Sexual harassment claims carry serious repercussions for those accused. This is true even if an investigation reveals the claims were unsubstantiated and the accused individual is later exonerated. For this reason, many professionals consider filing a defamation lawsuit against the accuser. Attorney Brian Leinhauser of MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser advises clients on the most important things to know when considering suing for defamation.
A working definition of defamation is a false public statement about another that causes damage to that person’s reputation. To bring a claim for defamation, each of the elements must be satisfied. Beyond satisfaction of the elements of the claim, there are several critical issues to consider when thinking about suing an accuser for defamation in a sexual harassment matter.
First and foremost, you must separate the facts from the opinions of the accusation. When considering a defamation suit, you must consider whether the factual statements used as the basis for the defamation claim are true. In many cases, the If the factual statements are true and can reasonably be interpreted as sexual harassment, then there is no basis for a defamation claim. The interpretation of the facts by the accuser, or the opinion of the accuser about whether the underlying facts constitutes harassment are generally not be actionable as defamation. Likewise, in a she-said/he-said scenario, being able to prove the truth of a fact is important.
The benefit or harm caused by additional exposure to the situation should be analyzed as well. If an accusation of sexual harassment is decidedly public, then the incentive to clear one’s name might motivate the accused to pursue the defamation litigation regardless of the cost or benefit at the end. On the other hand, in the case of a quiet accusation of sexual harassment, even where false, a defamation lawsuit might make public that which has, until then, gone unnoticed publicly.
Cost of litigation should also be considered. While some attorneys may take a claim like this on contingency, there are others that would want to be paid on an hourly basis for the litigation. A defamation suit can be lengthy and expensive if no settlement is achieved. Moreover, if the defendant in the defamation suit has no significant assets, then the judgment achieved, while providing the benefit of exoneration, might provide little else by way of compensation for the damages caused by the false statement.
Whether the individual accused is a public or private figure also makes a difference. Where the accused is a public figure, there is an additional burden to prove that the factual averments are made knowing that they are false or with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement. For a private figure, the burden of proof is lower, and they only need to demonstrate that the false statements were negligently made.
Finally, the accused must consider whether the time, energy, and effort of litigation that could take months or even years is worth the outcome desired. Even where the accusation is known to be false or the proof is easy, it may be difficult to achieve the desired result without litigating the matter.
The business litigation attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser advise and counsel clients on all matters of business and employment law. For more information about the services we offer, submit an online inquiry or call 484-318-7106.