Can I take legal action if a false harassment claim cost me my government contracted job?
In employment at-will situations, the law generally considers the employment relationship to be terminable at the will of either party, and the party that ends the relationship is not liable to the other, even if the termination causes damage to the other party. Exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine include situations where the employer and the employee have entered into a contract, where the discharge violates a mandate of public policy, where an employer violates a duty to exercise good faith and fair dealing with the employee and where an employer has an employment handbook in place with the employee’s standard employment practices which creates certain expectations for employees. Though these exceptions do not prohibit an employer from terminating an employee, they will allow the employee to recover damages. A number of federal statutes restrict employers from discharging employees on certain grounds. Individual states vary regarding protections offered to employees in an at-will employment relationship. Generally, an employer is not liable for any alleged damages suffered by an at-will employee who is fired arbitrarily, except in situations where the employer did not follow its own procedures or where the employer acted with malice. An employee who alleges that his or her employment contract was for a specified term has the burden of proving that the contract was for a defined term, and a court will typically construe an employment contract for an indefinite period of time, including a contract for "permanent" employment, to mean that the employment relationship is at will.
Defamation is an act of communication that causes someone to be shamed, ridiculed, held in contempt, lowered in the estimation of the community, or to lose employment status or earnings or otherwise suffer a damaged reputation. The law of defamation protects a person's reputation and good name against communications that are false and derogatory. Defamation consists of both libel and slander. Libel is any defamation that can be seen, most typically in writing. Slander is an oral defamatory communication. Specific requirements that a plaintiff must prove in order to recover in a defamation action differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Generally, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff, that the defendant made an unprivileged publication to a third party, and that the publisher acted at least negligently in publishing the communication. A plaintiff may also be required to prove special damages. Publication certainly includes traditional forms, such as communications included in books, newspapers, and magazines, but it also includes oral remarks. Courts may require that the defendant act with actual malice or act negligently in failing to ascertain whether a statement was false or defamatory. In Virginia, a one-year statute of limitation applies to defamation actions.
Harassment is governed by state laws, which vary by state, but is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety. Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.
The following are Virginia statutes:
Civil action for racial, religious, or ethnic harassment, violence or vandalism. —
A. An action for injunctive relief or civil damages, or both, shall lie for any person who is subjected to acts of
(i) intimidation or harassment or
(ii) violence directed against his person; or
(iii) vandalism directed against his real or personal property, where such acts are motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity.
B. Any aggrieved party who initiates and prevails in an action authorized by this section shall be entitled to damages, including punitive damages, and in the discretion of the court to an award of the cost of the litigation and reasonable attorneys' fees in an amount to be fixed by the court.
C. The provisions of this section shall not apply to any actions between an employee and his employer, or between or among employees of the same employer, for damages arising out of incidents occurring in the workplace or arising out of the employee-employer relationship.
Action for insulting words. — All words shall be actionable which from their usual construction and common acceptance are construed as insults and tend to violence and breach of the peace.
Justification and mitigation of damages. — In any action for defamation, the defendant may justify by alleging and proving that the words spoken or written were true, and, after notice in writing of his intention to do so, given to the plaintiff at the time of, or for, pleading to such action, may give in evidence, in mitigation of damages, that he made or offered an apology to the plaintiff for such defamation before the commencement of the action, or as soon afterwards as he had an opportunity of doing so in case the action shall have been commenced before there was an opportunity of making or offering such apology.
Disclosure of employment-related information; presumptions; causes of action; definitions. —
A. Any employer who, upon request by a person's prospective or current employer, furnishes information about that person's professional conduct, reasons for separation or job performance, including, but not limited to, information contained in any written performance evaluations, shall be immune from civil liability for furnishing such information, provided that the employer is not acting in bad faith. An employer shall be presumed to be acting in good faith. The presumption of good faith shall be rebutted if it is shown by clear and convincing evidence that the employer disclosed such information with knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard for whether it is false or not, or with the intent to deliberately mislead.
B. In a civil action brought against an employer for disclosing the information described in subsection A, if the trier of fact determines the employer acted in bad faith, punitive damages may be awarded, as provided by §8.01-38.1.
C. As used in this section, the following words and phrases shall have the following meanings: "Employee" means any person, paid or unpaid, in the service of an employer. "Employer" means any person, firm or corporation, including the Commonwealth of Virginia and its political subdivisions, and their agents, who has one or more employees or individuals performing services under any contract of hire or service, express or implied, oral or written. "Information" includes, but is not limited to, facts, data and opinions. "Job performance" includes, but is not limited to, ability, attendance, awards, demotions, duties, effort, evaluations, knowledge, skills, promotions, productivity and disciplinary actions. "Professional conduct" includes, but is not limited to, the ethical standards which govern the employee's profession, or lawful conduct which is expected of the employee by the employer. "Prospective employer" means any employer who is considering a person for employment.
Immunity of school personnel investigating or reporting certain incidents. —
In addition to any other immunity he may have, any teacher, instructor, principal, school administrator, school coordinator, guidance counselor or any other professional, administrative or clerical staff member or other personnel of any elementary or secondary school, or institution of higher learning who, in good faith with reasonable cause and without malice, acts to report, investigate or cause any investigation to be made into the activities of any student or students or any other person or persons as they relate to conduct involving bomb threats, firebombs, explosive materials or other similar devices as described in clauses (vi) and (vii) of § 22.1-279.3:1 A, or alcohol or drug use or abuse in or related to the school or institution or in connection with any school or institution activity, shall be immune from all civil liability that might otherwise be incurred or imposed as the result of the making of such a report, investigation or disclosure.
Mitigation in actions against newspapers, etc. —
In any civil action against the publisher, owner, editor, reporter or employee of any newspaper, magazine or periodical under § 8.01-45, or for libel or defamation, because of any article, statement or other matter contained in any such newspaper, magazine or periodical, the defendant, whether punitive damages be sought or not, may introduce in evidence in mitigation of general and punitive damages, or either, but not of actual pecuniary damages, all the circumstances of the publication, including the source of the information, its character as affording reasonable ground of reliance, any prior publication elsewhere of similar purport, the lack of negligence or malice on the part of the defendant, the good faith of the defendant in such publication, or that apology or retraction, if any, was made with reasonable promptness and fairness; provided that the defendant may introduce in evidence only such circumstances and to the extent set forth in his or its grounds of defense. § 8.01-49. Defamatory statements in radio and television broadcasts. — The owner, licensee or operator of a radio and television broadcasting station or network of stations, and the agents or employees of any such owner, licensee or operator, shall not be liable for any damages for any defamatory statement published or uttered in or as a part of any such broadcast, by one other than such owner, licensee or operator, or agent or employee thereof, unless it shall be alleged and proved by the complaining party, that such owner, licensee, operator, such agent or employee, failed to exercise due care to prevent the publication or utterance of such statement in such broadcast; provided, however, that in no event shall any owner, licensee or operator, or the agents or employees of any such owner, licensee or operator of such a station or network of stations be held liable for damages for any defamatory statement broadcast over the facilities of such station or network by or on behalf of any candidate for public office.
Liability for defamatory material on the Internet. —
A. No provider or user of an interactive computer service on the Internet shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided to it by another information content provider. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be liable for
(i) any action voluntarily taken by it in good faith to restrict access to, or availability of, material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, excessively violent, harassing, or intended to incite hatred on the basis of race, religious conviction, color, or national origin, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected, or
(ii) any action taken to enable, or make available to information content providers or others, the technical means to restrict access to information provided by another information content provider.
B. Definitions. As used in this section: "Information content provider" means any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service. "Interactive computer service" means any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions. "Internet" means the international computer network of interoperable packet-switched data networks.