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Can you prove malice behind union claims?

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

These days, unions are trying harder than ever to gain new members. And they are using tougher tactics than ever, including targeting nonunion employers with postcard campaigns that urge the public to boycott nonunion products and services. Some of those mailings may be misleading—or flat-out lies.

You could sue for defamation, but that’s an uphill battle that requires showing that the misleading mailing was made maliciously, rather than just carelessly.

Recent case: A group of hospitals sued a labor union, challenging its efforts to drive patients away. The charges included defamation, trade libel and intentional interference with prospective economic relations.

Background: The union had sought to force a nationwide laundry company to employ only union members and to improve working conditions. The campaign was directed at hospitals that used the services of the laundry company. The union mailed postcards to prospective clients of the hospitals, warning them that the hospitals had their laundry cleaned by a company that did not ensure the fresh linen would be free of blood, feces and other harmful pathogens. The union’s postcard campaign had the desired effect; patient counts fell.

In court, the hospitals claimed their internal processes ensured the cleanliness of the linens patients use. The trial court sided with the hospitals.

The union appealed and the California Court of Appeal reversed the decision, ordering a trial. It said it should be up to a jury to decide whether the union acted maliciously when it sent the postcards out. And that requires proof the union was actually aware that the contested postcards were false or that it sent the cards with reckless disregard of whether the information was true or false. (Sutter Health, et al., v. UNITE, No. C054400, California Court of Appeal, 3rd Appellate District, 2010)

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