Your reputation as a medical provider is a commodity you must protect, especially regarding your aptitude for providing patient care. Of course, you may not be a perfect fit at every medical practice. When that happens, your employment may end, and you seek other employment. No harm, no foul.
But what happens when your past employer provides a negative reference to your prospective employer? Worse still, what if the reference falsely criticizes your competence as a medical provider? And what if that false reference costs you the position? Your past employer may be guilty of engaging in improper behavior providing you a remedy at law.
If your past employer’s statements are false, you may have a defamation claim. In short, defamation occurs when a person negligently makes a false and defamatory statement about another that is conveyed without privilege to at least one third party and injures the defamed person. RCO Legal, P.S., Inc. v. Johnson, 820 S.E.2d 491, 498–99 (Ga. Ct. App. 2018); O.C.G.A. §§ 51-5-1, 51-5-4. Communication to the prospective employer generally satisfies the “publication” element of a defamation claim. O.C.G.A. § 51-5-3. If you can show you lost an employment opportunity because of the reference, it is likely you can show an injury. The difficulty may be in proving the statements were actually false.
Note, you must act quickly if you believe you were defamed because the statute of limitations for a defamation claim is one year. O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33. The statute of limitations begins running on “the date of the alleged defamatory acts regardless of whether or not [you] had knowledge of the act or acts at the time of their occurrence.” Brewer v. Schacht, 509 S.E.2d 378, 383 (Ga. Ct. App. 1998).
Tortious Interference with Business Relations
In Georgia, to recover for tortious interference with business relations, you must show your past employer: “(1) acted improperly and without privilege; (2) acted purposely and with malice with the intent to injure; (3) induced a third party or parties not to enter into or continue a business relationship with [you]; and (4) caused [you] financial injury.” Cook Pecan Co. v. McDaniel, 810 S.E.2d 186, 190 (Ga. Ct. App. 2018).
There is no falsity requirement here, but a claimant must show the past employer “acted improperly.” As to privilege, Georgia protects employers when they provide employment references. Specifically, when a future employer requests a reference, the past employer “is presumed to be acting in good faith unless lack of good faith is shown by a preponderance of the evidence.” O.C.G.A. § 34-1-4(b). This privilege is not absolute.
The statute of limitations for tortious interference claims is less restrictive than defamation claims “even if the interference allegedly was accomplished through defamation.” Brewer v. Schacht, 509 S.E.2d 378, 383 (Ga. Ct. App. 1998). Georgia courts apply the four-year statute of limitations found in O.C.G.A. § 9-3-31 to tortious interference claims in the employment setting. Lee v. Gore, 472 S.E.2d 164, 166 (Ga. Ct. App. 1996).
The above is intended only to outline possible options you may have if you are the object of an untruthful or unfair employment reference. Hamil Little is experienced in employment matters. If you would like to discuss your options or have questions about this post, contact us at (404) 685-1662 (Atlanta) or (706) 722-7886 (Augusta), or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also learn more about our law firm by visiting www.hamillittle.com.
** Disclaimer: Thoughts shared here do not constitute legal advice. Please consult with an attorney to discuss your legal issue.