Jury Finds E-Mail About Reason for Firing Not Malicious

By Staff Report

Oct. 14, 2009

No malice was involved when a company sent an e-mail saying an employee was fired for allegedly padding his expense reports, a jury has concluded in a closely watched case because of the First Amendment issue it raised.

The case of Alan S. Noonan v. Staples Inc. went to a federal district court jury after a February 13 ruling by the 1st U.S. District Court of Appeals in the case held that truth is not an absolute defense against libel.

At issue was an e-mail sent by a vice president of the Framingham, Massachusetts-based office supply company to some 1,500 company employees stating Noonan was fired for failing to comply with company travel and expense policies.

Noonan did not “seriously challenge” the e-mail’s truthfulness, according to the appeals court.

In its ruling, the appeals court said a jury could infer that the VP “singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him.” Citing a 1902 Massachusetts law, the court said, “Even a true statement can form the basis of a libel action if the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with ‘actual malice.’ ”

The case went before a federal court jury in Boston, which decided October 8 that no malice was involved in sending the e-mail.

Noonan’s attorney, Richard Gelb of Gelb & Gelb in Boston, said he plans to appeal the jury’s decision on the basis that the judge’s jury instructions on the issue of malice were too narrow.

The appeals court’s ruling, however, still stands, Gelb said.Filed by Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail

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