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It is never pleasant when someone makes a statement about you that is not true. It can harm your reputation, cause others to treat you differently and it can affect your self-esteem. Sometimes false statements can be minor, but other false statements about you could have a significant impact on your life. This is particularly true when your employer is making them, which could rise to the level of defamation.

But can you sue your employer or former employer for defamation of character in California? This article will answer this question and others to help you understand your rights under California laws.

Understanding Defamation of Character and Your Employee Rights

What is Defamation?

First and foremost, it is important to understand what defamation is by learning the difference between libel and slander. Defamation involves one person making a false statement of fact about another and takes one of two forms: libel or slander.

  • Libel is written defamation under California Civil Code Section 45. A false or unprivileged publication, such as an article or a picture, that:
    • Exposes a person to contempt, hatred, ridicule, public criticism,
    • Causes the person to be shunned or avoided, or
    • Causes injury to the person’s occupation.
  • Slander is spoken defamation under California Civil Code Section 46. Specifically, speaking a false or unprivileged statement about someone, such as the person has:
    • Committed, been indicted, convicted or punished for a crime,
    • An infectious or undesirable disease,
    • Impotence or is promiscuous.

It is also considered slander for someone to say something about you that causes you to suffer in terms of your job, such as a supervisor asserting you lack qualifications or the skill to do your job, or causes you to lose profits or suffer actual damages (meaning harm, which could be financial in nature).

Can I Sue My Employer for Defamation of Character in California?

When it comes to the rights of employees in California, employers can be held liable for defamatory statements made about employees. Defamatory statements made by managers, supervisors, and other employees that are made in the course and scope of their employment can put employers on the hook for defamation liability to the employee that was defamed by the statement. So yes, at times, you may sue your employer for defamation of character.

Situations Where an Employer Might Not Be Liable for Defamation

However, some exceptions apply. For instance, two co-workers exchanging nasty comments to one another about you is unlikely to place liability on your employer for the co-workers’ defaming comments. Similarly, if a former employer provides a reference to a prospective employer of yours, and gives a bad recommendation, the former employer is likely not liable for defamation so long as the bad recommendation was made without malice.

When to Act On a Defamation Claim

If you believe that you have been the victim of defamation by your employer or former employer, it is important that you get in touch with an experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible. Defamation claims have a short one year statute of limitations under California Code of Civil Procedure 340(c). If your defamation claim is not filed within one year of the defaming statement, you can be barred from seeking damages.

It never feels good to have someone make false statements about you, but it is considerably more serious if those statements are defamatory, made by your employer, and they have an impact on your job or your ability to find a new job. Generally speaking, employees can sue their employer for defamatory statements in California.

If you have suffered harm because of defamatory statements made by your employer, please contact one of our experienced California employment lawyers at Hennig Ruiz for a free consultation today.