Dave Thomas v. United Steelworkers Local 1938. MN defamation
Dave Thomas was an employee of United States Steel and works in the pit at the company's Minntac facility in Mountain Iron, Minnesota. He had been an employee of US Steel and a member of the United Steelworkers since 1973. From 2003-2009, he worked as a team leader, which meant that he assisted the shift managers in working with the crews.
He worked under two area managers, and one of them testified that he had received only one complaint about Thomas's treatment of his crew. That complaint arose out of a 2009 incident in which Thomas scolded a driver for not following safety rules. There was yelling, and Thomas allegedly said, "no wonder the crew said you were a dumb f---ing truck driver."
The driver lodged a harassment complaint, and a fact-finding meeting was held. Both company and union representatives were at that meeting. The driver said that Thomas had apologized, and he did not believe that there had been any harassment.
But John Malek, who was attending the meeting as Local 1938's grievance representative, stated that he had received 20 complaints about Thomas. He said that Thomas had been "making threats" and "throwing his weight around," that he was an "absolute prick," that he was tired of "his crap" and that he was not going to "put up with his sh-- anymore."
Two days later, Thomas was removed as team leader. He was later reassigned, but after Malek claimed to have received anonymous phone complaints, Thomas was removed again. Thomas filed a complaint with the Union, but after determining that nothing would come of it, he sued Malek and the Union in Federal District Court in Minneapolis. Those included federal claims, but Thomas later dropped claims other than those of defamation and violation of the union constitution. The trial court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment, and Thomas appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Appeals Court first had to determine whether there was subject-matter jurisdiction, since the federal claims had been voluntarily dismissed. It determined that the federal courts did have jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeals first looked at the requirements for a defamation claim under Minnesota law. To sue for defamation, a plaintiff must show that a false statement was communicated to a third party, and that it harmed the plaintiff's reputation. The court then had to determine if these statements were false, or if they were mere opinions.
The Court of Appeals agreed that statements such as the plaintiff being a "prick" were mere opinions. But it focused on other statements, such as there being "20 complaints" and that the plaintiff had been "throwing his weight around for the past five years." These were statements of fact, the court concluded, and there was at least some evidence that the statements were false. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that a jury would need to sort out whether the statements were actually false, and it was error to dismiss the case.
Finally, the defendant's argued that the statements were subject to a qualified privilege. But the Court of Appeals agreed that there was no privilege because they were not in keeping with the purpose of the meeting.
For these reasons, the Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal and sent the case back to the District Court.
No. 12-3625 (8th Cir. Feb. 20, 2014).
Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.
Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).
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