A Simple Case of Defamation

You don’t see many cases where employees have successfully sued their employers for defamation. But when there is a winner, it’s likely to look like the case of Gambardella v. Apple Health Care, Inc. recently decided by Connecticut Supreme Court.  

Here’s what happened in the case.

Laurie Gambardella worked as an admissions counselor at a health care facility in Watertown, Connecticut which was owned by Apple Health Care.

A woman by the name of Eleanor O’Brien met with Gambardella concerning the admission of her aunt, Fannie Lauro, to the facility.

Fannie was admitted and Eleanor brought some of Fannie’s clothing and furniture with her. Days later, Fannie had a massive heart attack and died.

Eleanor went to the facility to retrieve some of Fannie’s clothing for the funeral.

At  that time, Eleanor  told Laurie Gambardella that she was not interested in any of Fannie’s property, and that Gambardella could do whatever she wanted with it.

In keeping with Eleanor O’Brien’s instructions, Gambardella:

  • decided to keep two chairs for herself
  • gave the nursing supervisor, Colleen Busk,  a dresser after she asked for it
  • told Joseph Stolfi, the maintenance supervisor to use the remaining furniture elsewhere in the facility as needed

Stolfi told the  facility administrator, John Sweeney, what was going on and Sweeney decided to conduct an investigation. Sweeney asked Gambardella questions about the furniture.  She told Sweeney about the instructions she had received from Fannie’s niece, Eleanor O’Brien.

Sweeney told Gambardella that there was a policy against accepting gifts from residents or their families. Upon learning this, Gambardella returned the two chairs.

Sweeney then contacted Eleanor O’Brien to find out if Gambardella was telling the truth. O’Brien confirmed that she did not want any of the property . She also verified that she told Gambardella to keep her aunt’s property and distribute it as she saw fit.

In addition, Eleanor O’Brien wrote a letter to Gambardella in which she stated that the property had been left for Gambardella to keep or distribute to others in her sole discretion. Sweeney received a copy of the letter.

Even though Sweeney had both oral and written proof that Gambardella was given Aunt Fannie’s property, Sweeney decide to fire Gambardella for stealing the two chairs (which had been returned).

To make matters worse, when Sweeney told Gambardella that he was firing her for theft, he did so in front of a co-employee, Kate Sloan,  the director of admissions.

Other co-employees who worked at the facility also learned that  Gambardella was fired and the reason why. Not surprisingly, as things go at work, employees were gossiping about  the incident. According to the opinion in the case:

Other people, including the plaintiff’s daughter, also heard that the plaintiff had been fired for taking furniture. ..

Some heard that the plaintiff was fired for taking furniture from a dead lady.

Gambardella filed a lawsuit against Apple Health Care, Waterbury Extended Care Facility and John Sweeney for defamation.

The law of Connecticut as to the elements of a defamation case is consistent with the law in most of the country. As the opinion states, in a defamation case the plaintiff must prove:

(1) the defendant published a defamatory statement

(2) the defamatory statement identified the plaintiff to a third person

(3) the defamatory statement was published to a third person

(4) the plaintiff’s reputation suffered injury as a result of the statement

As it applies to this case, Gambardella had little trouble proving that:

  • Sweeney communicated a false statement about her when he  fired her for stealing
  • The false statement was communicated to others
  • Being fired for stealing was harmful to her reputation

It’s a simple case of defamation.

What scares employers about this case is that many believe they can say whatever they want about  employees who work for them and not get sued.

The reason is that some types of defamatory remarks have a qualified privilege, and one of those privileges applies to intracorporate communications.

Simply stated, the intracorporate communications privilege protects the free flow of information at work. It makes sense that an employer should not have to worry about being sued for defamation on account of performance evaluations, and other critical information which is typically shared in the workplace.

Privileges, however, may be lost when the statements are made with malice — that is, when a statement is made knowing that it is false or with a reckless disregard for the truth.

The nuances of what constitutes malice in a workplace situation and what the standards of proof are vary somewhat from state to state. In fact, some states have not addressed the issues surrounding intracorporate communications in employee defamation cases at all.

In this case, though, the Court was very clear that there was no privilege which the employer could raise when it falsely accused an employee of stealing. As the opinion states:

Sweeney knew that O’Sullivan intended to give Lauro’s items to the plaintiff to either keep for herself or distribute to to others. ..

It defies all common sense and credulity to say that regardless of the wishes of the O’Sullivan family, the furniture belonged to the facility….

The evidence clearly established that he plaintiff was falsely accused of theft and that the defendants made and published the false statement with actual malice.

With that, the judgment of the trial court judge in favor of Gambardella for the amount of $224,000 was affirmed.

One of my fellow bloggers, Daniel Schwartz, who advises employers wrote a piece about the case in the Connecticut Employment Law Blog which  is worth taking a look at, particularly for it’s discussion of the malice standard under Connecticut law.

While I agree with him that this is an important case for employers to be aware of, I don’t agree that it changes much of the landscape in this area.

From an employees’ lawyer’s perspective, this is just one of those cases where good facts made good law.  The employer falsely accused  the employee of stealing with knowledge that the accusation was not true. The employee was wrongfully fired. To  make matters worse, the false accusation and the discharge was communicated to others with whom the plaintiff associated.

It’s a classic defamation case and exactly what the law of  was intended to protect — a person’s reputation.

It seems pretty ludicrous to suggest that an employer should be able to hide behind some sort of privilege in order to avoid responsibility for this sort of reckless and malicious conduct — and that’s precisely what the Court concluded.

If the decision makes it more likely that employers won’t  falsely accuse  their employees of stealing, then it’s a good thing.

Assuming that most employers would never engage in this kind of shameful conduct,  they really have nothing to worry about.

Image: www.fixcas.com

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