Articles Posted in Workplace Defamation

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.

A former bank teller’s defamation and wrongful termination action against Wells Fargo, filed in the Western District of Virginia, has been decided in Wells Fargo’s favor. Judge Samuel G. Wilson granted the bank’s motion for summary judgment due to the failure of the teller to make a coherent, factual showing that the bank was at fault, or that the alleged defamatory statements were false.

The teller, Adrienne Sewell, was terminated for violating the bank’s policies and procedures. Wells Fargo rules limited the amount of cash tellers could retain in their cash drawers. To stay below the maximum, sellers would “sell” cash to a second teller, record the transaction electronically then deliver the cash in person. On several occasions, teller Adrienne Sewell and others failed to physically move the cash, thereby misstating their balance sheets and having too much cash in their bank drawers. At the end of the day, they would “buy back” the cash, thereby righting the balances, but the practice violated bank rules. The bank investigated her activities, gathered documents, and obtained admissions from Sewell and others that they had violated bank policy and procedure.

Sewell sued Wells Fargo for defamation, breach of contract, and wrongful termination. She argued the bank defamed her by telling others she had falsified documents and had violated bank procedures.

Defamation claims arise frequently in the employment context. Your boss and your co-workers are subject to the same libel and slander laws that apply outside the workplace, and they need to be careful not to exceed the boundaries of fair criticism. The employment relationship, however, does present special challenges to a contemplated defamation lawsuit. As any good defamation lawyer will tell you, a primary obstacle in establishing defamation liability in the employment context is the existence of qualified privilege.

Workplace defamation suits often involve statements made during performance evaluations, tenure review, or employee terminations. These statements will often be deemed privileged, as a limited privilege applies to communications made in good faith 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. Performance evaluations, tenure reviews, and employee terminations all typically involve situations where it is necessary or expected to make statements about another individual that could potentially affect another’s professional standing or reputation.

The protection offered by qualified privilege can be lost, however, if it is abused. If statements are made to a third party having no business hearing the information, they lack the requisite “corresponding interest or duty” and the privilege may be lost. Similarly, the qualified “interest or duty” privilege can be defeated if the plaintiff shows the defamatory statements were made with malice.

Judge Jane Marum Roush of the Fairfax Circuit Court has allowed Dr. Adel Kebaish to amend his complaint against Inova Fairfax Hospital to include four additional statements claimed to be defamatory. Judge Roush had previously found the alleged statements non-actionable but was persuaded by the plaintiff’s attorneys to partially reconsider her earlier ruling.

Dr. Kebaish was an orthopedic and spine trauma surgeon at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Dr. Kebaish claims that Inova and several of its doctors and physician assistants defamed him and that Inova terminated him for objecting to substandard care and fraudulent billing practices. He filed a complaint against Inova, one of its administrators and ten of its doctors and physician assistants alleging causes of action for defamation per se as well as other business torts. The defendants demurred on various grounds.

The court reviewed each of the allegedly defamatory statements in the complaint and agreed with Inova that most of the statements were either statements of opinion, not actionable as defamation, or made by persons who were not named as defendants. To successfully state a claim for defamation in Virginia, a plaintiff must show that the ER.jpgdefendant published a false factual statement that harms the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s reputation. Expressions of opinion are constitutionally protected and are not actionable as defamation.

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.

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