A recent decision from the New Hampshire federal court dismissing a lawsuit brought by a professor against the University of New Hampshire illustrates that an employer’s public disparagement of an employee does not always give the employee the right to pursue a defamation claim against the employer. John Collins, a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire, filed a civil action against UNH arising out of an incident that occurred on the UNH campus which led to Collins’ arrest on June 29, 2007 for disorderly conduct and stalking.
Collins was the Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the College of Life Science and Agriculture at UNH. Collins did not get along with another professor in that department; Stacia Sower or her lab technician Bernadine Schultz. On the morning of June 28, 2007, Collins received a parking ticket for parking in the loading zone adjacent to Rudman Hall in excess of a 30-minute time limit. Suspecting Sower or Schultz of reporting the violation, he went to Sower’s office, but she was not there. Collins went to the elevator to go to his office and there were two individuals waiting to enter the elevator; Schultz and a graduate student. An exchange occurred between Collins and Schultz where Schultz, noticing Collins seemed upset, encouraged him to share his feelings and “let them out.” Collins responded in a tirade of epithets directly towards Sower including stating “I could kill the …” loudly several times and he kicked a large trash can in apparent anger.
After his outburst, Collins stated sarcastically “there, I feel much better.” As a result of that outburst, Collins was arrested and removed from his position at UNH. After the criminal charges were dropped and he was reinstated, he sued UNH for a variety of claims; one of which was for defamation for two statements made publicly by UNH representatives. The first statement was a press release stating that because of the criminal charges against Collins, UNH had placed him on administrative leave, and he would remain on leave pending review of the circumstances. That statement also included a phone number for UNH Deputy Chief of Police. The second statement was an instruction to the Department’s faculty that in the event Collins was on campus during the pendency of his ban they “should avoid contact with him and immediately notify the UNH Police Department.”
A legal claim of defamation requires proof that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in publishing, without a valid privilege, a false and defamatory statement of fact about the plaintiff to a third party. In this case, as to the first statement, UNH made statements of fact, but they were all true and therefore there could be no defamation claim. As to the second statement, while there were no facts contained in the statement, Collins argued that if read in context it implies that he was armed and dangerous. The Court found that there was no evidence that the second statement would suggest that he was armed, but perhaps that he was dangerous. Given his own admission of his outburst with Schultz, UNH has exercised reasonable care in implying that Collins was, in fact, dangerous. Therefore, judgment was granted in favor of UNH and Collins does not get to go forward with his request by jury.
Defamation suits by an employee against an employer are often wrought with difficulties. First, as noted in this case, all public disparaging comments made an employer against an employee are not actionable; only false factual allegations are actionable. Second, employees who have been disparaged by their employer should carefully analyze whether they want to put their reputation at issue in a public trial since a defendant in a defamation lawsuit may be able to bring up other conduct or characteristics of the plaintiff which caused others to already think less of him without regard to the alleged defamation. These lawsuits are expensive in time, money, and emotions for both sides.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].