Getting fired or laid off is hard enough without your boss trashing your reputation to your co-workers. I receive many calls from prospective clients interested in pursuing their former employer for defamation. Virginia employers, however, have a lot of leeway in what they can say about an employee being considered for termination before they will be liable for slander or libel. Virginia recognizes a qualified privilege against defamation claims where statements by an employer are made in connection with discharging that employee. To overcome that privilege, a plaintiff must prove common law malice by clear and convincing evidence.
Consider the recent Hanover County case of Koegler v. Green, decided on September 1, 2009. Carl Koegler sued his former employer, the Richmond-East Moose Lodge, as well as several of his former co-workers and employers, for defamation. The defendants demurred (i.e., moved to dismiss the case), citing the qualified privilege, and the court agreed with them and dismissed the case. The court emphasized that defamation claims against employers in Virginia will not be permitted to go forward absent strong evidence of malice.
The facts, according to the allegations in the complaint, were as follows: Mr. Koegler was employed by the Lodge in various positions over the years. An audit conducted by the international parent company resulted in Mr. Koegler’s termination in 2008. Some of his former coworkers and managers talked to other employees about the firing. The acting Governor of the Lodge, for example, held a staff meeting and discussed what had been said in board meetings about Mr. Koegler and that Mr. Koegler had been suspended for stealing money. Another officer of the Lodge sent emails describing Mr Koegler as having “questionable character.” Mr. Koegler sued for defamation and harm to his reputation.
The court held that, to state a claim for defamation, the plaintiff would have to allege sufficient facts to enable a reasonable jury to find clear and convincing evidence of “common law malice,” defined as “some sinister or corrupt motive such as hatred, revenge, personal spite, ill will, or desire to injure the plaintiff; or what, as a matter of law is equivalent to malice, that the communication was made with such gross indifference and recklessness as to amount to a wanton or willful disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.” In the end, the court concluded that Mr. Kroegler had not presented a case sufficient to enable a reasonably jury to find clear and convincing evidence of malice, and dismissed the case.