Federal Court Finds Job Performance Comments Not Slanderous

June 28, 2001 (PLANSPONSOR.com) ? A co-worker cannot be sued for slander over criticisms made to supervisors about job performance, according to a federal appeals court ruling.

The 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Pennsylvania worker could not sue a co-worker for slander over criticisms made to their superiors that related to job performance. In a 15-page unpublished opinion in Sheehan v. Anderson, the unanimous three-judge panel upheld the decision by Senior U.S. District Judge Louis C. Bechtle.

The lower court said Pennsylvania law recognizes a “conditional privilege” when a co-worker makes comments to management about another worker’s job performance, according to the Legal Intelligencer.

Case History

John Sheehan, an examiner employed by the Federal Reserve Bank, complained that three of his co-workers had falsely accused him of “sitting around, drinking coffee and talking” for more than an hour every morning and creating an “antagonistic” work environment in which others were afraid to express their opinions. According to the suit, Sheehan was reprimanded after the comments were made.

An employee of the bank since 1987, Sheehan still works in its Philadelphia office in the Supervision Regulation & Credit Department.

In addition to the defamation claim, the suit alleged that the bank acted in bad faith and violated Sheehan’s constitutional right to due process.

His employer argued that the defamation claim was flawed since the statements were all made

  • in the workplace
  • to a limited audience of Sheehan’s superiors
  • focused entirely on his job performance

Critical Difference

Writing for the court, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Walter K. Stapleton noted that the nature of the audience is a critical factor in determining if such statements are capable of defamatory meaning. He also noted that the Pennsylvania courts have consistently dismissed defamation cases in which the statements were limited to work-related complaints — even if the worker said he was falsely accused of being “vulgar, crude and obscene.”

“Given the context, audience and nature of the alleged communication, we conclude that while the statements were critical of Sheehan and thus may annoy or embarrass him, they are not sufficient as a matter of law to create an action for defamation.”

The court said that such a case can prevail only if the plaintiff can show that his character was attacked, or if the remarks challenged his ability or fitness to do the job.

Job performance is apparently not a matter of character ? just opinion.