Defamation laws are also called slander laws or libel laws. They fall under tort law.
Defamation laws or slander and libel laws vary by state. But, generally, to be the legal definition of slander or libel, someone must maliciously or negligently make a negative false statement of fact about a person to a third party that causes harm to the person.
Harm related to the workplace and employment includes causing coworkers not to associate with an employee or causing a former employee to lose a job opportunity.
However, harm doesn't have to actually occur if a false statement of fact is so defamatory in and of itself, that it can't be taken any other way.
In legalese, such statements are called defamation per se. Examples related to the workplace and employment are false accusations of serious criminal misbehavior or sexual misconduct.
Other laws that come into play, are those enacted by many states that allow employers to speak candidly about former employees during employment background checks with immunity from defamation lawsuits.
Generally, if an employer responsibly tells only the employment-related truth about a former employee within the confines of state law, these days it's not likely to be defamation. The truth is an employer's best defense in a defamation lawsuit.
In many states, former employers are protected from liability for disclosing truthful information about job performance and reasons for termination. For example, if a supervisor truthfully tells a background-check agency that she fired the former employee in question for poor job performance, that's not likely to be defamation, especially if the supervisor has witnesses or documentation to back up her claim.
But, if the supervisor in this example maliciously lies about firing the former employee for stealing from the company, that's an intentionally harmful false statement of fact that's likely to amount to defamation.
The malicious act of firing an employee under the guise of a false statement of fact (such as for retaliatory reasons) can be harmful enough to be defamation per se, before the false statement has been communicated to a third party.
But, again, defamation laws vary by state, as do court precedents. Subsequently, it'll take investigation by a lawyer who specializes in the defamation laws of your state, to determine whether or not a statement or act warrants a defamation lawsuit worth pursuing.
If, instead of filing a defamation lawsuit, you simply want your defamer to stop defaming you (such as during background checks), consider asking a lawyer to write a cease-and-desist letter demanding that your defamer immediately stop or else suffer the legal consequences.
A cease-and-desist letter (C & D letter) is often enough to stop a defamer in his or her tracks (at least one who is not criminally insane), as it's a valid legal instrument against libel or slander that may be used as evidence in court. In fact, should you end up suing your defamer, you might have a stronger court case if you first sent a C & D letter to him or her. Consult a lawyer about that.
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