No malice was involved when a company sent an e-mail saying an employee was fired for allegedly padding his expense reports, a jury has concluded in a closely watched case because of the First Amendment issue it raised.
The case of Alan S. Noonan v. Staples Inc. went to a federal district court jury after a February 13 ruling by the 1st U.S. District Court of Appeals in the case held that truth is not an absolute defense against libel.
At issue was an e-mail sent by a vice president of the Framingham, Massachusetts-based office supply company to some 1,500 company employees stating Noonan was fired for failing to comply with company travel and expense policies.
Noonan did not “seriously challenge” the e-mail’s truthfulness, according to the appeals court.
In its ruling, the appeals court said a jury could infer that the VP “singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him.” Citing a 1902 Massachusetts law, the court said, “Even a true statement can form the basis of a libel action if the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with ‘actual malice.’ ”
The case went before a federal court jury in Boston, which decided October 8 that no malice was involved in sending the e-mail.
Noonan’s attorney, Richard Gelb of Gelb & Gelb in Boston, said he plans to appeal the jury’s decision on the basis that the judge’s jury instructions on the issue of malice were too narrow.