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Judge rules employer's insulting comments were not defamation

The Third District Court of Appeal in California has rejected a man's claim against his employer for defamation and invasion of privacy. The court determined the employee did not have a right to recover against his employer for allegedly defamatory comments made by a company director to a manager after the settlement of the employee's discrimination and sexual harassment claims. The director had apparently called the man a "lying, thieving snake."

The man and another employee had previously sued the employer, claiming that the company's director "subjected them to sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, retaliation, age discrimination and wrongful discharge in violation of federal law."

The discrimination and harassment case was settled in 2006, and by the terms of the settlement the employee recovered $385,000 and agreed to release all claims against the employer. Until the defamation claim, the terms of the agreement were to be kept strictly confidential.

It was around the time of the settlement that the company director allegedly told a manager that the employee was "nothing but a lying, thieving snake" and disclosed to the manager that the employee was a convicted felon who had served time in prison.

A critical fact to the Court of Appeal's analysis was its determination that the company director and the manager were the only people to hear the director's comments, so the defamatory statements were not widely disseminated. The court found this even though the employee claimed that the company director had told at least two other people about the employee's criminal record.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the employer's comments would most reasonably be taken as an opinion, because he was "venting" to another company leader regarding the settlement of the sexual harassment claims. The "snake" comment, the court said, "cannot have been meant as anything but an opinion since it is not possible that [the employee] was literally a snake."

Adding insult to injury, the panel determined the confidentiality provision of the settlement agreement bound only the employee and not the employer. Therefore, the employer's statement about the employee did not constitute a "private fact" that could give rise to a cause of action for invasion of privacy.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, "'Lying, thieving snake' comment not defamatory, court says," Sept. 2, 2011