Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Defamation claim based on job reference by former employer & qualified privilege, immunity defense

ELEMENTS OF DEFAMATION CLAIM To maintain a defamation cause of action, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant: (1) published a statement; (2) that was defamatory concerning the plaintiff; (3) while acting with either actual malice, if the plaintiff was a public official or public figure, or negligence, if the plaintiff was a private individual, regarding the truth of the statement. See Carr v. Brasher, 776 S.W.2d 567, 569 (Tex. 1989) (citing New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80 (1964)). To prevail on its motion for summary judgment, a defendant must disprove at least one essential element of the plaintiff's defamation claim or establish all of the elements of an affirmative defense as a matter of law. WFAA-TV, Inc. v. McLemore, 978 S.W.2d 568, 571 (Tex. 1998); Montgomery, 669 S.W.2d at 310-11. Because it is dispositive, the first ground of Rosban's traditional summary judgment motion that we consider is the affirmative defense of immunity from Graham's defamation claim under the labor code. STATUTORY IMMUNITY FROM DEFAMATION LIABILITY FOR JOB REFERENCES "An employer may disclose information about a current or former employee's job performance to a prospective employer of the current or former employee on the request of the prospective employer or the employee." Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 103.003 (West 2006). "Job performance" is defined as "the manner in which an employee performs a position of employment and includes an analysis of the employee's attendance at work, attitudes, effort, knowledge, behaviors, and skills." Id. § 103.002(3). Employers are immune from civil liability for making disclosures about current or former employees' job performance:

An employer who discloses information about a current or former employee under Section 103.003 is immune from civil liability for that disclosure or any damages proximately caused by that disclosure unless it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the information disclosed was known by that employer to be false at the time the disclosure was made or that the disclosure was made with malice or in reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the information disclosed. For purposes of this subsection, "known" means actual knowledge based on information relating to the employee, including any information maintained in a file by the employer or that employee. Id. § 103.004(a).

When a defendant seeks summary judgment based on qualified privilege, it is the defendant's burden to conclusively establish that his allegedly defamatory statement was made with an absence of actual malice. Randall's Food Mkts., Inc. v. Johnson, 891 S.W.2d 640, 646 (Tex. 1995).

In the defamation context, a statement is made with actual malice when it is made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard as to its truth. Id. at 646. Reckless disregard exists when "the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication" or had a "high degree of awareness of . . . [the] probable falsity of his statements." Bentley v. Bunton, 94 S.W.3d 561, 591 (Tex. 2002) (quoting Harte-Hanks Commc'ns, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657, 688 (1989)).

Actual malice with regard to a defamatory statement involves a higher level of culpability than mere ill will or animosity. Akin v. Santa Clara Land Co., 34 S.W.3d 334, 341 (Tex. App.--San Antonio 2000, pet. denied). Negligence, failure to investigate the truth or falsity of the statements prior to publication, or failure to act as a reasonable prudent person is insufficient. Id. at 341-42.

SOURCE: 03-07-00317-CV (Austin Court of Appeals) (10/14/09) (statement about former employee's refusal to take drug test not actionable) (evidence is sufficient to conclusively establish that [former employer's] statements were made without malice or reckless disregard for their truth or falsity. See New Times, Inc. v. Issacks, 146 S.W.3d 144, 164 (Tex. 2004) (affidavits from interested witnesses may negate actual malice as a matter of law if they are "clear, positive, and direct, otherwise credible and free from contradictions and inconsistencies, and [able to be] readily controverted. Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c)").