‘Substantial Truth’ Defeats Wisconsin Plaintiff’s Tortious Interference Suit – 7th Circuit

In Wesbrook v. Ulrich 2016 WL 6123534, the Seventh Circuit examined the reach of the truth defense to a tortious interference with contract action stemming from a bitter dispute between a prominent Wisconsin medical clinic and one of its high-level employees.

The plaintiff sued a former co-worker and ex-supervisor for tortious interference with contract claiming the two worked in concert to engineer the plaintiff’s firing from the clinic.  The plaintiff claimed the defendants repeatedly made critical statements about him to third parties that resulted in his being ostracized by clinic staff and ultimately let go.  The District Court granted summary judgment for the clinic and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

To prove tortious interference with contract in Wisconsin, the plaintiff must show (1) a valid contract or a prospective contractual relationship with a third party, (2) defendant’s interference with that relationship, (3) interference by the defendant that was intentional, (4) a causal connection between the interference and damages, and (5) the defendant wasn’t justified or privileged to interfere.

To sue a co-worker for tortious interference, the plaintiff must show (1) that the employer did not benefit from the co-worker’s/defendant’s statement, and (2) the co-worker’s act was independently tortious (i.e., fraudulent or defamatory).

Whether conduct or a statement is privileged is a fact-driven question that looks at the nature, type and duration of the conduct and whether the conduct was fair under the circumstances.  But where the challenged statement is true, it is privileged as a matter of law.  There can be no cause of action aimed at a true statement; even one motivated by ill will toward a plaintiff.

The same holds for “substantially true” statements.  Even where a statement isn’t 100% accurate, so long as it’s true in most of its particulars, it’s still privileged and will defeat a tortious interference claim.  Tort law does not demand “artificial precision” in common use of language.

Here, the defendants’ challenged statements concerning plaintiff were substantially true.  Defendants’ verbal and written assertions that plaintiff had an autocratic management style, threatened his subordinates, and that several employees had lodged complaints against him were true enough to defeat plaintiff’s claims.  While there were arguably some factual specifics that were either embellished or omitted from the statements, the Court viewed their substance as sufficiently accurate to negate plaintiff’s tortious interference suit.

The Seventh Circuit also based its decision granting summary judgment for the defendants on policy grounds.  It reasoned that if a plaintiff could sue a co-worker every time he believed that co-worker instigated or contributed to the firing decision, it would swallow up the general rule that at-will employees cannot sue for breach of contract where they are fired without warning or cause.

Afterwords:

1/ An interesting case in that it examines the tortious interference tort in the factually anomalous setting of an at-will employee suing his co-workers instead of his employer after a discharge;

2/ The key holding from the case is that truth is a defense not only to defamation but also to tortious interference with contract under Wisconsin law;

3/ A statement’s truth is construed flexibly: it doesn’t have to be completely accurate.  Even if there are exaggerated aspects of a statement, so long as the statement meets the substantially true test, the speaker will be privileged to tortiously interfere.

Illinois Defamation Law: The Quick and Dirty

Defamation is a false, factual statement published to a third party reader or listener.  Illinois recognizes two types of defamation – libel (written) and slander (oral) and the same rules apply to both.

A defamation plaintiff must present sufficient facts establishing (1) a false statement about the plaintiff, (2) that’s not privileged, (3) to a third party; and (4) that caused damages.

A defamatory statement is per se (meaning no proof of specific damages are required)  defamatory when it’s harmful on its face.  Defamatory per se statements are those that (1) impute that a plaintiff committed a crime; (2) impute a plaintiff is unable to perform or lacks integrity in his employment; or (3) statements that plaintiff lacks ability or that otherwise prejudices the plaintiff in her profession.

Only statements that are factual (“he stole $1,000 from me”) – capable of being proven true or false – are actionable; opinions are not (“I think he’s a nut job!”).  Calling someone a crook, a traitor, trashy, a rip-off artist are examples of non-defamatory statements of opinion under prior Illinois cases.

Even per se defamatory statements are not actionable if they are reasonably capable of an innocent construction.  Under the innocent-construction rule, a court considers a statement in context and gives words their natural and ordinary meaning.  If a statement in context is reasonably susceptible to a nondefamatory meaning, it should be given that meaning.

Truth is a defense to defamation.  The challenged statement doesn’t have to be completely true; it’s enough that it’s ‘substantially true’.  A defamatory statement is also not actionable where it’s subject to a privilege.  Two privileges the law recognizes are absolute and qualified privileges.

Qualified privilege applies where as a matter of law and general policy, the defendant has an interest in or duty to make the communication such that it’s privileged.  A classic example of a qualified privilege statement involves a corporation’s statement made while  investigating an employee’s conduct.

Once a qualified privilege attaches, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intentionally published the material knowing it was false or displaying a reckless disregard as to it truth.  “Reckless disregard” means the speaker made a statement aware that it’s probably false with serious doubts as to its truth.

Source: Coghlan v. Beck (http://www.state.il.us/court/opinions/AppellateCourt/2013/1stDistrict/1120891.pdf