice does not require evil intent, spite, or ill will. A speaker acts with actual malice when he knows that his statement is false or acts with reckless disregard as to its truth. Mere dislike of the plaintiff is not sufficient to indicate a speaker acted with actual malice.

The standard for whether a defendant has uttered a defamatory statement with actual malice is a subjective one. In a lawsuit against a newspaper, for example, the plaintiff would not necessarily prevail merely by showing that the publisher failed to conduct a sufficient factual investigation or that a “reasonably prudent” publisher would not have published the story. Reckless disregard for the truth requires more than just a departure from professional journalistic standards. (See Harte-Hanks Commc’ns, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657, 666 (1989)). Rather, the court must get into the mind of the publisher and determine its state of mind at the time of publication. Reckless disregard for truth requires a high degree of awareness of probable falsity, such as when a publisher entertains “serious doubts as to the truth of his publication” but publishes the story anyway. (See St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731 (1968)).

The distinction between actual malice and common-law malice was explained last month in the Texas case of Tyson v. Austin Eating Disorders Partners, LLC. Edward Tyson worked for Austin Eating Disorders Partners (AED) as medical director of AED’s Austin eating disorder treatment center. After Tyson was removed from his position, he asked his accountant to inquire about AED’s improved financials. Mark McCallum, CFO of AED, responded to the inquiry with an email to Tyson, AED’s Board of Directors, AED’s attorney, and AED’s accountant stating that AED’s financials had improved because Tyson had been a bad medical director who had no idea how to run the treatment center and took kickbacks for referring patients to other facilities. In a Second Amended Complaint asserting various defamation theories, Tyson conceded that McCallum’s email was subject to a qualified privilege, but argued that he overcame the privilege by alleging that McCallum acted with actual malice. AED and McCallum moved to dismiss the claim.

Applying Virginia law, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a $1.4 million jury verdict against Air Wisconsin back in March of 2012, finding it was responsible for slander of a former pilot and not entitled to immunity. On June 17, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the question of whether a court can deny the immunity provided by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) without a prior determination that the air carrier’s statements to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were materially false.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Congress passed the ATSA in order to encourage the reporting of security concerns. The ATSA requires airlines and their employees to report potential security threats to the TSA. Reporting parties are given broad immunity and may only be liable for reports made with actual knowledge that the report was false, inaccurate, or misleading, or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the report. Because failure to report can result in civil penalties, shorthand for the policy has become known as “when in doubt, report.”

William Hoeper was a pilot for Air Wisconsin Airlines. Hoeper apparently had failed three proficiency exams and abandoned his fourth attempt. Approximately ninety minutes into the test, Air Wisconsin contends that Hoeper ran the simulator out of fuel, flamed out the engines, and nearly crashed. According to Air Wisconsin, Hoeper knew he would be terminated and was acting irrationally, yelling and cursing at his instructors. Hoeper’s version of the SCT.jpgstory is that Air Wisconsin was conducting the simulator test unfairly, and a personal dispute was escalated into a matter of national security.

I previously reported on the Stafford County case of Suzanne Brown v. Katherine Schoeneman in which Brown, an FBI agent, brought a defamation action against Schoeneman for allegedly false reports Schoeneman made to superiors accusing Brown of making sexual advances toward her. The Government removed the case to federal court, substituted itself as the defendant under the Westfall Act, and moved to dismiss under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The court granted the motion as the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity expressly excludes claims for libel and slander. See 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h).

The Westfall Act (aka the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988) amended the Federal Tort Claims Act to make it the exclusive remedy for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment. It precludes federal employees from being sued for claims arising under state tort law (such as slander or intentional infliction of emotional distress) if they were acting within the scope of their employment. See 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b)(1). If the FTCA precludes recovery against the United States, then the plaintiff may be left without a remedy, as this case demonstrates.

Upon consideration of the Government’s motion to dismiss, the only issue before the court was whether the allegedly defamatory acts fell within the scope of Ms. Schoeneman’s employment. The plaintiff did not dispute that if the conduct was committed within the scope of employment, substitution of the United States as the defendant and removal to federal court was appropriate.

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.

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.

In theory at least, when a government agency defames an individual, the defamation may be characterized as a violation of civil rights: a deprivation of “liberty” without due process of law. The United States Supreme Court, however, has held that an ordinary state-law defamation claim against the government will usually not be sufficient to state a civil rights claim. Under the “stigma plus” or “reputation-plus” test, a plaintiff must prove some loss beyond loss of reputation, such as the loss of a job. A recent New York case demonstrates how difficult it can be to maintain such an action.

Michael Jones, Jr., was Canandaigua, New York’s Planning Board Attorney in 2008. Per agreement, he billed at two rates, depending on the circumstances. The Town Board approved his billing statements until August when members of the Town Board challenged the billing. The Town Board investigated and published a report accusing Jones of ethical violations. It referred the matter to the District Attorney and took steps to get him fired, get him to resign, or prevent his contract from being renewed. He completed his contractual term but did not seek renewal, believing doing so would be futile.

Claiming the extensive press coverage hurt his legal practice, Jones sued the Town, the majority Town Board members, and the Town Board attorneys for several state law actions, including defamation. In his federal actions, he claimed the Town violated his right to substantive due process and his civil rights, denying him a property right plus.pngof continued service as Planning Board Attorney and defaming him so badly that the stigma has substantially harmed his ability to practice law.

Statements made in the course of litigation by parties to the case are absolutely privileged and cannot form the basis of a defamation action. At the same time, reporters enjoy a “fair report” privilege that allows them to report and comment on judicial proceedings without fear of defamation liability, even if they repeat the allegedly defamatory statements in their coverage of the case, provided the report is a fair and accurate description of the case. Does it follow, then, that a litigant can make defamatory comments to a reporter during the course of a case? Most courts would answer that in the negative, since the reporter is not involved in the case. But if that litigant is speaking about an issue of public interest, such as the operation of the District’s financial office, his comments may be protected by D.C.’s anti-SLAPP act.

Eric Payne, former contracting director for the District of Columbia, sued D.C.’s Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, for wrongful termination. In an interview with The Washington Post, Gandhi claimed that he fired Payne because he was “a very poor manager,” “nasty to people,” and “rude to outsiders.” Payne then sued Gandhi and the District of Columbia alleging that these remarks defamed him. The city has indicated that it plans to file a special motion to dismiss the case under the city’s anti-SLAPP statute.

A “SLAPP” (or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) can exist in many forms but traditionally consists of a frivolous lawsuit filed by one side of a public debate against someone who has exercised the right of free speech NatG.jpgto express an opposing viewpoint. The anti-SLAPP statute was enacted primarily to protect citizen activists from these lawsuits filed for intimidation purposes, but can be applied in any situation where the lawsuit threatens the right of advocacy on issues of public interest.

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.

Contact Us
Virginia: (703) 722-0588
Washington, D.C.: (202) 449-8555
Contact Information