DEFAMATION

A longstanding staple of California’s Civil Code is the prohibition against defamation. Although the statutory and case law surrounding defamation is many and complex, the basic premise of defamation law is that it is unlawful for one to injure the reputation of another through publication of false statements, either orally (e.g., slander) or in writing (e.g., libel).

In McCoy v. Hearst Corporation, the California Supreme Court addressed the importance of this principle head on, stating:

“Good character, or reputation, consists of the general opinion of people respecting one. It is built up by a lifetime of conduct. It is probably the dearest possession that a man has, and once lost is almost impossible to regain. The possession of a good reputation is conducive to happiness in life and contentment. The loss of it . . . brings shame, misery, and heartache.”

The damaging effects of defamation are illustrated best by a previous case. In 2007, a former bookkeeper of a statewide organization was fired after she discovered and reported that the director of the organization had misappropriated funds.

A flurry of organizational in-fighting ensued between two factions in the company — one who wanted the director out and the other who wanted him in. The Board of Directors initially fired the director only to have its decision reversed pursuant to protests by the company’s members. Our client was caught in the middle of this crossfire and immediately became the object of the director’s scorn.

Upon reinstatement, the director fabricated performance criticisms against our client, terminated her based on those trumped-up charges, and then mailed the termination letter to everyone in the company, thereby attempting to undermine her professional competence. He also called an organization-wide town hall meeting to deny the charges made against him. The circumstances of the termination were again brought up at this meeting.

This news had a devastating impact on our client. She avoided public places and isolated herself in her home for several months out of fear that she would be ridiculed by those who heard of her termination. Despite a hard-fought litigation, the parties were able to resolve the matter at mediation to our client’s satisfaction. She has since undertaken part-time work and is enjoying time with her family. The director ultimately resigned from the company during the pendency of the case.

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