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 Group (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.
The Amended Complaint alleges that in January 2010, Schoeneman failed to review a file that Brown had given her in a timely manner. Schoeneman was irritated when Brown took the file back, and she feared the Department of Justice would not renew her contract if Brown complained that Schoeneman could not handle her workload. Schoeneman then allegedly made false reports to superiors, both oral and written, claiming that Brown made sexual advances toward her and engaged in other inappropriate conduct which raised doubts about Brown’s judgment and fitness for duty. The FBI investigated Schoeneman’s claims, and Schoeneman allegedly made additional unsolicited and irrelevant allegations regarding Brown’s psychological health.
Brown’s lawsuit includes separate counts for defamation, defamation per se, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Brown claims that Schoeneman knowingly made defamatory statements and demonstrated a reckless disregard for the truth. In doing so, Brown asserts that Schoeneman willfully and maliciously sought to harm her and that the false statements imputed a lack of fitness to perform her work duties and called her character into question. Brown alleges that, due to Schoeneman’s defamation, her reputation has suffered, and she has experienced a loss of income due to demotion and suspension. She also claims emotional distress including anxiety and depression, and physiological harm such as vomiting, insomnia and chest pain. Brown is asking the court to award her economic damages, non-economic damages, punitive damages, and her fees and costs.