# Really Terrible Precedent: It's still libel even if it's true?

Universal Hub points out an analysis of Noonan vs. Staples, in which an employee terminated for violating the travel and reimbursement policy is trying to get grounds to sue for libel and access to his stock options.

The 1st Circuit Federal Appeals court had ruled that he had no grounds but has now reversed that ruling.

In the opinion they do state that in order to be libel a statement must, among other things, be false:
Under Massachusetts law, a plaintiff alleging libel must ordinarily establish five elements: (1) that the defendant published a written statement; (2) of and concerning the plaintiff; that was both (3) defamatory, and (4) false; and (5) either caused economic loss, or is actionable without proof of economic loss.
but they claim that there is an exception:
Massachusetts law, however, recognizes a narrow exception to this defense: the truth or falsity of the statement is immaterial, and the libel action may proceed, if the plaintiff can show that the defendant acted with “actual malice” in publishing the statement. White, 809 N.E.2d at 1036 n.4 (citing Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 92).

The court goes on to disregard a 1964 precedent defining “actual malice”, and use a 1903 definition instead:

A 1903 case from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court explains that the term meant “malicious intention.” Conner v. Standard Publ’g Co., 67 N.E. 596, 598 (Mass. 1903). Since 1964, however, the term “actual malice” has taken on a new meaning in defamation cases involving public figures; in this context, a person acts with “‘actual malice’” when he acts “‘with knowledge that [a defamatory statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’” Cantrell v. Forest City Publ’g Co., 419 U.S. 245, 251 (1974) (alteration in original) (quoting New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 280 (1964)). But, the Supreme Court has explained that actual malice in the public-figure context is different than “common-law malice” or “ill will,” which is sometimes required under state law. Id. at 251-52.

     Though the Massachusetts statute at issue in this case also uses the term "actual malice," we are persuaded that we should not read that term as having the specialized meaning later developed by the Supreme Court.

The plaintiff claims (and the court agrees) that using the plaintiff’s name in an email to the company explaining why he was terminated might be understood by a jury to be malicious. This is the email, according to the opinion:

The e-mail stated as follows:

It is with sincere regret that I must inform you of the termination of Alan Noonan’s employment with Staples. A thorough investigation determined that Alan was not in compliance with our [travel and expenses] policies. As always, our policies are consistently applied to everyone and compliance is mandatory on everyone’s part. It is incumbent on all managers to understand Staples[’s] policies and to consistently communicate, educate and monitor compliance every single day. Compliance with company policies is not subject to personal discretion and is not optional. In addition to ensuring compliance, the approver’s responsibility to monitor and question is a critical factor in effective management of this and all policies.

If you have any questions about Staples[’s] policies or Code of Ethics, call the Ethics Hotline . . . or ask your human resources manager.
Media Law summarizes the precedent:
The Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan defined actual malice as requiring knowledge that a statement was false or reckless disregard for its truth or falsity. The first time the 1st Circuit decided this case, it applied that standard to dismiss Noonan’s appeal. This time, it leapfrogged back in time over 40 years of Supreme Court precedent to apply a 1903 SJC ruling that defined actual malice as “malicious intention,” which Torruella recasts as “ill will.”

Setting aside the question of whether it’s malicious to make an example of someone, this is a scary disregard of precedent and an ominous blow against freedom of speech. I can’t see the sense in this—it seems like an obvious violation of the 1st Amendment to claim that Staples did not have the right to send a message to their employees about events happening in the company, if that message contained true statements. Would the court prevent a news article from being published about Noonan’s termination? I really hope not.

law