Defamation at Work

In the last few years the number of defamation at work cases has risen sharply. Workplace and employment defamation differs from media and broadcast defamation. If you are seeking advice about a potential workplace defamation case, I can provide support and advice from the outset.

During 40 plus years as a practising lawyer, which ended in 2012 when I entered commerce and industry as an airline executive, I specialized in employment law. Hence my current business, which drives this web-site.  And, curiously, media law as well. Between 1995 and 2012, I was a partner in a 2 partner law firm which I founded, Edwards Wallace, which handled the legal work associated with publishing and broadcasting by most of the media in Western Australia. And now that I look back, I remember many instances in which the subject of defamation in the workplace was raised with me. Now I do not for one moment regard the media in Australia as a workplace in which there is atypical instances of defamation, bur one way or thither, the synergies between specializing in media law and employment law have placed me in the unique position of being an expert on the subject of defamation in the workplace, and so I will issue blogs from time to time henceforth when these two exciting areas of the law, always at the cutting edge of social issues, unite; or collide, depending upon one’s perspective.

Like all environments where people spend time together, the workplace can sometimes be a tense, competitive and dare I say it catty place to be. It is by no means unusual for disputes between employees to arise despite the best efforts of the employer; and indeed without any cause being attributable to an employer. Some get out of hand and fed particularly by social media, can involve legal implications quite quickly. I can help. My experience as an employment lawyer, and a defamation lawyer, has been very valuable in this current business.

Case study

There has been a terribly interesting case about defamation in the workplace. The plaintiff brought an action in defamation in relation to an email disseminated on 18 July 2011. The plaintiff and defendant were both employed by the Department for Correctional Services (“DCS”) as correctional services officers and were working at the Adelaide Remand Centre at the time. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant published an email, from the plaintiff’s work email account, which was distributed to all of the people with email addresses at DCS and other government bodies.

The email said:
“hello people, just a note to say that i am a homosexual and i am looking for like minded people to share time with”. The plaintiff argued that the imputations arising from the email include that the plaintiff is homosexual, promiscuous and of loose moral character and is seeking to solicit sexual relationships or encounters with others. Also, that the plaintiff was a person who would use his employment to seek sexual relationships and would act in an unprofessional manner by using his work email to solicit sexual relationships.

The defendant denied sending the subject email but Judge Cole of the South Australian District Court found as fact that the defendant hijacked the plaintiff’s e-mail account and sent the e-mail out as if it had been published by the plaintiff. The court held that the defendant sent the subject email, and that although it conveyed an imputation that the plaintiff was homosexual, which was false, such an imputation in Australia in these contemporary times (following other authoritative decisions) is not defamatory. All the other imputations contended for by the plaintiff were held to be defamatory and to have been conveyed and the plaintiff was awarded damages for non economic loss of $75,000 and damages for economic loss at a sum yet to be determined.