An employer who “closes his eyes to the facts” regarding false accusations of theft cannot avoid a defamation charge, says the Connecticut Supreme Court in a decision released Wednesday, May 13.
According to the decision in Laurie Gambardella v. Apple Health Care Inc., Gambardella was an admissions counselor at the Waterbury Extended Care Facility, which is operated by Avon, Connecticut-based Apple.
Gambardella was told by the niece of a patient who died shortly after admission to the facility that she could take whatever she wanted of the deceased’s personal property. However, even though an investigation confirmed Gambardella had received permission to take the two chairs she selected, she was terminated for theft, according to the decision.
Apple’s director of admissions and marketing was present at the termination, the opinion said. In addition, others, including the plaintiff’s daughter, heard she had been fired for “taking furniture from a dead lady,” according to the opinion.
Gambardella filed a defamation action, charging Apple, the care facility and the facility’s administration with communicating false accusations of theft to others in connection with their termination of her employment.
The defendants claim the trial court “improperly determined that the qualified privilege for intra-corporate communications had been abused and therefore lost,” the decision says.
A qualified privilege protects a party if they have made an honest mistake.
The Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision says, however, that it is “clear that the settled law in Connecticut is that a showing of either actual malice or malice in fact will defeat a defense of qualified privilege in the context of employment decisions.”
Evidence in this case indicates “there simply was no basis for a belief that the plaintiff had stolen property from the facility,” said the unanimous three-judge panel’s decision, which affirmed the trial court’s ruling.
“It is axiomatic that a defendant who closes his eyes to the facts before him cannot insulate himself from a defamation charge merely by claiming that he believed his unlikely statement. We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding of actual malice.”
Margaret M. Doherty, counsel at Hartford, Connecticut-based Halloran & Sage, who had represented Gambardella early in the case, said, “I don’t think it widens or increases the scope permitting employees to bring defamation claims.”
However, employer attorney Daniel Schwarz of Pullman & Comley, also in Hartford, said the decision is significant because it defines how employers still can be held liable for statements they make internally.
“If those statements are made really maliciously, in a really broad sense, then the employer can’t escape liability,” he said.