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Public supervisors who report fraud are immune from defamation claims

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Good news for supervisors who work in the public sector: Reporting suspected fraud and workers’ compensation abuse won’t lead to losing a defamation case. Nor will commenting on the possibility that someone is facing criminal charges for fraud.

That’s true even if the employee suspected of wrongdoing is cleared entirely and the accusations were largely unfounded.

Simply put, public-agency supervisors are immune from liability for defamation if they make their comments within the scope of their duties. Thus, there is little danger in reporting reasonable fraud suspicions.

Recent case: Police officer John India was hurt during an on-the-job scuffle. India was also an amateur bodybuilder who regularly lifted weights. His doctor placed him on light-duty restrictions but told him he could continue to lift weights if he lightened the load.

David Cassell supervised India. Cassell grew suspicious when he noticed India coming to work “pumped up” as if he had been lifting weights. He reported his suspicions to the department’s workers’ compensation insurer and placed India under surveillance. Nothing came of the matter, even though Cassell told several people that India was under investigation.

When India found out what Cassell had done, he sued for defamation and won a $50,000 award. Cassell appealed and the Court of Appeals of Florida reversed. It concluded that because Cassell was acting within the scope of his employment when he spoke about his suspicions, he was absolutely immune. (Cassell v. India, et al., No. 4D06-1716, Court of Appeals of Florida, 2007)

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