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Defamation: belief that fired employees
"were jerks" won't prove actual malice

Cannon v. Peck (4th Cir 06/08/2022)
Sent to Custom Alerts™ subscribers on 06/09/2022

Proving defamation (libel or slander) is always difficult. It is more difficult when the defendant is a public official because the plaintiff must prove "actual malice." N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

After four employees were fired from their jobs with Village of Bald Head Island, Village employees published their termination letters which accused them of violating certain employee policy provisions, specifically dealing with harassment.

The trial court found that the statements contained in the termination letters were false, and that the Village Manager (clearly a public official) acted with actual malice in publishing the letters since the true reason he fired them was because he believed "they were jerks."

However, the 4th Circuit reversed, holding that the employees failed to prove actual malice.

To show that an alleged defamatory statement was made with "actual malice," a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant made the statement "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

The 4th Circuit disagreed with the trial court's treatment of the difference between the stated reason for the terminations and the Manager's subjective belief that "they were jerks." In making its actual malice findings against the Manager, the trial court appeared to give near-dispositive weight to the discrepancy between the Manager's testimony that he terminated the plaintiffs because they "were jerks and disrespectful to the chain of command" and the termination letter's allegations that the plaintiffs violated certain Village policies.

The court pointed out that although the discrepancy can be "one fact we may consider when determining actual malice, … it alone cannot establish actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. *** But, unlike the district court, we do not believe this alone rises to the level of clear and convincing evidence that [the Manager] knew the alleged policy violations were false or entertained serious doubts about their truth."

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