Employment Defamation Lawsuits
Ideally, every employment relationship would end cordially and professionally, with both sides wishing one another well. Unfortunately, that is not how things always work in the real world. Employees can be fired for personal reasons, employers can take an employee’s resignation personally, and any number of other confounding factors can make the parting anything but congenial. When a former employer succumbs to that personal grudge and spreads lies about a former employee, the employee may have grounds to sue for defamation. Read on to learn about employment defamation lawsuits and how they work in California.
What is an Employment Defamation Claim?
Defamation is a legal term that applies when one person or party makes an intentionally false statement about another person, and that statement causes the second person harm. When the statement is spoken out loud, it’s known as slander; when the statement is written, it’s known as libel.
Employment defamation is a civil claim for defamation arising out of an employment relationship. Employment defamation claims often arise after the employment relationship ends and the employer spreads falsehoods about the employee. For example, let’s say a former employee is interviewing for a new job and the potential new company calls the old employer for a reference. The old employer makes up a malicious lie about the former employee, which causes the worker to lose out on their new job opportunity. The former employee might then have a defamation claim against their former employer. If the malicious statement was made over the phone, the victim employee’s claim would be slander; if the malicious statement was sent in writing via email or traditional mail (or published in a newspaper or online), the claim would be libel.
How to Prove Defamation
To bring a valid claim for employment defamation, the plaintiff must be able to demonstrate that specific elements of the claim are met. For a defamation claim in California, the victim employee must be able to show:
- There was a false statement of fact. To serve as grounds for a defamation claim, the defendant must have made a false statement of fact. That means that the statement must have been one of fact, that can be proven true or false (e.g., “He stole money from the company.”), as opposed to a statement of opinion (e.g., “He’s a jerk and I never liked him.”). The plaintiff must also show, naturally, that the statement was false. You can’t prove defamation if the statement was true.
- The statement was “published.” A statement is not defamation if the only person who heard or read it was the aggrieved employee. Someone else must have heard or seen the statement and been affected by it.
- Damage to the employee’s reputation. The false statement must have damaged the employee’s reputation or occupation. California law includes slightly different requirements for slander and libel, but they generally boil down to showing that the statements harmed the employee’s personal or professional reputation. Statements that courts agree amount to defamation include false accusations of criminal conduct, accusing someone of being incompetent, or accusing someone of being dishonest or lacking integrity.
There are a number of defenses available to the defendant employer. The employer may be able to counter that the statement was true, that it was a matter of opinion, that it was not told to anyone other than the employee, that it did not actually injure the employee (for example, if the audience of the statement simply didn’t believe it and disregarded it), or that the employee consented to the false statement being published.
What Remedies Are Available in an Employment Defamation Case?
A successful plaintiff could have a few remedies available to them, including forcing the former employer to retract the statement. They may also be eligible for damages well in excess of the actual harm caused by the statement, including punitive damages for especially egregious conduct.
If you are an employee with wage & hour or other employee rights concerns in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, or San Diego counties, or if you are a California employer dealing with employee rights allegations, employee contract disputes, or other employment law issues, contact the dedicated and professional California employment law attorneys at Coast Employment Law at 714-551-9930 for a free consultation.