LAURIE GAMBARDELLA v. APPLE HEALTH CARE, INC., et al., SC 17977
Judicial District of Waterbury
Torts; Defamation; Whether Qualified Privilege for Intracorporate Communications can only be Defeated by a Showing of "Actual Malice." The plaintiff was employed at an extended care facility owned by the defendants. When one of the residents of the facility died, a representative of the resident's family told the plaintiff that the family was not interested in the furniture remaining in the resident's room and that the plaintiff was free to take what she liked. The plaintiff was fired after she took two chairs home. She brought this defamation action claiming that the defendants had libeled her by publishing a "disciplinary action" notice that falsely stated that she was guilty of theft of facility property. The defendants argued that they were immunized from liability by the qualified privilege for intracorporate communications, which protects communications between managers regarding the preparation of documents concerning an employee's termination. The trial court rendered judgment for the plaintiff, noting that a qualified privilege may be lost if a defendant publishes a defamatory remark with malice, improper motive or bad faith, and that, here, the defendants acted in bad faith. The court observed that the defendants' bad faith was evidenced by their continuing assertion that the plaintiff committed theft, a conclusion the court deemed unreasonable. The court found it "abundantly clear" that the statement that the plaintiff committed theft was false, and that, at most, the plaintiff's taking of the chairs constituted a violation of the defendants' policy against accepting gifts from the families of residents. The defendants appeal, claiming that, while the law in Connecticut is unsettled on this point, the qualified intracorporate privilege should only be defeated by a showing of "actual malice," that is, that a defendant made the defamatory statement with knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard of its truth. The defendants assert that actual malice has nothing to do with bad motive or ill will toward the plaintiff, but rather that an inquiry into the existence of actual malice focuses on a defendant's subjective evaluation of the truth or falsity of the statement and not on the defendant's attitude toward the plaintiff or motivation for making the statement. The defendants contend that the judgment cannot stand because the trial court's decision seemingly conflated the concepts of bad faith and actual malice. In any case, they contend that the evidence was insufficient to support the ruling that the qualified privilege was defeated because there was no finding that the defendants subjectively entertained doubts as to the veracity of the statement that the plaintiff committed theft or actually knew that statement to be false. The defendants maintain that, if anything, their steadfast assertion that the plaintiff committed theft tends to show that they believed in the truth of their statement, thus defeating a showing of actual malice.