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Sorry, But Hurt Feelings Don't Make a Defamation Case

agevel.jpgDefamation is a difficult claim to bring. And damages, harm to reputation, false accusations of criminality, are generally hard to prove. Court's often err on the side of freedom of speech in these cases.

In a recent case, the person who brought the lawsuit answered an ad for a delivery driver position at a restaurant. He came to the job, was hired the same day and worked 3 ½ hours. He was then told to go home and report back the next morning. But when he tried to give the owner the money he collected during deliveries that day, he was told that "everything would be resolved tomorrow". The driver also talked to the owner's daughter, who worked at the restaurant and was given the same response.

After he returned home, the daughter called to ask about the money. She also insisted that the employee return to the restaurant to settle the dispute. He felt that this was rude and replied that it the owner wanted his money, he would have to come and get it.

Shortly after that, another delivery driver arrived and demanded payment of $119.55, an amount that employee who sued felt was incorrect. Threats of arrest ensued by both the delivery driver and the owner and the police were called. The dispute was resolved and no criminal charges were filed.

The now ex-delivery driver got the police report, which showed that the owner reported that he never told the former employee "to go home with the money." Believing that he had a claim, he filed in small claims court for damages for "false statement to local police," harassing behavior, and refusal to pay wages. After a non-jury trial, the judge dismissed the case.

Acting without a lawyer, the decision was appealed. The Appeals Court agreed with the trial judge that the case could not possibly be a defamation claim under the law. First, the owner's statements were made only to the police and could not have harmed his reputation. Second, the owner did not pursue criminal charges. Finally, even if criminal charges were filed, NJ law completely protects information given to police from defamation claims. Evan Xavier Bakhet is a J.D. Candidate at Rutgers School of Law-Newark with a scheduled graduation date in 2017. He collaborated with me on this blog.


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