Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Can I Sue a Lying Coworker?

I'm answering areader questions today.
Hello Donna,

I was fired last year based on lies a co-worker made to our employer. My former employer is now enforcing a non compete I was forced to sign prior to employment that doesn't allow me to work in my professional field anywhere the company does business, I have had numerous job offers resented due to the non compete. Plus they have stated the process to sue me in federal court without any proof what so ever as there is nothing to prove. I won a transfer to my home state, and am awaiting a court date to dealing with these false charges.

What can I do about the co-worker that lied and caused my termination? Slander suit or civil? I am still unemployed, broke and now facing foreclosure along with mounting stress of all this I have gain 20 pounds, don't sleep very well. Your thoughts on counter suing employer or co-worker?

Thanks Unemployable 
Hi Unemployable. I'm sorry this is happening to you. I get lots of questions about filing defamation (slander/libel) claims against coworkers and supervisors. In general, it's usually not worth the hassle. First of all, your coworker probably isn't wealthy, and even if they are, they may not be collectable. You might get a judgment for a gazillion dollars against them, but so what? If you can't collect, what's the point?

Now, let's talk a bit about slander and libel. You would need to prove a false statement of fact, not opinion. Examples of false statements of fact: "Joe stole $100 from the cash register;" "Jane is a child molester;" "Artie was arrested for embezzlement." Examples of opinion that probably will never be defamation: "Joe didn't fit in;" "We decided to go a different way;" "Artie's performance wasn't up to our high standards." In between, there are lots of shades of gray. Here in Florida, I find the courts absolutely hate defamation cases by employees. You'll want to check with an employment lawyer in your state about your rights if you decide to pursue something against your coworker.

Next, you'll have to prove the statement was "published" to a third party. All this means is it was said to someone besides you. Here's where it gets tricky. A corporation is a "person" for most legal purposes. If a corporation publishes a statement to itself, that's probably not defamation. If a coworker reports something to her boss, HR puts something in your file, or your supervisor announces your discipline to the corporate Board, that's probably not a publication.

You'll also encounter the sticky issue of "privilege." Some statements are going to be covered by an "absolute privilege," meaning that they'll never be defamatory. These can include statements made in a legal proceeding like a deposition, court testimony or an unemployment hearing. Statements made to police are likely privileged. Some privileged statements are under a "qualified privilege," meaning you can overcome the privilege if you show that the statements were made with malice or were published beyond the circle of people who needed to know. Examples of qualified privilege would be statements made to an employer in a sexual harassment investigation and statements made to a government agency as part of an investigation. In some states, job references are somewhat privileged. However, if an employer deliberately gives out false facts about you, that's probably still defamation.

Whether your company will be liable for your coworker's statements will depend on whether those statements were  made within the scope of that person's employment. For instance, if an HR person gave false information to a job reference based on what is in your file, the company may be liable. It's difficult to get courts to hold a company liable for an intentional wrongdoing of one of its employees. Mostly, they'll say it was done for some individual purpose and not a company purpose, so was outside the scope of employment. If the company president or someone who can bind the company by their actions defames you, the company may also be liable.

Since the statements by your coworker cost you a job, you'll certainly be able to prove damages. If you think you have a defamation case, definitely talk to an employment lawyer in your state.

3 comments:

  1. This is a great summary. I gave almost identical advice to a client here in New York this morning.

    Harvey Sanders, Esq.
    Sanders & Sanders
    Buffalo, NY

    ReplyDelete
  2. Can I file if the coworker admits lying about me?

    ReplyDelete
  3. If she wins a gazillion dollars against her co workers, can she garnish their wages?

    ReplyDelete

I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.