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Defamation: Defending Damage to Your Professional Reputation

Written by Ronda Higgins Thornton on August 1st, 2009

During consultations, clients frequently ask me whether they can sue their employer for spreading false information and potentially damaging their professional reputation.    Defamation is a rather difficult legal standard to prove.  You must prove that a false statement about you was made to a third party and that the statement harmed your reputation.  Libel and Slander are essentially two types of Defamation.  Libel covers written or published statements and slander covers oral statements.  The problem generally lies in proving harm.  Petty gossip or general feelings that you do not want others to believe the things being said about you are not enough.  You must show actual harm.  An example of actionable harm would be an employee not being able to obtain employment or being blacklisted in their profession as a result of the false statement.  Harm is a presumed in cases where there has been a significant impact on the person’s professional character. 


You must also remember that truth is always a defense to defamation claim.  If there is any truth to the statements or if the facts surrounding the allegations are up for serious debate, you will likely lose the defamation lawsuit.  Oftentimes, the buzz created by filing the defamation lawsuit creates a greater audience for the false statements than before.  So the client is essentially shedding light on the statements.  Defamation suits are generally hard to win and the loss of a defamation lawsuit can further solidify others beliefs that the allegations are true.  Therefore, the decision to pursue such a claims should be made with some consideration of these factors.  But this is not to say that a defamation claim can never be successful against an employer. 


In Noonan v. Staples, an employee was terminated for allegedly falsifying company expense reports.  Following his termination, the company vice-president sent an email to more than 1,500 company employees announcing the employee had been fired and that a investigation had proven the former employee was not in compliance with company travel and expense policies.  The Court of Appeals stated that even if the allegations were true, the employer likely acted with ill intentions by singling the employee out in an effort to humiliate him by name in the email and publishing the email excessively by sending it to more than 1500 individuals, some of who did not travel, and thus, had no reason to be advised of the policy.


For more information, please visit EEO Consultations.


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