In order to be actionable at law, slander and defamation claims typically require some sort of "publication." This means that the alleged defamatory statements were made known to third parties, resulting in damages to the plaintiff's reputation. Employers are usually circumspect about not communicating to prospective employers or others the reasons why a terminated employee was let go. What happens when a former employee alleges that the defamation resulted from his own disclosure of such reasons?
Last week in Johnson v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina dismissed a self-defamation claim from a terminated Wal-Mart associate. The plaintiff was fired for inventory mismanagement, and claimed that he was defamed when he was compelled to disclose to prospective employers the supposedly false reasons for his termination.
In its opinion, the court found no self-defamation cause of action under North Carolina law in the employment context. The federal judge noted that if such a claim were recognized, it would effectively end employment at-will in North Carolina, because any disgruntled terminated employee looking for a new job could claim self-defamation as a cause of action.
This federal court opinion does not bind North Carolina state courts from taking a different approach to this question, but nationwide, only a few courts have recognized claims for self-defamation in the employment arena. The federal court also rejected the plaintiff's claims that alleged retaliatory termination over complaints of inventory fraud served as the basis for a public policy wrongful discharge claim under North Carolina law.