California Employers Can Sue Workers for Online Defamation

In recent years, websites like glassdoor.com and vault.com have given workers an online forum to write anonymous reviews of their employers, providing an insider take on salaries, working conditions, management style and anything else a prospective job applicant might want to know.

A lot of times an employer might receive negative reviews that it thinks are unfair. But traditionally employers have had little recourse against employees who post nasty comments, since the postings are anonymous unless the site operator discloses the poster’s identity. Further, under federal communications law website operators are generally shielded from liability for what people post, and they’ve cited the First Amendment and privacy grounds as justification for refusing to identify those who make defamatory comments.

However, a recent ruling from a state appeals court in California shows that the door may be opening a little bit for employers.

In that case, current and former employees of a tech company slammed the company and its management on glassdoor.com.

The company wanted to sue the posters for defamation and asked a court to order glassdoor.com to hand over information identifying them. A trial court judge denied the request and threw out the defamation claim.

But the California Court of Appeal reversed the decision and said that a website operator can be ordered to provide the identity of online posters if the employer can establish that the comments meet the standard for “malice” under defamation law. In other words, the employer would need to show the comments were both false and injured the employer’s reputation.

This is still a high bar for employers to meet. They have to establish that the statements in question are objectively, factually false, and not just statements of opinion that the employer disagrees with or that hurt the employer’s feelings. That means statements like “lousy management,” “awful communicators” and “unfair bosses” aren’t enough.

This is also just one ruling from one state. But if current or former employees are spreading false and damaging information about your company online, it’s worth a call to an employment lawyer to see what your options might be.

Categories: