Can past employers, when giving references to current or possible employers, slander a former employee?

UPDATED: Mar 8, 2011

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Can past employers, when giving references to current or possible employers, slander a former employee?

Through a reliable source, I was informed that my past employer received a phone call yesterday and told the party on the other line that I was involved in a affair with my supervisor, and that I was contemplating stealing a large amount of money prior to my resignation. This was never the case. Is this legal?

Asked on March 8, 2011 under Personal Injury, Missouri


M.D., Member, California and New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 11 years ago | Contributor

There is no action against a former employer for a negative response to a prospective employer's inquiry.  The fact is that the law provides what is called a "qualified privilege" for answers to pre-employment inquiries. This guarantees that companies will be free to answer these-type questions fully without fear of a lawsuit. So, for example a statement of opinion or of fact is not illegal. That having been said, a former employee can sue for willful or reckless remarks. That is for things that are false and grossly untrue. 

Slander is spoken defamation.  Defamation is a false statement knowingly made and communicated to a third-party that results in a financial/personal loss to the subject of the remarks.  Assuming that the statements meet the foregoing criteria, you could file a lawsuit against your former employer.  The employer would be liable for each incident in which the slander has been repeated to others.  In addition to a suit for defamation, you may also be able to include a separate claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (depending upon state law).  

Bottom line, it will all come down to a matter of proof.  For example, can you produce actual evidence that these remarks were in fact made? IAt this point you should consult with a  personal injury attorney that specializes in the type cases. 

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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