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Can I Sue My Employer For Defamation

Written By: Mo Eldessouky Updated On: May 11, 2024 | Read Time: 10 Minutes

Can I Sue My Employer For Defamation

When it comes to defamation, few people are in a more powerful position than your employer. The word your employer is often used to judge a person’s professional work capabilities, performance, and even ethics. Employers engage in performance reviews, have the power to write up employees for misconduct and pass on information that could permanently damage their careers.

So, when an employer relays false and damaging information through any number of channels, the potential harm is profound. One false allegation or malicious rumor can have far-reaching consequences for your career, professional network, and even your personal life. This is why it is important that you are able to sue your employer for defamation.

The employment lawyers of Eldessouky Law can help you navigate this difficult situation, seeking compensation for damages, the clearing of your good name, and minimization of long-term damage to your reputation as a result of your employer’s misdeeds. Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of defamation and how to prove a defamation case against your employer.

What is Defamation?

According to California Civil Code 44-49, defamation is the sharing of false and unprivileged statements presented as facts that are harmful to a person’s reputation or professional life. There are several criteria used to define defamation.

  • The statement was made to a third party unprotected by information privilege.
  • The statement was false, and the speaker knew it was false.
  • The statement was clearly about the plaintiff
  • The statement was made through negligence or malice
  • Damage was caused by the statement, or the statement was known to be damaging by nature.

There are also two categories of defamation with different qualifications of proof. These are Libel and Slander. You mah have heard these terms used in law-themed television, but the definition is not always clearly defined. In order to sue someone for defamation, their statements must fit into the definition of either libel or slander.

Libel

Libel is a false statement shared in writing or print. The statement must be inherently harmful and untrue. The statement must cause a person to experience negative reactions from others including potential contempt, disgust, or shunning. A statement may also be libel if it could damage a person’s occupation – their ability to do their job or the trust required for their professional role.

According to California Civil Code 45, Libel is defined as 

“”False and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.”

Slander

Slander is a spoken false statement made in person, by radio, or mechanical spoken communication. Slander has a far more wide-ranging definition in California Civil Code section 46.

“Slander is a false and unprivileged publication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means”

Paraphrasing, a statement is slanderous if:

  • The statement will cause a known damage to the person
  • It charges a person of committing a crime or the indictment, conviction, or punishment of a crime.
  • The statement accuses a person of being impotent (infertile) or in want of chastity (sexually active and incautious / unfaithful)
  • The statement could injure the person’s profession, including disqualifying them from their role or lessening their profits.
  • Claiming the person has an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease.

How Defamation Occurs in the Workplace: Defamation Examples

In an ideal workplace, everyone stays as close to the truth as possible. In fact, it’s essential for good teamwork, trust, and efficient performance. But doesn’t always work that way. Personal feelings, including grudges, prejudice, retaliation, and covering for a person’s own misconduct, can all lead to situations where defamation can occur.

Work Enemies

The most well-known situations where defamation can occur happen due to simple enmity in the workplace. Maybe two people just don’t like each other, and one decides to spread nasty rumors to get ahead in the social scene. Perhaps one was promoted over the other, and a petty plot of revenge is hatched. Or perhaps

Example: Gwen and Brianne are hired at the same time, and both compete for a promotion. Brianne gets the promotion. Then Gwen begins to tell both coworkers and clients that Brianne slept with upper management to get the position instead of Gwen.

Scapegoats and Cover-Ups

When an employer has done something wrong and believes they are at risk of finding out, they may use an employee as a scapegoat to cover their tracks. Accusing an employee of fraud or other unseemly and potentially illegal behavior, they have conducted intended to throw others off their trail, with the full intent of pushing all potential harm onto the scapegoated employee.

Example: Manager Ted commits theft through record alteration for several years. When Ted fears that the doctored records will be found out, he accuses Frank, an employee on his team, of suspicious behavior and theft instead.

Prejudice and Malice

In some cases, defamation is the result of simple prejudice and bigoted malice. A person who believes that their coworker doesn’t deserve their position must have cheated for their credentials or is simply part of a group that the employer or individual privately hates, false statements designed to tarnish a person’s reputation fit neatly into the portfolio of prejudicial acts.

Example: Harold is bigoted against people of a certain background. When a new person with this background joins his team, he begins telling everyone that his new team member has been stealing in order to get them fired.

Retaliation

Defamation is not uncommon in situations where one person was harmed by the rightful acts of another, and they want revents. Whistleblowers are protected from direct retaliation, such as being fired, demoted, or given unfavorable work. However, many revenge-seeking employers will use defamation instead, seeing it as a hidden form of retaliation.

Example: Theresa mentions that her boss Peter is rarely in the office, and that she handles all his calls. This results in disciplinary action against Peter, who knows it must have been Theresa who “told on him” for absenteeism. Peter begins telling upper management and other members of Theresa’s industry that she is unreliable, never completes her work, and should not be hired by anyone else.

Most Common Examples of Defamation at the Workplace

In California workplaces, common forms of defamation often involve false statements regarding an employee’s performance, honesty, or conduct. These accusations, whether communicated verbally, in writing, or online, can harm an individual’s reputation and career prospects. Defamation may also occur during reference checks or when discussing an employee’s departure, impacting their professional standing. Addressing and preventing such instances requires awareness of legal implications and proactive measures.

In defamation claims, the critical question revolves around whether a statement was made, which another individual subsequently relied upon, ultimately leading to termination and resulting in damages.

“Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.” (Civ. Code, § 45.) There are generally two types of libel recognized in California—libel per se and libel per quod. “A libel which is defamatory of the plaintiff without the necessity of explanatory matter, such as an inducement, innuendo or other extrinsic fact, is said to be a libel on its face. Defamatory language not libelous on its face is not actionable unless the plaintiff alleges and proves that he has suffered special damage as a proximate result thereof.” (§ 45a; see also MacLeod v. Tribune Publishing Co. (1959) 52 Cal.2d 536, 547–548 [343 P.2d 36] (MacLeod).)

As per the ruling in MacLeod, it is only when the libelous meaning of the publication is covert — not apparent on the face of the language used — that averment and proof of special damage is required. Similarly, as stated in DiGiorgio Fruit Corp. v. AFL-CIO (1963) 215 Cal. App. 2d 560, 569, “Defamatory language not libelous on its face is not actionable unless the plaintiff alleges and proves that he has suffered special damage as a proximate result thereof.” Therefore, defamation claims in California hinge on whether the defamatory nature of the language is overtly apparent or covert, with special damages being necessary only in cases where the defamation is not immediately evident from the publication.

If a statement lacks overtly defamatory content and requires additional context to convey its defamatory nature, it falls under the category of defamatory per quod. In such instances, the plaintiff must demonstrate and prove special damages directly resulting from the defamation, as mandated by California Civil Code §48a and affirmed in Bartholomew v. YouTube LLC (2017) 17 Cal. App. 5th 1217, 1226. Special damages encompass tangible economic losses related to property, business, trade, profession, or occupation, as defined under California Civil Code §48a (d)(2). These damages must be proven with reasonable certainty.

What is Privilege in Defamation?

One of the important qualifications for a defamation case is the matter of privilege. A discussion must be ‘unprivileged’ in order to be considerd libelous or slanderous, and therefore, a form of defamation.

According to California Civil Code 47, privilege is determined by the interest of the two parties speaking about the person and the subject matter.

A privileged publication or statement includes

The performance of an official duty

Example: An allegation is being investigated by HR. HR is permitted to discuss the allegation internally without committing slander.

Legislative or judicial proceeding

Example: A person is requested to discuss a matter with a judge as part of an ongoing case.

Fair and true reporting

Example: A newspaper publishes a story from trusted sources.

In addition, privileged discussions may include persons with a common interest, provided the statement was made without malice. A common interest might be managers discussing the alleged conduct of an employee. However, malice negates the defense of common interest privilege.

Determining if the Statement was Fact or Opinion

Another defining factor of a defamation suit is whether the statement was clearly a false statement of fact or considered to be someone’s opinion. Opinion statements are far less likely to cause harm to the person. Everyone has a right to their opinions, no matter how unsavory, and to share those opinions with others. 

Here lies the difference between saying, “Joe is a jerk. He makes me so uncomfortable,” and saying, “Joe has sexually harassed several of the women on his team, including Nina and Yvonne.” One statement is a personal opinion, and the other is a damaging statement put forth as a fact.

Saying “I think” is no solid defense, either. The context of the situation can help define the line between sharing an opinion and spreading harmful, even legally actionable, rumors about another person.

Opinion: “Erin is such a loser. She is so stupid, I just can’t work with her”

Slander: “Erin definitely faked her credentials. I’m pretty sure she didn’t even go to college, and she always copies her work from mine.”

Both statements could be said in the same bad-mouthing session, but one is an opinion, and the other includes harmful statements presented as facts. If false, they are slander, not just a poor opinion of a coworker.

What Damages Can Be Claimed in a Defamation Suit?

Defamation is a civil code violation, so damages are measured in monetary value and expressed in a settlement. However, the amount depends on the circumstances of the defamation and the damage done to the target of the defamatory remarks. Types of defamation damage include

  • Damage to reputation
  • Loss of business, clients, and opportunities
  • Damage to business profits
  • Emotional distress
  • Humiliation
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Loss or damage to employment
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Medical bills for therapy
  • Cost of reputation rehabilitation

Economic Damages

These include impact to a person’s business, clients and customers, earning capacity, lost wages, and medical bills. It also includes damage to a person’s employment status and earning capacity.

economic damages or the potential to cause real personal and economic damage may be required when proving certain types of defamation.

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages include the emotional aspect of damage caused by defamation including loss of reputation, life’s enjoyment, emotional distress, humiliation, and anxiety. These types of damages are often part of a defamation case, but not always included in settlement calculations.

Special Damages

Special damages (lost wages or earning potential) may include concrete repercussions such as being denied job opportunities or the inability to secure employment. While allegations of an inability to secure employment are insufficient to establish special damages, they are sufficient for pleading general damages (emotional distress and pain and suffering). Additionally, various professions may incur recoverable special damages, such as attorneys losing clients or potential clients, doctors experiencing a decline in patients, or individuals facing medical bills due to psychological injuries resulting from defamation.

The rule requiring proof of special damages in defamation cases protects publishers from statements that may seem innocent but become defamatory due to extrinsic facts known to the reader. In defamation law, “inducement” and “innuendo” clarify ambiguous language by explaining its defamatory meaning and the circumstances in which readers understand it that way.

When assessing the adequacy of language in a defamation case, courts consider the natural and popular interpretation of the publication from the perspective of an average reader. Both explicit statements and insinuations carry legal weight, holding the defendant liable. Publications must be evaluated as a whole, including headlines and captions, to grasp their intended impact and the message conveyed to readers.

California Defamation Claims for Employees in a Nutshell:

In California workplaces, defamation often involves false statements about an employee’s performance or conduct, damaging their reputation. Whether spoken, written, or online, these accusations can impact an individual’s career and even occur during reference checks.

Legal action against defamation depends on proving damages caused by false statements, with special damages required when the defamatory nature isn’t immediately obvious. Additionally, courts assess the overall impact of publications on readers, considering both explicit statements and insinuations to hold defendants accountable for defamation.

It’s essential to recognize such situations and seek appropriate legal counsel to protect your rights and interests.

Protect Yourself from Workplace Defamation with Eldessouky Law

Can you sue your employer for defamation? Yes, absolutely. Managers are often the source of defamation in the workplace, or they intentionally allow or even encourage coworkers to slander a member of the team. Whether the motivation is social, personal, or an effort to cover their own wrongdoing, defamation is always harmful, and you can sue for damages regarding the harm it has caused.

Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate the courts, the burden of proof, or the legal strategy on your own. The California employment lawyers of Eldessouky Law are here to support you every step of the way. We are dedicated to both restoring your good reputation and holding the defamer accountable for the harm they inflicted on you with false written or spoken statements.

Contact us today for an initial consultation and we’ll discuss the circumstances. If your employer is tarnishing your reputation or even seeking to ruin your career, don’t lose hope. Suing your employer for defamation is more common and more potentially successful than you might realize.

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