Providing needed guidance on workplace defamation, the Minnesota Supreme Court has clarified that both “minor inaccuracies of expression” and statements of opinion that cannot be proven true or false are not defamatory as a matter of Minnesota common law. McKee v. Laurion, No. A11-1154 (Jan. 30, 2013). Until now, Minnesota defamation law has been unclear in distinguishing between assertions of fact and opinion, as well as statements that are arguably, technically false but substantially true. Employers often are targets of defamation lawsuits and should be careful when documenting employee performance or reasons for termination in a way that could be considered defamatory.
McKee involved defamation claims by a physician, David McKee, M.D., against Dennis K. Laurion, the son of one of Dr. McKee’s patients. After becoming dissatisfied with Dr. McKee’s bedside manner, Laurion posted the following statements on a number of “rate-your-doctor” websites and sent letters to various medically-affiliated institutions:
- Dr. McKee said that he had to “spend time finding out if you [Laurion’s father] were transferred or died.”
- Dr. McKee said, “44% of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option.”
- Dr. McKee said, “You [Laurion’s father] don’t need therapy.”
- Dr. McKee said that “it doesn’t matter” that the patient’s gown did not cover his backside.
- Dr. McKee left the room without talking to the patient’s family.
- A nurse told Laurion that Dr. McKee was a “real tool.”
Dr. McKee claimed the statements were defamation “per se” because they related to his profession. Per se defamation does not require proof that offending statements caused harm to the plaintiff.
Based on the evidence, the Supreme Court determined that several of the statements were “substantially true” and that the common law “overlooks minor inaccuracies and concentrates on substantial truth.” It held that “[m]inor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as the substance, the gist, the sting of the libelous charge is justified.” As for the statement that Dr. McKee was a “real tool,” the Court held, “Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false.” The Court overturned the decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which had allowed the defamation claims regarding the six allegedly defamatory statements to survive summary judgment.
The Supreme Court’s common-sensical approach to defamation should be welcome news to Minnesota employers who have enough to worry about when communicating to or about their employees.