In Bryant-Shannon v. Hampton Roads Community Actions Program, Inc., the Virginia Supreme Court provided additional guidance on the requisite “sting” needed for a statement to be defamatory. The case lays out when a statement is “actionable” and provides examples of statements made in the workplace the court previously determined were not defamatory, because they didn’t have the requisite “sting.”
To make a claim of defamation, a statement must be both false and defamatory to be “actionable.” A statement is defamatory if it tends “so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” A statement must have sufficient defamatory “sting” to be actionable. The court has held that to have the requisite sting, a statement must contain language that “tends to injure one’s reputation in the common estimation of mankind, to throw contumely, shame, or disgrace upon him, or which tends to hold him up to scorn, ridicule, or contempt, or which is calculated to render him infamous, odious, or ridiculous.”
In past cases, Virginia courts have held that the implication that an individual may be in violation of an easement, county ordinances, covenant restrictions or breach of contract does not necessarily carry the requisite sting to be an actionable defamatory statement. When considering statements about an individual honestly, Virginia courts have held that context should be considered. When the Virginia Supreme Court specifically considered a statement that an individual was “not totally truthful,” the Court determined that while the statement was “unpleasant,” statements that are “merely offensive or unpleasant” are not defamatory. Thus, the statement that the individual was “not totally truthful” did not have the requisite sting to be defamatory.
Then in Bryant-Shannon, the Court found that statements about an employee “abusing her paid vacation-sick leave,” did not contain the requisite sting to be defamatory, because it did not harm her reputation as to “lower her in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with her.” Additionally, the court found that the statement was more an instruction from a supervisor to a subordinate and did not accuse the employee of anything. The Court similarly found other statements did not contain the requisite sting to be classified as defamatory when they did not accuse the employee of anything and were instead merely statements between coworkers about office policy or requests from supervisors.
The Court determined that “statements can be made that are offensive, unpleasant, harsh, and critical without necessarily constituting defamation.” Without the requisite sting, statements cannot be actionable defamatory statements.
Determining what rises to the level of defamation, particularly when considering defamation in the workplace, can be difficult. The Court here did offer some guidance about what statements may or may not have the requisite “sting” needed to cross the line and be considered defamatory. As was the case in Bryant-Shannon, if workplace emails consist of solely statements between coworkers or supervisors related to office policies or work requests, language is unlikely to be seen as defamatory. While language may be considered harsh or even offensive, unless statements reach the level of injuring someone’s reputation, deterring others from associating with someone, or holding someone up to “scorn, ridicule, or contempt,” the statement is unlikely to be considered defamatory,
For more guidance or information on defamation, particularly defamation in the workplace, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-991-7973. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.