August 5, 2014
Defamation at Work: Rights and Options for Employees
By Darren Sharp, Senior Attorney, Schaefer Halleen Blog
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 (Minnesota Supreme Court. A11-1154, 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.