With the recent $1.845 million verdict in Jesse Ventura’s defamation case, it is important for employees to understand the contours of defamation law in the workplace. Employees should know both what to avoid doing and what rights they have if false statements are made about them.
What should be avoided? The simple answer: avoid making false statements about others. To prevail on a defamation claim in Minnesota, a plaintiff must prove that the alleged defamatory statement (1) was communicated to someone other than the plaintiff, (2) was false, and (3) tended to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and lower [the plaintiff] in the estimation of the community. Bahr v. Boise Cascade Corp. (Minn. 2009). On the other hand, “true statements, however disparaging, are not actionable.” McKee v. Laurion (Minn. 2013).
Often, however, defamation issues in the workplace are more complicated. For example, in Mudrich v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (D. Minn. 2013), Mr. Mudrich sued his employer, Wal-Mart, alleging that it had falsely accused him of theft while it investigated whether he had improperly provided free tire rotations to customers. Interestingly, no Wal-Mart manager ever came out and directly called Mr. Mudrich a “thief.” Regardless, the court held that even implying, falsely, that Mr. Mudrich was a thief would be enough for a defamation claim. While Wal-Mart argued that its statements were true and thus could not be defamatory, the court reiterated the long-held principle that that the veracity of an alleged defamatory statement is determined by a jury, not by the judge before trial. Thus, simply defending against allegations of defamation can be costly.
What rights do employees have if they are defamed at work? Defamatory statements in the workplace are actionable like any other defamation. Unlike defamation in other contexts, however, employers can be shielded from liability if their statements were made “in good faith and . . . upon a proper occasion, from a proper motive, and . . . based upon reasonable or probable cause.” Bol v. Cole (Minn. 1997). Furthermore, minor factual inaccuracies do not make statements defamatory, as long as the statements were essentially true in substance.
When defamation issues arise in the employment context, they often occur near the end of employment or after an employee’s departure. We frequently advise individuals at either stage. An employee must figure out whether to call attention to the false statements, whether to continue working for the employer, and/or whether to challenge the defamatory statements through litigation or some form of private negotiations with the employer. False statements about former employees can unnecessarily harm their connections with former co-workers and preclude otherwise qualified candidates from obtaining meaningful replacement work. Such false statements are also actionable defamation.
Given that defamation in the workplace can affect an individual’s current and future livelihood, it is important to handle these issues with great care. If you have been subjected to defamatory statements at work or improperly accused of making such statements by your employer and you would like additional information about your legal options, please contact us. We would be more than happy to review the situation.