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Telling truth about ex-worker isn’t defamation

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When talking to a former employee’s prospective new employer, are you afraid to provide truthful information or state an opinion? Doing so probably won’t earn you a defamation lawsuit in Minnesota.

Recent case: Helen Fu worked as a nurse practitioner at a health clinic in a Target store. She didn’t get along with her co-workers very well and, at one point, got into a physical fight with one of them. The co-worker was fired.

But Fu claimed she became so concerned the co-worker would come back and harm her, she asked for an escort between the parking lot and the store and a walkie-talkie so she could immediately call for help if attacked.

Meanwhile, Fu got a job at the University of Minnesota, but continued working part time at the Target store. While there one day, she said she began having flashbacks to the fight and complained that her walkie-talkie wasn’t working properly. She quit, alleging post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then she learned that someone had told U of M credentialing authorities that she had gotten into a fight at Target and had been tough to work with. Fu sued, alleging defamation among other claims.

The court tossed out her case. It reasoned that there was nothing false about the statement that Fu had been involved in a fight and that saying she was difficult to work with was simply an opinion. In addition, Fu could produce no evidence that anyone at Target had actually made any defamatory statements to university officials. (Fu v. Owens, et al., No. 08-620, DC MN, 2009)

Advice: Because Fu’s case lacked merit, the employer dodged a bullet here. Despite the outcome of this case, it is usually advisable to avoid providing any negative information about a current or former employee.

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