Media Law Prof Blog

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Louisiana State Univ.

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Friday, June 10, 2005

Accusation That Former Employee Posted Offensive Content on Website Not Defamatory According to 7th Circuit

In Cody v. Taft Harris, the 7th Circuit has upheld a lower court ruling that a employer's statement that a former employee posted "offensive content" on its website is not defamatory even though the accusation turned out to be untrue. In 2001 Taft Harris, the general manager of radio station WPWX-FM fired sales manager Mark Cody for "failure to hire the sales team he had promised and failure to achieve the required sales budget...". After Cody left the station, "offensive content including some pornographic images appeared on WPWX.com", a domain name that the station had been interested in purchasing. Harris apparently believed that Cody was the culprit and said so to WPWX employees after a January 2002 sales meeting. "`This has got to be Mark Cody. I know Mark did this. I know he is responsible for this. Later, at another sales meeting, Harris commented to the sales staff that there was evidence pointing to Cody's involvement in posting the offensive content. Harris also told other WPWX executives that Cody was behind the situation."

Cody first sued in Illinois state court on various counts including defamation and interference with business relationships he had developed since his firing; the defendants removed to federal court. The district court dismissed all counts "related to Harris's statements in staff meetings and contract interference...." The court also dismissed Cody's claims of defamation concerning statements Harris had made to members of the media about Cody's performance as well as the website incident. Cody appealed both sets of rulings to the 7th circuit.

Applying Illinois state law, the 7th circuit examined whether Harris had defamed Cody by "accus[ing him] of lacking ability in his trade or doing something bad in the course of carrying out his job..." The court reasoned that on the contrary, "Harris essentially implied that Cody has a bad temper, is unable to control his anger, and lacks the integrity and judgment to resist getting revenge in an immature and vicious manner. All of these implications go to Cody's personal, rather than professional, traits....We see no reason to believe that managing the sales department of a radio station requires a degree of integrity above and beyond that required for any job. It is true that Harris's accusations suggest that Cody lacks certain qualities desirable in an employee, and the accusations might indeed make it harder for Cody to get a job. But the increased difficulty in finding employment would be due to Cody's perceived bad character traits, not tobecause of his perceived inability to do the job. Cody must plead and prove actual damages to recover for defamation, which he has not done."

Read the entire opinion here.  This page indicates that oral argument is also available although I was not able to get the file to download successfully. Check here.

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