Tennessee Defamation Case Flushed

In Nardone v. Cartwright, et al., No. E2013-00522-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 17, 2014), Plaintiff sued his previous employer for slander (spoken defamation) and libel (written defamation).  The case arose after Plaintiff quit his job and was told that he would not receive his final paycheck until he turned in his uniforms. The employer’s office manager was then informed by the Tennessee Department of Labor that it could not withhold plaintiff’s paycheck pending plaintiff’s return of the uniforms and was also advised to contact the police to seek assistance in getting plaintiff to return the uniforms. Employer then contacted Knox County Sheriff’s Office. The officer who took the call keyed in information to create a report, and in the section labeled “primary offense” the officer selected “theft from business by employee.” The employer did not request that plaintiff be prosecuted, nor did the employer say that plaintiff was guilty of theft.

After plaintiff’s lawyer returned the uniforms, plaintiff filed suit against employer alleging that he had been defamed by the report. At trial, plaintiff admitted that nothing in the narrative of the report was untrue. Plaintiff also testified that he still had his job with his new employer after leaving the defendant and also that he was making more money at his new job. No evidence was submitted to show plaintiff’s reputation was damaged, and plaintiff could not name one person who thought less of him as a result of the report.

Finding no evidence in the record to support a case of libel, and because the six-month statute of limitation had run on the slander allegation, the trial court granted employer’s motion for directed verdict and dismissed plaintiff’s case. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of his libel claim, but the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

A successful defamation claim in Tennessee requires that a plaintiff prove (1) defendant published (communicated to a third person) a statement (2) with knowledge that the statement was false and defaming, or with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement, or with negligence in failing to ascertain the truth of the statement.

Based on these elements, this was an easy decision for the court of appeals. Plaintiff himself admitted that the employer’s statements in the report were true. Furthermore, the alleged defamatory language “theft from business by employee” was not language used by the employer. Finally, the record on appeal was devoid of any evidence of damages.

This case wasn’t a good investment of time or money from the get-go. But it’s even more difficult finding a reason why the directed verdict was appealed. I, too, would be very upset if a police report on its face accused me of stealing from a former employer. But after receiving an explanation of how it came to happen and understanding that it was a clerical issue and not my former employer spreading lies, I doubt that I would want to bring more light to the embarrassing fiasco by filing a lawsuit and then an appeal.  I am not really sure what this case, much less this appeal, realistically hoped to accomplish.

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