Defamation in the Workplace: California lawsuits to protect employees.

Spreading lies or false rumors can be extremely harmful to a person’s career or reputation. False rumors concerning an employee’s competence or honesty can often spread quickly throughout the workplace. These rumors can prevent employees from obtaining employment elsewhere, or they might result in lost promotions, personal stress, or other missed career opportunities.

A lawsuit in California court for workplace defamation can stop people from spreading malicious lies. These lawsuits can also compensate the victims of the false rumors for the harm they have suffered. Claims for defamation can be filed by former or current employees.

Libel vs. Slander: The two main categories of defamation claims in California.

Employee-victims of false statements may have a legal claim for libel or slander. A claim for libel occurs when an employer writes something false about an employee, whereas a claim for slander follows from a false statement that is spoken to another person.

Common Situations Involving Employment Defamation.

Sometimes, employers makes false statements about the reasons for an employee's termination. For example, if an employer says an employee was fired because they were stealing when, in fact, the employee was terminated for a different reason. In these situations, the employer could be liable for slander.

If a previous employer makes a false statement about an employee to a new or prospective employer, there may also be a legal claim for defamation. For example, false statements made in employment references can provide grounds for a defamation claim. In these situations, damages for a defamation lawsuit can be much higher than the damages actually suffered by an employee. So, employers that give false information to a prospective employer may face up to triple damages to compensate the employee if those statements prevented employment.

Additionally, false performance evaluations can support a defamation claim if the employer falsely accuses an employee of dishonesty, incompetence, or other negative personal behavior.

A valid lawsuit requires a specific claim. These claims are called "causes of action." When an employer or supervisor spreads false rumors, the appropriate cause of action for the employee is defamation.

Each cause of action requires specific elements to be met. At trial, the employee bringing the lawsuit will be required to bring evidence that all elements of the cause of action are met. In defamation lawsuits, employees are required to show:

  • False statement of fact. That the person being sued (called the defendant) made a false and unprivileged statement of fact, not opinion, about the employee (called the plaintiff).
  • Publication. That the false statement was communicated to someone else besides the employee. The communication can be either spoken or written. If the statement was spoken, the requirements of slander apply. If the communication is written, the requirements of libel apply.
  • Damage. That damage occurred to the employee’s reputation or occupation. Damaging statements can include:
    • False accusations of criminal conduct.
    • Accusing someone of a lack of integrity or honesty.
    • Falsely claiming someone is incompetent.
    • Making other false statements about someone else’s personal characteristics or behavior.

Defenses against Defamation.

Not every statement is defamatory merely because it is offensive, critical, or disparaging. California law is very specific on what constitutes defamation. Employers have several defenses against alleged defamatory statements:

  • The statement was not defamatory. Often, this means the statement is an opinion, not a fact.
  • The statement was true.
  • The statement was not told to someone other than the employee.
  • The employee’s reputation was not injured by the false statement.
  • The employee permitted or consented to the false statement to be published.
  • The statement is privileged in some manner.

Defamation Remedies.

Aside from stopping an employer continuing to spread lies, an employee who succeeds in their defamation lawsuit can recover several types of damages. In certain cases, an employee may also recover punitive damages, which serve to punish egregious conduct. Punitive damages are often not limited by the damages actually suffered by the employee.

Determine Your Options.

If you think your employer has defamed you in the workplace, give us, Optimum Employment Lawyers, a call to determine your options: (949) 954-8181.

It can be hard to understand why anyone would want to spread lies about someone else. Defamation of your character can be humiliating, embarrassing, or can even cause significant mental distress. Within the workplace, false statements by an employer often cast a dark cloud over an employee’s reputation that might significantly reduce career opportunities.

Unfortunately, a one-year statute of limitations applies to defamation claims. So it's important to consult an employment attorney immediately. Defamation cases can be very complex, and significant investigation is often required to build a legal case. If you think you have been the victim of employment-related slander or libel, call an employee’s rights attorneys to figure out what your next step should be.


References

Civ. Code, §§ 45–46.
Id.
Marshall v Brown (1983) 141 Cal.App.3d 408.
Labor Code, § 1054.
Jensen v. Hewlett Packard Co. (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 958, 964–965.
Taus v. Loftus (2007) 40 Cal.4th 683, 720.
Jensen v. Hewlett Packard Co., supra, 14 Cal.App.4th at p. 964–965.
Jud. Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, No. 1707.
Campanelli v. Regents of Univ. of California (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 572, 581.
Royer v. Steinberg (1979) 90 Cal.App.3d 490, 498.
Civ. Code, § 47, subd. (c); Manguso v. Oceanside Unified School Dist. (1984) 153 Cal.App.3d 574, 580–581.
Code Civ. Proc., § 340, subd. (c).