In this state court defamation case, the plaintiff alleges his former employer attacked his reputation by telling its retail construction client, Target, about the reasons for plaintiff's discharge. The employer actually made the defamatory statement one month prior to plaintiff's termination. Does plaintiff have a defamation claim against his former employer?
The case is Winiarski v. John E. Butler, Jr., a First Department ruling issued on December 28. Defamation law in New York is complex. There are numerous moving parts to a defamation claim, with a smorgasbord of defenses that a defamation defendant can assert to make the case go away. It is simply not enough to claim that someone falsely denigrated your reputation. This is partly because defamation is a common-law and not a statutory concept, so that judges have made the rules over the years and also created exceptions to all the rules. This is why the defamation practice treatises are so large and bulky.
The general rule is that you have no defamation case if the statements are "based upon the statements defendants made concerning the reasons for plaintiff’s discharge.” In this case, the statements predated plaintiff's discharge by one month, and they were made to someone outside the corporate structure. Plaintiff argued on appeal that, in speaking with Target, management blamed plaintiff for someone else's misconduct, stating that plaintiff was a "rogue project manager." In fact, plaintiff asserted on appeal, he was a good employee who had done nothing wrong.
My instincts tell me that plaintiff has a legitimate claim. But my instincts are incorrect. The First Department says plaintiff has no claim. Noting that New York generally does not recognize a claim for wrongful discharge (absent evidence of discrimination or an unlawful retaliatory motive), the Court states, "That the statements were allegedly made externally to defendants’ retail construction client, one month before plaintiff was fired, does not undercut the conclusion that they are 'too closely related' to plaintiff’s termination 'to stand as a distinct cause of action.'”