Defendant was plaintiff’s former employer. In a phone call with plaintiff’s new employer, defendant made numerous derogatory comments about plaintiff.
An employer enjoys a conditional privilege to defame its former employee as long as its communications were made in a reasonable manner and for a proper, non-malicious purpose.
Sindorf (plaintiff) was a salesman for Jacron Sales Company, Inc. (“Jacron”) (defendant). After a dispute arose over Sindorf’s sales practices, Sindorf resigned from the company. Jacron withheld some of Sindorf’s commissions. In return, Sindorf kept some of his inventory as payment for the commissions that were due to him. He found new employment as a salesman for Tool Box Corporation. Bob Fridkis, a vice president of Jacron, made a call to William Brose, the president of Tool Box. Although their companies were competitors, Fridkis and Brose were friends. During the long phone call, Fridkis made numerous derogatory insinuations regarding Sindorf and commented that Sindorf withheld “quite a bit” of Jacron’s inventory. Sindorf brought a defamation suit against Jacron.
Whether an employer enjoys a conditional privilege to defame its former employee, and if so, under what conditions is that privilege lost?
Yes, Jacron enjoyed a conditional privilege to defame Sindorf. However, Jacron could lose that privilege by making malicious defamatory statements. The issue of malice should have been submitted to the jury. Therefore, the trial court’s directed verdict is reversed and the case is remanded for a new trial.
A defamatory publication is conditionally privileged when there is a showing that the communicating party and the recipient have a mutual interest in the subject matter. However, this privilege is conditioned on publication “in a reasonable manner and for a proper purpose.” This privilege is not conditioned on malice. Here, the trial court did not err in holding that Fridkis and Jacron had a conditional privilege to communicate the defamatory statement about Sindorf. However, the question of whether the communications were made with malice was one best left to the jury. The trial judge erred in granting the directed verdict, and thereby taking the question from the jury.