Can e-mail defame when others are included?

I work in Sales. My supervisors boss sent out an e-mail that contained false accusations regarding my performance and copied in several other employyes of the company. I feel that he is entitled to his opinion, however making them a public matter to other employees in the company has caused damage to my reputation, and also has caused me a great deal of embarassment and lack of confidence which has resulted in difficulties in performing my job. Is this defamation? Should my job performance be a public item for discussion?

1 answer  |  asked May 5, 2003 9:55 PM [EST]  |  applies to New York

Answers (1)

David M. Lira
Defamation Isn't Easy to Prove

Defamation claims are not easy to prove in the United States. In part, this is because of the First Amendment.

In New York, to prove a defamation case you first need to know exactly what was said. Here, you apparently have an advantage because the relevant statements were written as opposed to purely oral. I assume that you have a copy of the e-mail.

But not all statements are defamation. For example, opinions are said not to be defamatory, not matter how untrue or hurtful they might be. To be defamation, a statement generally needs to look like a statement of fact. For example, "George stole $100 from petty cash on Friday," as opposed to "I have problems with George's honesty."

Also critical to whether a statement is actionable defamation is to whom the statement is being made and for what purpose. These issues get to the question of privilege. Simply stated, the law protects certain statements under certain conditions.

For example, if you make a statement which is clearly defamatory in open court, you cannot be held liable for defamation. Testimony is afforded an absolute privilege. That is, there are no exceptions to the protection afforded court testimony.

Here, the statements you are raising were apparently made intra-company, and apparently for a business purpose. Statements like this are usually afforded a qualified privileged. That is, the statement is assumed protected (you can't win a defamation claim based on the statement), but there is an exception.

The statement might lose its protection if you can show that the statement was made with malice, or reckless disregard of the truth. That is a difficult standard to meet because it basically requires you to get into the head of the person making the statement.

Discussions of an employee's performance generally involve opinion, and generally are qualified privileged, so that I doubt that the statements you are worried about are actionable. Although I would agree that it isn't wise to openly discuss an employee performance as if that were like the latest baseball scores, the problems caused by such a discuss have less to do with legal issues and more to do with staff moral.

posted by David M. Lira  |  May 6, 2003 08:43 AM [EST]

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