TERMINATION DEFAMATION CLAIMS

In the private secular sector, employers are typically very careful about revealing the reason for termination of an employee except upon service of a subpoena or regulatory order compelling production of the information.  But, there is no Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine or Ministerial Exception in the private secular sector so leaked defamatory statements, typically in email, texts, or other digital documents could form the basis for a defamation claim under the right facts.

In Maize v Friendship Community Church, Inc., Slip Op. (Tenn. App., 2020), the pastor was terminated and a group of communications leaked that indicated it was because of an allegedly improper relationship between the pastor and the sound booth operator.  The pastor tried to retain control of the church and the sanctuary building but was ultimately locked out.  Because a wrongful termination claim was not available, the pastor sued claiming that the leaked information regarding the grounds for termination was untrue and defamatory.  The trial court dismissed the case because the termination of a pastor by a church is outside the jurisdiction of the court due to the First Amendment imperatives.  The trial court held also that the allegedly leaked reasons for termination were likewise barred from judicial review by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The appellate court affirmed.

Defamation claims are sufficiently problematic that only the wealthy can sustain them to any conclusion, but they are rarely won.  In the information drenched society defamatory information may have fifteen minutes of fame and then be forever lost.  Most defamatory information in the information age only migrates from one place to another if someone goes looking for it.  Nevertheless, churches and parachurch organizations should be circumspect regarding termination communications.  Defined precautions as to release of information may also provide a defense in some jurisdictions.  Of course, if the defamatory statement is true, there can be no claim, which may explain why there are so few successful defamation cases.

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