Court of Appeal Holds Statements Regarding Termination Were Not Defamatory "Per Se"

Slander per se means that a false statement is actionable without proof of actual damages. In California, the law defines the types of slander that count as "per se," which include a statement that:

[¶] 1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime; [¶] 2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease; [¶] 3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects which the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits; [¶] 4. Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity . . .

Mike Regalia was a senior executive. When he was fired, the senior management said that he demanded a "finders fee" or "commission" on a sale without a justification, and that people would not work for him and had threatened to leave. He sued for, among other things, defamation. A jury decided he had been slandered and awarded him $750,000 for damage to his reputation without proof of actual economic loss.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. It is the court's job to decide if a statement is slanderous "per se" or if proof of damages is required (called slander per quod). Here's the court's analysis:

A person can make a claim for money that is rejected as not being justified, and still not be viewed as having committed an act that reflects negatively on that person. Thus a statement about such a claim does not necessarily directly injure him in his profession, trade or business (Correia v. Santos, supra, 191 Cal.App.2d at p. 852) so as to fit within subdivision (3) of Civil Code section 46. (See Gang v. Hughes (9th Cir. 1954) 218 F.2d 432 [alleged statements that a plaintiff‟s attorney refused to settle a case until he was paid and that he was paid because he demanded immediate payment not slander or libel per se].) Likewise, the statement that Regalia was fired because other employees would not work for him and would leave if he remained employed does not, on its face, clearly fall within subdivision (3) of Civil Code section 46. That one or more employees do not want to work for someone, without more, again, does not necessarily reflect adversely on the person. The employee or employees might not want to work for a person because of the person‟s work ethic or rectitude, or legitimate business policies.

Managers have the right to explain to employees why they have discharged someone. There are good business reasons to do so, such as to inform employees what performance standards govern employment. If statements such as the above were actionable as slander per se, no employer would ever explain why someone was no longer employed unless it wished to risk liability without proof of damages. Employees, on the other hand, are protected from false statements if they are actually injured. So, the court struck a reasonable balance here it seems to me.

This case, however, reinforces the need to be factual when explaining someone's departure. Had they called the ex-employee a "thief" or an "incompetent" manager, that might have been a different story. And neutral references are still the safest policy.

The case is The Nethercutt Collection v. Regalia and the opinion is here.