Do I have any legal recourse against a former employer who is giving me an untrue, negative reference?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Legally, IF you are being defamed, then you may have a cause of action. Defamation is the public (which can be to just one other person) making of a false factual statement which damages a person’s reputation in the eyes of his or her community, and/or causes people to not want to associate or work with that person. If your former employer is defaming you, you therefore may have grounds to sue for monetary damages, as well as possibly to obtain an order forcing them to stop doing this.

A key point to remember is that since only false statements of purported fact are actionable, the truth is a defense to a charge or claim of defamation. For example:

* In the stereotypical case of the employer saying, “You’re fired!” and the employee yelling back, “Too late—I quit!” it’s not untrue for the employer to say that the employee was fired—he or she was, even if the employee attempted to get his or her resignation in there first.

*If the employee did resign first, knowing that the employer was planning to fire them, perhaps even being told explicitly, “If you don’t resign, we will fire you.” In that case, if the employer says, “We were about to fire that employee” or “we were in the process of firing that employee,” that would not be defamation.

If, after reviewing what was actually said, you still believe that the employer is publically making negative factual statements about you, you should speak with an attorney to evaluate whether you have a case, what it might be worth, and the cost to pursue it.

As a practical matter, you should, in the meantime, do whatever you can to simply not put this former employer in touch with anyone. For example, if possible, do not list this employer as a job reference; or if for some reason you need to use this employer as a resource, could you perhaps use a different contact person there?

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