What would my legal grounds for getting a severance based on a hostile work environment?

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What would my legal grounds for getting a severance based on a hostile work environment?

My supervisor issued an official evaluation of job performance 6 months ago giving me average, but passable marks. I was upset, but decided not to appeal. I was offered a new contract this month that I have not signed as of yet. This past week, I was given another evaluation done by other employees that again rated job performance. This time all departments were included and comments from the fellow employees were printed on the evaluation (I was not involved, nor was 90% of the other employees, in evaluating anyone). This evaluation gave me comments ranging from “disappointing” and “uncreative” to “total disaster” and “imposter”. I will defend my work (video highlight packages) until the day I die. This evaluation of the departments was given to all employees for them to see. No one else got it nearly as bad as I did and I feel humiliated just walking the halls or sitting in my office. What would my legal bounds be for getting a severance based on a hostile work environment? Do I have a case for defamation? I don’t think I can work there anymore because of the brutality of those comments, but I have good benefits and a regular paycheck to count on.

Asked on July 30, 2011 Kentucky

Answers:

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

Answered 10 years ago | Contributor

A "hostile work environment" is a workplace environment in which a superior or co-worker by behavior or actions creates an environment that is counterproductive to an employee, or prevents an employee from, performing their job duties in a reasonable manner. However, typically these behaviors/actions must be "discriminatory" in nature and not just a result of unprofessional or rude behavior. Additionally, discrimination in a workplace setting means action taken against you because you are a member of a "protected class"; in other words based on your race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, etc. Based on the limit facts presented, it's not clear that the criteria for claiming a hostile work environment are present.

As for a claim of actionable defamation, some state courts have held that while there is a strong public interest in allowing employers and (by extension co-workers) to freely and subjectively evaluate the performance of employees, a performance review can be defamatory if it accuses an employee of criminal conduct, lack of integrity, dishonesty, incompetence, or reprehensible personal characteristics or behavior.

The crucial aspect of any defamation suit is demonstrating that the defamatory language was an assertion of fact and not an opinion. Therefore, highly subjective statements of opinion cannot constitute defamation.  On the other hand, if their is an assertion of fact that is untrue, this can give rise to a defamation claim. That having been said, determining the distinction between a statement of opinion and fact is easier said than done. However, a court is more likely to find defamation if the comment is likely to injure the claimant's professional reputation. Accordingly, some courts have held that ridicule can be defamation just as much as other, harsher false and untrue statements. So you may or may not have met the legal standard for a successful claim of defamation.

At this point you may just want to consult with an employment law attorney and go over all of the details of your situation. They can best advise as to your potential rights and possible remedies.

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

Answered 10 years ago | Contributor

A "hostile work environment" is a workplace environment in which a superior or co-worker by behavior or actions creates an environment that is counterproductive to an employee, or prevents an employee from, performing their job duties in a reasonable manner. However, typically these behaviors/actions must be "discriminatory" in nature and not just a result of unprofessional or rude behavior. Additionally, discrimination in a workplace setting means action taken against you because you are a member of a "protected class"; in other words based on your race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, etc. Based on the limit facts presented, it's not clear that the criteria for claiming a hostile work environment are present.

As for a claim of actionable defamation, some state courts have held that while there is a strong public interest in allowing employers and (by extension co-workers) to freely and subjectively evaluate the performance of employees, a performance review can be defamatory if it accuses an employee of criminal conduct, lack of integrity, dishonesty, incompetence, or reprehensible personal characteristics or behavior.

The crucial aspect of any defamation suit is demonstrating that the defamatory language was an assertion of fact and not an opinion. Therefore, highly subjective statements of opinion cannot constitute defamation.  On the other hand, if their is an assertion of fact that is untrue, this can give rise to a defamation claim. That having been said, determining the distinction between a statement of opinion and fact is easier said than done. However, a court is more likely to find defamation if the comment is likely to injure the claimant's professional reputation. Accordingly, some courts have held that ridicule can be defamation just as much as other, harsher false and untrue statements. So you may or may not have met the legal standard for a successful claim of defamation.

At this point you may just want to consult with an employment law attorney and go over all of the details of your situation. They can best advise as to your potential rights and possible remedies.


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 AttorneyPages.com 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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