This article originally appeared in My Employment Lawyer on November 8, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.
One of the powerful but also somewhat underused claims that employees who are falsely accused of any kind of misconduct at workplace have is a claim for defamation (libel and slander). Proving a defamation claim in court has it’s own unique challenges, but the law imposes significant liability for making false statements that injure one’s professional reputation as it has been recognizing the harm that defamatory language can make to one’s professional career.
One of the great California Supreme Court cases on the issue of defamation in a professional setting is Slaughter v. Friedman 32 Cal.3d 149 (1982). In that case, an oral surgeon brought a libel lawsuit against a private medical insurance company. The surgeon submitted a claim for certain dental services he provided to one of his patients, which was denied and which was accompanied with the letter that was cc’ed to his patients, and stating that the dental work done was “unnecessary” and that the surgeon was “overcharging.”
The Court began its analysis with reiterating the well established principle of the broad reach of the defamation claim: libel includes almost any language which, upon its face, has a natural tendency to injure a person’s reputation.
The defendant insurance company persuasively argued that the term “unnecessary” cannot be consider libel because it’s a statement of opinion and not fact (to be actionable, a defamatory statement must be a statement of “fact.”) The Court disagreed and drew an interesting distinction, holding that although accusations of “unnecessary” work when made by laymen might indeed be mere opinions, similar accusations by professional dental plan administrators carry a ring of authenticity and reasonably might be understood as being based on fact.
This decision is a significant note of caution to professional entities who render and publish their opinions about someone’s qualifications or quality work, as those opinions might be considered by courts as statements of facts because of the professional authority of the source of that publication.
About the Author: Arkady Itkin is a California Employment and Injury Attorney representing employee, small businesses, and injured persons in San Francisco, Sacramento, and surrounding counties in Northern California. He is a member of San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association, California Employment Lawyers Association and the Association of Consumer Attorneys of California. Arkady’s website is www.arkadylaw.com.