Defamation Law: Is It Defamatory To Say Someone Was Fired?
Is it defamatory to say people were fired if they quit? Former PayPal employee Rakesh Agrawal is testing the legal waters to find out.
Resignations + New Phones + New Orleans / Twitter = Defamation Lawsuit
Our story starts the day that Rakesh Agrawal, then director of strategy for PayPal Inc., decided to pull a Jerry McGuire and quit his job in spectacular fashion. Agrawal’s public resignation? He posted his “I’m outta here!” letter online.
A day later, Agrawal found himself at the New Orleans Jazz Fest – with a brand new (Chekhov’s) phone. Presumably, jocularity ensued. And by the wee hours of the morning, Agrawal had tweeted a 140-character rant about PayPal’s then global brand and communications officer. The highlights: “piece of $#!+” and “useless middle manager”.
By sun-up, Agrawal had deleted his tirade.
But it turns out that the Watcher on PayPal’s Wall spied Agrawal’s rant before he removed it. And with a dash of middle school ‘tude, the official PayPal Twitter account coughed up this finger wag:
“Rakesh Agrawal is no longer with the company. Treat everyone with respect. No excuses. PayPal has zero tolerance.”
Is It Defamatory To Say People Were Fired If They Quit?
When Agrawal heard about PayPal’s “zero tolerance” message, he took things next level and filed a defamation lawsuit against his former employer. Agrawal’s arguments are simple (perhaps to a fault – and of course, we’re paraphrasing here):
- New Phone Defense: Those were supposed to be private messages, not public tweets! Look, I was using a new phone, of course I messed up!
- I Blinked First Argument: PayPal never fired me. I quit! Plus, I posted a resignation letter a full day before PayPal’s tweet about me!
- Lost Opportunities: PayPal is making it seem like they fired me for ‘misconduct and disrespect’; it’s misleading and resulted in lost opportunities.
Can An Ex-Employee Win A Twitter Defamation Case Against A Former Employer?
So, does Agrawal have a viable Twitter defamation case? While it’s never wise to augur a judge’s ruling – because the legal devil is always in the details – it’s fair to say that Agrawal will have to do some strenuous uphill climbing to win this case. Why?
Carefully Worded Statements v. Reasonable Understanding
For starters, PayPal’s tweet didn’t, specifically tweet: “PayPal fired X because of Y.” Instead, the company went with a carefully worded passage informing readers that Agrawal “was no longer with the company” – which could either mean he was fired or quit. And in defamation cases, judges are required to assume the most innocent interpretation.
Agrawal argues, via his lawsuit, that PayPal’s tweet is:
“reasonably understood by those who read it to mean that plaintiff had been fired by PayPal for misconduct and disrespect.”
But, when weighing defamation case law against the known facts, the argument probably won’t hold up because it’s too subjective.
Moreover, to win, Agrawal, at the very least, will have to prove:
- That the PayPal tweet contained a false statement of fact about him. Sure, there is such a thing as “defamation by implication,” but this case doesn’t meet defamation by implication standards. Especially since U.S. case law demands that the most innocent interpretation be assumed.
- That PayPal acted negligently in sending out the tweet.
- That PayPal’s tweet led to material or reputational harm for Agrawal. Lawyers for the plaintiff could try to argue that PayPal’s tweet was inherently defamatory because it disparaged Agrawal’s professionalism, but it’d be a coin toss as to whether or not a judge – and eventually appeal’s panel – would buy it.
But hey, you never know. Sometime courts surprise.
Reputations are priceless. And in today’s viral market, success involves maintaining a good name. Kelly / Warner is a leader in the internet defamation litigation and reputation management industry. We’ve helped over 800 brands with digital defamation clean-up in the wake of a disparaging campaign or incident.
“Is it defamatory to say people were fired if they quit?” is just one of the common slander and libel questions we often field. Check out our blog for more defamation case examples and lawyer advice.