When a former employee sues and you think the lawsuit is frivolous, resist the temptation to belittle or punish the employee by discussing the case. Small talk can mean a big payday for a former employee who finds out and files a defamation lawsuit. What’s more, you could be personally liable if a jury finds you acted vengefully or with ill will.
The best advice: Don’t discuss pending lawsuits. If you say nothing, you can’t be accused of slander.
Recent case: Deborah Lynch lost her job with the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation when it moved its operations from Ohio to North Carolina. Several younger employees were allowed to relocate, and Lynch filed a state age discrimination lawsuit.
When word got back to Lynch that her former supervisors told the American Kennel Association (AKA) about the lawsuit, she wondered whether those conversations were the reason she was turned down for a seat as an AKA delegate. A jury agreed that the supervisors had wrongly bad-mouthed Lynch and awarded her punitive damages of almost $700,000.
The Court of Appeals of Ohio upheld the award, concluding that Lynch had shown that her former supervisors acted with “hatred, ill will or in the spirit of revenge” when they tried to keep Lynch from becoming an AKA delegate. (Lynch v. Studebaker, et al., No. 88117, Court of Appeals of Ohio, 2007)
Final note: Instruct everyone: Don’t discuss litigation. Limit communication about cases to those who have a need to know.
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