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Defamation Claim Survives Summary Judgment

Published by on August 24, 2009

In Wynn v. Wachovia Bank, N.A., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment as to a defamation claim.  Plaintiff’s complaint alleged wrongful termination, conversion of her funds, and defamation by the publishing of her termination for job abandonment.  The court granted defendants’ motion regarding the […]

In Wynn v. Wachovia Bank, N.A., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment as to a defamation claim.  Plaintiff’s complaint alleged wrongful termination, conversion of her funds, and defamation by the publishing of her termination for job abandonment.  The court granted defendants’ motion regarding the wrongful termination and conversion, but it denied the motion as to the defamation claim.  A copy of the opinion can be found here.  More after the break.

Ms. Wynn was an employee and customer of Wachovia Bank.  In February 2008, she experienced problems withdrawing funds from her account.  A flag was placed on her account because a counterfeit check was cashed at a Wachovia branch in May 2007 using her driver’s license number.  A bank manager referred Wynn to a telephone representative, who then advised her to repay the money, face termination, or resign her position.  Wynn then contacted her supervisor, Dorothy Camp, but there are different accounts of what they discussed.  However, it is undisputed that Wynn used 47.5 hours of her annual paid time off (PTO), took additional PTO from February 1 to February 13, and remained absent from work on February 14th, 19th, 20th, 21st, and 25th.

The Court quoted and relied on Wachovia policy signed by Wynn upon commencement of her employment with the bank.  These included documents titled: “Acknowledgment of At-Will Employment,” “Deposit Agreement and Disclosures for Personal Accounts,” as well as attendance and PTO policies.  These documents that Wynn read and signed proved relevant for the first two claims of wrongful termination and conversion of funds.

In addressing the termination claim, the court granted the defendants’ motion because plaintiff failed to assert that her termination violated Virginia’s public policy exception to at-will employment.  To have successfully pled a wrongful termination claim, plaintiff needed to argue for a public policy exception within the scope of race and gender.  However, plaintiff erroneously asserted that her employment was not at-will, but in practice “she was treated as an employee for whom cause was required to justify her termination.”  The court noted that plaintiff read and understood many employment documents stating that she was an at-will employee.

The conversion claim also went to the defendants due to the signed policies detailing attendance requirements.  Wachovia required that if employees took paid time off in excess of that which they previously accrued, the bank will debit the equivalent sum of money from their accounts.  The court reasoned that even as plaintiff was aware of this, assuming her supervisor’s statements were false, plaintiff’s reliance on them was still unreasonable.  Wynn alleged that her supervisor asked her to continue to take PTO until a decision was reached as to the counterfeit check.  Wachovia deposited $873.35 into Wynn’s checking account on February 28, 2008.  Then on March 6, 2008, the bank debited $844.97 from Wynn’s account to recoup a portion of the PTO that was taken, but not yet accrued.

On the third and final claim, the court sided with the plaintiff regarding defamation.  Plaintiff alleged that Wachovia defamed her based on two statements made by her supervisor: that she was terminated for “job abandonment” and she took unauthorized PTO from Wachovia.  Looking to three elements, the court noted that the absence of a physical copy of the email did not render Wynn’s claim a non-issue.  Furthermore, saying plaintiff “abandoned her job” had negative connotations.  The court added:

“Stating that Wynn abandoned her job is unlike stating a person resigned or quit, an act an individual has a right to do; rather, job abandonment asserts a person left ones employment without notice or following proper procedures.  This phrase, therefore, has a negative connotation on an employee as it portrays them as irresponsible and unprofessional.”

The court held the alleged statement was “necessarily hurtful” in its effect upon plaintiff’s business or trade because it negatively described the skills or character inherent to her customer service work.  Therefore, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the defamation claim was denied, while those for wrongful termination and conversion were granted.

Contributed by K.C. Osuji

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