Many employees are falsely accused of transgression at work. There is very little any worker can do about a false accusation. Defamation is very difficult to prove in the workplace. I wrote about defamation under Texas law here. As I mentioned in that post, to overcome the qualified privilege in the workplace, one would have to show that the speaker acted with actual malice. Mere mistaken belief or merely relying on someone else would not overcome the qualified privilege.
But, defamation other than the workplace may be less difficult, but it is still challenging. Traditional defamation occurs in regard to the workplace sometimes. We see that in the case of Cullum v. White, 399 S.W.3d 173 (Tex.App. San Antonio 2011). See that decision here. In this case Dell Cullum worked for the Diamond A Ranch and Dalene White for about a year. He worked as a ranch hand, but also took photos of the ranch. The ranch relied on hunting for income. His photos appeared on the ranch website. After he left, they took his pohotos down.
Mr. Cullum was not happy about his work there, apparently. He started a website, www.diamondalcoholicranch. com. He sent a couple of emails to businesses who had been filming hunts at the ranch. In these emails, he accused the owner, Ms White, of various dishonest acts and accused the ranch of criminal activities. He suggested the FBI was about to make arrests. The two companies ceased their connection to the ranch. Ms. White was quite upset about all the accusations and the website. While the website did not refer to Ms. White by name, it did include numerous references to her life and interests. The appellate court found there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude the website was an attack on Ms. White and the Diammond A ranch.
The appellate court applied the test adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas Supreme Court regarding whether a statement is actionable. To be actionable, the statement must expressly or impliedly assert facts which are objectively verifiable. The defamatory meaning will appear to a reasonable person’s understanding.
Mr. Cullum tried to argue that his website referred to a book he was writing, not to Ms. White and the Diamond A ranch. But, he did admit some of the ideas came from his time working at the ranch.
The jury awarded $50,000 for damage to Ms. White’s reputation and $100,000 in exemplary damages. The court of appeals upheld the first award, but overturned the exemplary damage award. Ms. White was elderly, which made her a sympathetic party. But, Mr. Cullum even violated a temporary restraining order by posting information on the internet about the ranch when he had agreed not to do so. He and his lawyer offended the trial judge enough that sanctions were issued.
So, this was a rare case where there was a reckless former employee and a sympathetic employer. These sorts of cases are rare. As I have explained to many potential clients, defamation is ordinarily very hard to prove, especially in the workplace.