Most employers at some point get a call asking for a reference for one of their former employees. For good employees such call is not a problem, but for those who were fired or let go due to performance issues, violations of a company policy, or commission of a crime – the employer often faces a choice of not saying anything so as to avoid a defamation claim by the former employee or warning the potential employer of the former employee’s prior history. So, how much exactly can a former employer disclose to a potential employer without facing a defamation lawsuit from the employee?
From a legal stand point, in Texas, truth is an absolute defense to defamation. Thus, if what you are telling the new employer is true, then it cannot be defamation. From a practical standpoint, however, you should consider how easily could you prove that what you were saying about the employee was true. For example, if you decide to tell the new employer that you fired John Doe because he stole company property – if John Doe filed a suit against you, could you prove it in court that he did so? The answer is rarely a resounding “yes.” More likely, if push came to shove, it would be the former employer’s word against the employee’s. Thus, even telling the truth about a former employee, may result in a lawsuit (and thousands in attorney’s fees) unless the employer has some proof that its statements were true.
Texas also recognizes that statements by a former employer to a prospective employer are “privileged” (or protected from a defamation claim), unless an employer made such statements with “actual malice.” Actual malice has nothing to do with bad motive or ill will, but requires proof that the former employer made the statement either knowing that it was false or with reckless disregard of the truth of falsity of the statement. Some courts have labeled it as “calculated falsehood.” Failure to investigate facts before speaking is not proof of actual malice. However, making a statement while entertaining “serious doubt” as to its truth could constitute actual malice.
Conclusion: Employers should be careful when they provide references to their former employees. While a former employer’s statements to a prospective employer are generally privileged (i.e. protected from defamation), if the former employer made false statements that caused an employee to lose his job or offer of a job, s/he might face some serious liability.
On the employee side, unless the employee has at least some proof that his or her former employer made false statements about the employee or had serious doubts about the truth of such statement, the employee bringing a defamation claim might have to pay the former employer’s attorney’s fees in defending against the lawsuit under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), as I have previously explained here and here.
For more information regarding defamation and business disparagement claims in Texas, contact Leiza Dolghih.