“What can an ex-employer say about an ex-employee?”

QuestionMy boyfriend was let go from his job. The only thing he was told was that he was being let go, though it should be noted that when he was hired, he was told the work may be temporary.

He is currently going through a divorce, and his wife went to his ex-employer and asked for a letter stating why he was fired. The company – which her step-father works for – provided her with a letter listing numerous reasons why he was “fired.”

My boyfriend was never provided with a copy of that letter. His wife then used this letter in court, and stated in the court that she went and asked for the letter, and was given it.

Is this legal? Can he take action against his ex-employer?  

(City, State Not Provided)

Answer: Dear Kathryn:

What happened to your boyfriend illustrates important issues about the relation between former employees and their former employers:     

1. After the employment relation ends, the former employer and former employee are, for the most part, essentially “strangers.”  With very few exceptions, former employees and former employers have no relation to each other, almost as if strangers, unless they have signed an agreement obligating themselves further. There are very few exceptions to that.

2. Thus, neither the former employee nor the former employer has any legal expectation of privacy, confidentiality or secrecy, unless they have agreed to that. Thus, both the employer and the employee are free to tell other people anything they want regarding the other. That said, again, just like strangers, if one makes a false and damaging statement about the other, the “victim” of the false statement can sue the 0ne who spoke or wrote falsely.   

 3. The law does prohibit defamation, but that requires the utterance of a false statement. Defamation is a very narrow concept. It requires (a) the public dissemination, (b) of a false statement, (c) that is damaging, and (d) is outside of several different exceptions that the law permits. For example, in a courtroom trial, no matter what a witness says – no matter how false, no matter how widely it is publicized, and no matter how damaging, the law says “This is protected, and is outside of what we call defamation.” Another exception are expressions of opinion, because they are not statements of “fact.” There are many other such exceptions. It is very possible that the letter written by your boyfriend’s former employer were true, or were protected opinion, or fit into some other exception.  

4. So the former employer is free to make true statements (oral or written), and so is the former employee. My  concern is that the reasons in the letter that went to Court may have been true. As noted above, both former employees and former employers are free to make true statements, regardless of the effect of those statements.  

5. Incidentally, the fact that your husband’s wife’s step-father works for the company should make the letter’s statement suspect, perhaps even without any credibility. One thing I do hasten to point out: I would expect that your boyfriend’s lawyer in court would remind the Judge that his wife’s father works for the former employer, and thus it makes the letter somewhat suspect. In fact, the letter would seem to some to be without any credibility whatsoever.

So, for these reasons, from what you have written, I think what the  former employer did was “legal,” and I don’t think your boyfriend has any legal recourse against his former employer.  Sorry for the bad news.

Thanks, in any case, for writing in, and I do hope you’ve found this information helpful. We’d very much appreciate it if you would use our advertisers – by clicking to them on our blogsite – and in that way help us keep going with what we do.

Al Sklover

© 2011 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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