Mere Suspicion of Negative Job Reference Insufficient to Support Defamation Claim

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.

A court will grant summary judgment where no genuine issues of material fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. If the evidence indicates that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party, a genuine issue of material fact exists and the court will deny the motion. The court views the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, but the disputed facts must be material to an issue necessary for proper resolution, and evidence in support of a jury verdict for the non-moving party must be of sufficient quality and quantity.

The court categorized the statements alleged in the complaint as follows: (1) comments that Hudson made between June and October 2010 regarding Gierbolini’s poor conduct and performance; (2) comments Mattes made in February 2011 to a government representative regarding the reason for Gierbolini’s termination; and (3) a “letter of release” that SAIC allegedly provided to the government around February 2011 that barred Gierbolini from obtaining employment. SAIC also identified allegedly defamatory statements from Gierbolini’s deposition testimony: (1) a 2010 memo from Mattes warning Gierbolini that her conduct violated SAIC’s policy; (2) a 2010 memo notifying Gierbolini of her early termination; and (3) a negative reference that Hudson and Mattes allegedly gave to potential employers at unspecified times.

The court found that the statements allegedly made prior to December 2011 were time barred because, in Virginia, a plaintiff must bring a defamation claim within one year after defendant published the allegedly defamatory statement, and Gierbolini did not bring her action until December 2012. The court rejected Gierbolini’s argument that her filing of an EEOC charge tolled the statute of limitations.

The court held that the remaining statements that Gierbolini relied on to support her defamation claim were based on pure speculation, which is insufficient to support a claim. Gierbolini contended that Hudson and Mattes gave negative phone references to potential employers, but her only evidence of these references was her difficulty obtaining new employment. One potential employer indicated that SAIC never returned its call, but the court found such evidence insufficient to support a jury verdict in Gierbolini’s favor. No reasonable inference of defamation could be drawn from the scant evidence presented. Additionally, Gierbolini was unable to plead the exact words spoken or written, which Virginia law requires. For these reasons, the court granted SAIC’s motion for summary judgment.



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