Defamation, Slander & Libel Explained by a Lawyer

If you are the victim of defamation, slander or libel at work, you’re probably upset right now. Unfortunately, the hurt that comes from the lie isn’t the end of it. Real harm can sometimes come to victims of defamation – like getting fired. Employment lawyers like me hear about this all the time.

The video above details the basics of California law. But this webpage is going to take it one step further. If you are the victim, should you contact a lawyer and file a lawsuit? What could you get?

This article details the legal concept of defamation in the workplace, and includes the unlawful acts of slander and libel. But what do these terms actually mean? This page was designed to discuss some of these questions, as well as discuss how California employment law views defamation in employment situations. If you feel you were defamed by an employer, and are considering a lawsuit, this page might help you in your decision. If you feel that legal action is required in your situation, be sure to contact a good employment attorney to help you chart the best course.

What is Defamation?

Defamation is a general term that encompasses both libel and slander. Simply put, libel is written, and slander is spoken. Both are fancy ways of saying a person lied about you.

When it comes to filing a law suit for defamation, courts look for very specific criteria to be met before ruling in favor of a worker. Here are a couple examples of people who might think they can claim defamation:

  1. John works in a large office where people gossip throughout the day. One particularly chatty person says of John, to anyone who will listen, “That John guy sure is a bastard. He should be fired.”
  2. Ally is a standout employee who always does good work, but when it comes time for her performance reviews, her boss fills his reports with complete lies and misrepresentations of Ally’s performance.

Do either of these examples count as defamation? Unfortunately, not likley in the legal sense of the word.

Legal Definitions

California Civil Code §§ 45 to 47 defines defamation as either slander or libel. Slander is the verbal form of defamation. Libel is written defamation. Here are the legal definitions of each:

Libel

“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 false and unprivileged publication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means, which:

  1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted or punished for crime;

  2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;

  3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects which the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;

  4. Imputes to him impotence or want of chastity; or

  5. Which, by natural consequence, causes actual damage.

Meeting the Legal Definition of Defamation

When a court or judge considers whether an employee has been a victim of slander or libel, there are two key factors that must be met in order for defamation to have occurred. These include statements of fact, and whether the offending oral statement or written material damaged the person’s reputation.

Statements of fact

Consider the previous example of John in the office. A chatty co-worker refers to him as a bastard and says that he should be fired. Such statements, while certainly offensive, and perhaps damaging, do not meet the statement of fact threshold in a defamation case.

Such statements can’t be proven true or false.

On the other hand, imagine an estimator at a company who installs industrial doors on large buildings. This estimator is suddenly fired after years of valuable service when a new manager accuses him of underbidding a job by $10,000. The manager in this case has made a statement of fact, which presumably can be challenged in court if not true. Statements of fact might involve accusations of:

  • accounting errors
  • workplace theft, embezzlement
  • harassment or discrimination
  • factors relating to a worker’s competence

Damaged Reputation

The second factor a court needs to consider in order to determine whether defamation occurred is whether the spoken or written statement affected the person’s reputation. In referring to libel specifically, California Civil Code §45 states that the offending statement:

“exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.”

In referring to slander specifically, California Civil Code §46 states that the offending statement:

“tends to directly injure [the slandered party] in respect to his office, profession, trade or business.”

It’s important to note at this point that even if a worker’s treatment meets the legal definition of defamation, companies can still raise a defense. Continue reading to learn more about qualified privilege.

How the Legal Concept of ‘Privilege’ Factors in to Defense Strategies

Under California law, employers possess what is known as ‘qualified privilege.’ This generally means that employers are allowed to make false or damaging statements about employees as long as two qualifications are met:

  1. The employer communicated the statement without malice.
  2. The statement was made to persons who have a common interest in the subject matter of the communication.

In order to prove malice on the part of your employer, it’s necessary to show that the employer made a false statement with ill-will or even hatred toward you. Or, you might have to show that your employer made the defaming statement (written, or spoken) without reasonable grounds to believe that the statement or publication was true.

In explaining the common interest defense, courts often look to a case (King vs. United Parcel Service)involving a UPS employee who was fired after the company accused him of falsifying time card information. In that case, the employee claimed (among other things) that he had been defamed because UPS management shared details of his firing with other employees. The court summarily dismissed the employee’s defamation claim sighting qualified privilege. According to the court, the company was sharing information with other employees about the penalties for falsification of time records.

It’s important to remember while considering these defenses that every case is different, and most cases are very complex. If you feel you’ve been defamed by an employer, and have questions about your employer’s ability to raise a defense against such a claim, you’ll definitely want to talk to a lawyer about those concerns.

What Can an Employee Win in a Defamation Case?

Every case is different, and some cases are stronger than others. While it’s impossible to predict the outcome of any case, it is possible to discuss the different types of compensation available to workers who win defamation lawsuits. These include:

  • Back pay – Wages denied an employee over a period of time.
  • Lost Wages – Money the employee would have earned had no defamation occurred.
  • Pain and Suffering – Compensation for physical and mental ailments resulting from defamation.
  • Punitive Damages – Compensation designed to punish the company’s behavior and ensure it never happens again.

Have Questions? Contact an Employment Lawyer

If you’ve experienced defamation in the workplace, it could well be worth your time and effort to discuss your case with an employment attorney. Remember, the clock starts ticking once the defamation occurs, and you only have a limited amount of time in which to file your case.

Many employment attorneys, including those in our office, provide free consultations and take cases on a contingency basis. This means the client doesn’t pay out-of-pocket legal fees. Rather, the attorney is paid with proceeds from the settlement or judgment.

If you have questions about workplace defamation, or any other employment-related issue, contact the office of Branigan Robertson to find out how we can help.