Unsolicited comments about an employee to other employers could give rise to defamation claims.
On January 30, 2023, in Abdul-Haqq v. LaLiberte, the Minnesota court of appeals held that “Minnesota law does not recognize a qualified privilege for defamatory statements made while dispensing unsolicited career advice.” There, LaLiberte contracted with Liam Hawkins as a sales representative for a storm-damage repair company. Several years later, Hawkins contracted with a company associated with Abdul-Haqq. LaLiberte subsequently sent several texts messages to Hawkins that disparaged Abdul-Haqq so that Hawkins could make an informed decision about working for Abdul-Haqq. Abdul-Haqq then sued LaLiberte, alleging the statements in LaLiberte’s text messages were defamatory. A jury awarded $300,000 in damages to Abdul-Haqq.
On appeal, LaLiberte argued that the statements in his text message were not actionable in defamation. In limited circumstances, defamatory statements are not actionable if they were “made in particular contexts or on certain occasions” where “such statements should be encouraged despite the risk that the statements might be defamatory.” LaLiberte argued the texts were entitled to a privilege akin to those extended in other employment contexts, such as some limited privileges for statements made in character references, statements made in investigation into employee misconduct, communications to an employee of the reasons for the employee’s discharge, etc. However, the court of appeals characterized LaLiberte’s statements as “unsolicited career advice,” something it viewed as entirely different than when an “employer responds to an affirmative inquiry for an employment reference.” It concluded that Minnesota has never extended a privilege in the former context. It explained that whether the law should be extended was a question for the supreme court or legislature.
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