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Memo to managers: Don’t embellish reason why employee was terminated

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in Firing,Human Resources

Tell managers and supervisors: They must not embellish the reasons for discharging an employee. If they do, they risk the potential for a defamation lawsuit.

That may be true even if the former employee is compelled to repeat the allegedly false information. Ordinarily, defamation requires a “publication”—by speech or in writing—of a false statement to a third party. An employee recently tried to argue that her own mention of her firing might count as publication.

Recent case:
Leah Dible worked for the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, where she was assigned as a psychiatric counselor. When one of the inmates Dible was counseling used a prison bedsheet to hang himself, Dible was fired.

She claims her supervisor told her she was being discharged because she had failed to follow clinic rules prohibiting an inmate on suicide watch from having access to sheets.

Dible sued, alleging that the supervisor’s statement that she was negligent by not following the rules was false—and that she might have to tell a potential employer this “false” accusation. In other words, she claimed that she would in effect end up having to “publish” the false statements.

The court dismissed the case because Dible had not yet had to make such a statement. Because she was the only one who heard the statement, she couldn’t sue for defamation. But the court also said it would have been a different matter if Dible had already had to tell a potential employer. (Dible v. Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, No. A12043393, Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate Division, 2009)

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