Proper recourse against former employer speaking bad about me publicly?
October 24, 2018 6:45 AM   Subscribe

My former employer (and her husband!) are discussing details regarding my employment and termination on a very public, highly followed local social media forum. This is happening on a thread that has absolutely nothing to do with me and the comments are becoming disparaging. What do?

YANML, I know. If folks here think it's worth reaching out to one, I will, but I'm looking for opinions to gauge whether this is even worth that...

In Aug of last year, I was terminated from my position with a local non-profit, after 4 stellar years there, when the general manager of the org (who happens to be my younger sister) sought to break rules regarding federal grant funds we were receiving and which were funding my position. I wrote this grant, was the PI on the grant, and had never received anything but praise from both the general manager and the Board for my work. When I informed the general manager I would alert the federal agency providing funding of her intent to break the rules, I was fired. She clearly stated this was why she was firing me. Despite that (and other serious issues I was able to document with proof), I did not seek remedy for my wrongful termination -- doing so, I worried, would bankrupt the org causing them to close their doors and I just couldn't risk that given the fact that closure would likely mean a fair number of marginalized people would quite literally have nowhere else to go. My love for those I served outweighed my want for personal justice. Sparing my parents the embarrassment of this was a motivating factor, too.

Yesterday, some kind of issue was made public regarding a letter the general manager wrote and distributed to employees and some caregivers / parents felt it was condescending and rude. This was shared on a public social media "breaking news" page with about 10,000 followers. I did not comment but watched the thread and after an mutual acquaintance commented that things seemed to have taken a turn for the worse after I left, the general manager stepped in to comment that that I didn't step down, I was fired. Further, her husband (my brother in law, ugh) began to comment, sharing that I was a "disgruntled former check getter" and that his "dog was more credible" than me. He used my full name in these comments. His comments are false -- I wasn't just a "check getter", I actually made sure my position was grant funded along with multiple other positions the org could not have otherwise afforded, including the general manager at times, and I've met his dog. She's cute but not nearly as credible as me.

My question: is this like, legal?

1. While I know that the general manager can pretty much say as she pleases about my employment to "prospective employers", can this information be shared on a large public forum like this? No one on this forum had a need to know any of this, nor did anyone ask if I left or was fired, she just offered it.

2. While her husband regularly cusses me via text without provocation ("fucking nazi bitch" was my favorite :)), is it legal for him to disclose this information in a public forum, too? I would think "stepped down????? FIRED is what it is normally referred to as!!!!!" coming from him is something that, at the very least, reflects poorly on the general manager and probably the org and is obviously hella unprofessional, but was it legal?

3. Would the general manager's husband's comments about me being less credible than a dog some sort of defamation or libel?

4. Was it legal for the general manager to share information regarding my employment with her husband in the way she obviously has? Is their sharing these details with the public some sort of disclosure of private facts?

As mentioned, I'll contact a lawyer to further suss this out but I'd like to know thoughts on best course of action. The Board of this non-profit was aware of the issues re: my termination -- I gave them proof their GM sought to break the rules of the grant and a few other issues -- but they did nothing so I don't think they'll offer much remedy here. There is a county board that oversees some aspects of management and a good chunk of funding for the org but the Executive Director of that Board actually liked the comments made by the GM and her husband so I'm not sure that's much help either. This org receives federal money too, but I don't think making some kind of complaint to our state's Department of Education or Medicare would make much sense in respect to this specific issue.

I've flat out ignored this behavior for over a year now, which included lost employment opportunities and my name being tarnished locally because I refused to speak badly about the org in defense of myself, but this seems over the top and clearly needs to be addressed. I now work in a very forward facing (awesome) job and having this sort of thing floating around isn't good for my reputation...

Thanks in advance for any help!
posted by youandiandaflame to Work & Money (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Get a solicitor.
posted by pompomtom at 7:00 AM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I see you're already going to contact a lawyer and that's a great start. Do as they tell you and don't engage your former employer. Do take lots of screenshots if you can.
posted by futureisunwritten at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2018 [21 favorites]

So, throughout your explanation, when you say "general manager" you mean your sister, and when you say "her husband" you mean your brother-in-law? You can consult a lawyer but I don't think there's much you can do about your family talking trash about you. On the other hand, it's pretty easy for you to write this off as your crazy sister and her hater husband. If you think it might affect your current job, you should let your manager know what's going on, but otherwise I'd try to stay above it.
posted by ubiquity at 7:02 AM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that you have a libel case but only a lawyer can tell you for sure. I suggest that you post your question on Avvo where local employment lawyers can give you an opinion on the viability of your case, for free. Make sure to edit it down to the facts and include your location. I am sorry this is happening to you, especially the family aspect, but also, please don't feel like the fate of the entire organization rests on your shoulders. If it's run by people like this, it's not doing anyone any favors and the world is better off without it.
posted by rada at 7:03 AM on October 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

I am not a lawyer, but I don't think there's any reason they can't tell the world you were fired, unless they signed some kind of agreement at the time your were hired or as part of your separation. They're not saying anything untrue, so it's not libel* (to me "check-grabber" and "less credible than my dog" seem like statements of opinion**, not fact).

It seems like your ex-boss/sister (kind of buried the lede there) is tarnishing her own reputation (and that of her org) way more than she's tarnishing yours. The whole thing sounds like a complete disaster. I sympathize with your desire to stay clear of this - it is so hard to defend yourself against unreasonable accusations without amplifying the drama, and engaging with these people directly seems like it would be just an invitation to more abuse!

Especially given that you now have a great job, I wouldn't worry that much about your reputation, - reasonable people are not listening to nutjobs like your sister and brother-in-law. Block them on social media, block their phone numbers. If people ask, say, "It was really hard working with my sister, and she fired me when I pointed out that we weren't following grant rules - I'm glad that's behind me."

* in most jurisdictions

** idiotic statements of asshole opinions, to be more specific
posted by mskyle at 7:06 AM on October 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:12 AM on October 24, 2018 [56 favorites]

To most sensible professionals, which is who you want to work with in the future, your sister and her husband's behaviour on social media is appalling. (So is the county board member's.) So if this ever comes up (unlikely), it will be easy for you to say fairly breezily, "yes...I brought up unethical practices and I was fired, which unfortunately is reflective of how the organization worked. Since then, I've learned not only how to get the kind of results I got there but...."

I think you could consult a lawyer for your own peace of mind but it doesn't sound that actionable.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:25 AM on October 24, 2018 [18 favorites]

They're not saying anything untrue, so it's not libel.

Part of the truth is not the whole truth. In this case, the truth would be "she reported fraud and we fired her in retaliation", not just "we fired her".

Speaking of retaliation, there could be a whistleblower case in addition to libel? But again, I am not a lawyer so I don't know if it applies.
posted by rada at 7:33 AM on October 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Don't jump all over the family stuff, folks, if the manager were OP's sister, they probably would have said so. Manager's husband may be OP's spouse's brother, i.e. it's family but not immediate family.
posted by aimedwander at 9:00 AM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

IANYL. I take it this is in a U.S. jurisdiction? Talk to a lawyer if it makes you feel better (privacy and defamation laws vary a lot from state to state so any generic theorizing is inevitably somewhat limited in applicability), but, based on what you've reported, the case for any kind of defamation action seems slender.

Part of the truth is not the whole truth. In this case, the truth would be "she reported fraud and we fired her in retaliation", not just "we fired her".

The law doesn't always work in such intuitive ways. I'm not sure it's legally totally impossible to make a case based on a material omission--probably varies by state--but it's always much more of an uphill battle.

Anyway, if you're worried about causing harm to the organization, a messy lawsuit is not the thing to do. (If you do end up paying for a lawyer, investing their retainer in the writing of a snippy letter to the org and its board might be, though.)
posted by praemunire at 9:02 AM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

if the manager were OP's sister, they probably would have said so

?? " the general manager of the org (who happens to be my younger sister)"

What am I misunderstanding?
posted by praemunire at 9:03 AM on October 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

How in the hell do people this unprofessional get to be "general managers" of anything?

I understand your commitment to the community the organisation serves, but if this is what management of said org looks like, said org is already broken; if it's somehow managing to serve community needs, that's in spite of poor management, and the people actually doing the hard work deserve a better organisation to work for. If the GM is doing hinky financial things, that's eventually going to take down the org, and ideally you'd have flagged this behaviour when it happened, but for now, I do think it's time to put aside your understandable concern for the mission. This org will not be functional in the long-term with this kind of management.
posted by halation at 9:08 AM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

To be clear, the general manager IS my sister and her husband IS my brother-in-law. Nepotism was rampant at this org but we genuinely had a great working relationship (I thought) until she stated her intent and I objected. Upon my objection, I was terminated. I have not ever commented on the situation or the further issues I have proof of to anyone outside my parents but the day after I was fired, a seriously awful campaign of dragging my name through the mud began and has not stopped. The whole thing just sucks.

Given these latest comments they've made very publicly, I wondered if perhaps this didn't now fall under the privacy tort of public disclosure of private facts or false light in some way given that these comments are not of legitimate concern to the general public and this is not something newsworthy. I'd also wondered if this was some breach of confidentiality because it was a disclosure to a third party that was NOT a potential employer. The comments have given publicity to my termination (and this is a small community -- this HAS gotten around already and I'm already fielding questions) and combined with the husband's comments, paint me in a false light, as if I was fired for being dishonest or not credible in some way.

I'm fairly certain all this relates to "common law qualified privilege" somehow in that these statements were not made to a prospective employer (but the general public, who had no need to know) and that qualified privilege had been abused for that reason. Does anyone have thoughts on this count specifically -- am I way off base?

I recognize this is "family" and I recognize managers probably share this sort of thing all the time with their spouses but I assumed I might have some kind of protection from a former manager's husband publicly speaking about details of my employment he should legally not be privy to while defaming my character at the same time.

snickerdoodle: This behavior has been concerning for some time and some of the allegations my sister has publicly floated about me are just bizarre but they have absolutely been damaging, both personally and professionally. This is a small community and my sister and I were inseparable best friends for 15 years before this so questions have continued even though I'm a year out from this ordeal. Again though, I have NEVER commented to those asking, though I know my sister has shared insane stories with mutual friends and even potential employers. The leverage they would've had would revolve around my nieces but they cut off both mine and my parents access to them months ago. Otherwise, I've genuinely acted in good faith and any leverage rests with me -- the amount of proof of significant wrongdoing I have, some of which would qualify as felonies, is staggering. I obviously do not want to make this a legal matter (or I would have by now) and I've not engaged either of them at all regarding the things they've said but it's sort of getting to the point where I'm wondering how long I let it go on before I do something.
posted by youandiandaflame at 9:41 AM on October 24, 2018

this didn't now fall under the privacy tort of public disclosure of private facts or false light

This statement is kindly meant, intended to spare you wasted hours and agitation: stop it with the Google-lawyering. This is one of those situations where, in a technical field, you don't know what you don't know. If you want actual informed legal advice based on your (unknown) state's law and the exact facts of your situation, you need to pay for it. Independent research has already misled you and will likely only confuse you further.

If you feel that you might have been even an innocent bystander to actual misconduct while there, I do recommend your speaking to a lawyer, to make sure you have no legal liability yourself (and maybe to see if you have information valuable to a False Claims Act case). I don't think a consultation re: potential defamation is going to turn out to be worth it, but of course it's your money and you can decide what it's worth. At the very least, a nastygram from an actual attorney telling them to knock it off doesn't require much of a legal basis, shouldn't cost you too much to have written, and may have more effect than anything you might say personally.
posted by praemunire at 9:54 AM on October 24, 2018 [33 favorites]

This is obviously highly unprofessional, so it leads me to the personal relations aspect. Do you still speak to your sister? Does she still want a relationship with you? Might addressing, privately, the danger she is putting her position in get her to retract all this? It might be an angle to consider.
posted by MountainDaisy at 10:10 AM on October 24, 2018

Ugh. This sounds awful.

Legal stuff aside, when you do talk to your sister, I'm guessing it's like talking to a brick wall. One thought: your calling her on her grant violation probably felt like you were judging her as a bad person. Since you're her older sister and were her close friend, that probably did crazy things to her self image. If you ever decide to try to mend the rift, maybe address that directly. She'll need to know that you still think she's fundamentally a good, worthy person, underneath all the crazy stuff she's done. It sounds like that will be hard, but, you know, she still has done and can do a lot of good stuff.
posted by amtho at 10:36 AM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does anyone have thoughts on this count specifically -- am I way off base?

Only a (good) lawyer can tell if you have a plausible claim, and one that you've engaged and paid a bit of money to think about it for a few minutes. Getting advice on legal matters is like having someone install electrical wiring in your house: you pretty much need to pay a licensed professional.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:07 AM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Who cares if it is "legal" or not? From your description, you have been retaliated against for whistleblowing, suffered missed economic opportunity, and are still being publicly harrassed and libelled a year later as the general manager attempts to deflect attention from her own actions.

I would put aside your fears of bankrupting the non-profit, and go on full offence with the biggest, baddest lawsuit you can muster. Let the courts decide if it is legal. Chances are it won't even get to court, as members of the board, faced with legal action may come to a settlement and give serious thought about backing up a genearal manager who is still stirring the pot over something that would have quietly gone away if she had just STFU. Best.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 12:03 PM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I am not a lawyer, but a quick Google seems to indicate that failure to report a felony is illegal in some states. Something else to look into.
posted by bricoleur at 12:15 PM on October 24, 2018

Who cares if it is "legal" or not?...I would put aside your fears of bankrupting the non-profit, and go on full offence with the biggest, baddest lawsuit you can muster. Let the courts decide if it is legal.

Bringing a lawsuit without a plausible basis is actually a violation of both ethical and court rules for lawyers in most every U.S. jurisdiction. In a number of circumstances, if the case is found to be sufficiently frivolous, the court can require you to pay the other party's attorneys' fees. These are not crazy common scenarios, but they can happen. Also, from an ethical point of view, bringing a lawsuit that you don't reasonably believe is meritorious is a pretty awful thing to do. OP, this is why when it comes to the formal legal aspects of this case, at least, you need to talk to a lawyer, not Internet randos like us.
posted by praemunire at 12:26 PM on October 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Regardless of the facts of the case I think you need to think seriously about what kind of outcome you want, and whether pursuing legal action can get you there.

Let's imagine you sued your sister and her husband for libel or defamation or breach of contract or whatever and got a judgment in your favor (I have no idea whether this is likely or even remotely possible). The court could award you monetary damages (which might end up coming from your sister/her husband or could be from the organization), and it could tell them to stop doing the thing that they were doing. Would that be satisfying? Would they just attack you in another, legal way? A lawsuit (even a successful lawsuit!) can't turn your sister and brother-in-law into rational non-asshole human beings. Mostly a lawsuit can award you money. I guess it would also be a public declaration that your sister and brother-in-law are, in fact, wrong, but it seems like this would be pretty obvious to anyone who's paying any attention to them in the first place, so I don't know that a court case would convert any hearts and minds.

These people really are obviously wrong and bad, but I'm not sure winning a legal case against them would put you in any better of a situation than you are in now. Even if they're doing something legally actionable, you're still kind of in a "so what?" situation - they've already demonstrated that they're willing to break the law in the case of the misuse of grant funds, and you chose not to pursue legal action over that, which seems much more clear-cut than what you're talking about now.
posted by mskyle at 1:18 PM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Forget about it. Seeing anything like that makes anyone with a skerrick of professionalism and good sense very suspicious - of the person posting, not the person who's being talked about.

I think your very understandable hurt and frustration is distorting your view on how mamy people are reading and seeing this stuff, and its actual impact on you. Of the 10000 members of that group, you would be unlucky if 100 saw it.

Moreover, painful as it is, engaging with this stuff ongoing will just leave you more miserable, angry, and upset. Because I think all the things you probably want - which really, ultimately I think boil down to an acknowledgement from them that you were a good worker fired unjustly - is never, ever going to happen, and honestly i don't think there's anything you could do to change that.

This appears to be a combination of small town /community drama, and family drama - a toxic combo, but trust me when I say that no one outside and few people inside the community and family cares about this anywhere near remotely as much as you and your sister do.

You've got a good job now. Leave that Facebook group and this whole mess behind you. Let your sister wallow in it.
posted by smoke at 1:20 PM on October 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm going to leave the legal aspect alone since you are already intending to see a lawyer. Ask them about wrongful termination of whistleblowers in your jurisdiction, while you're at it.

On a human note: I don't blame you for being at your wits' end and wanting to do anything to shut your BIL up. But, honestly: leave it alone. Stop the law-googling; and also stop the noble silence-posture which you say has cost you opportunities. It's fine to state the facts, when asked: the GM fired me when we disagreed about the legality of a course of action she'd decided to take.

Your BIL is obviously unhinged, and seems to be dragging your sister down with him. He just made himself look completely ridiculous to whoever was still reading that thread (although I agree with whoever it was above who said that very few people actually read or care about the content of such fora) and the last thing you want is to get into the mudpit with them.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:57 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have a lawyer send a letter to the hosting website and have those comments quietly removed.

Have a lawyer send a cease & desist to the org and the board and your sister and your brother in law telling them to stop publicly disparaging you.

Document Document Document

You may also want to get a restraining order against your sister and her husband preventing them from contacting you or posting about you on social media. This is harassment, depending on your jurisdiction and the content of the text messages, it may be misdemeanor criminal threatening.

See a lawyer with screenshots and all other documentation. Do not even breathe in their direction, get a lawyer to handle this.

You are correct they are endangering your current and future employment opportunities. Seek legal representation.
posted by jbenben at 5:07 PM on October 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

All of this is super helpful. Thanks.

What kind of lawyer should I seek out? I don't plan on litigating this but I would like to have a letter sent to the org and I obviously need to make sure that I've not put myself in a position of being liable for some kind of fraud, something I ignorantly didn't even consider until I posted this question.

I'm in a rural, small community and will likely have to travel to visit with a lawyer that understands this stuff. This far, I've not found one within even a couple hundred miles (seriously) that deals with much other than family law or DWIs and the like.
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:41 PM on October 24, 2018

Sneaky rat that I am, I'd just turn them in for the mis-use of federal funds and let nature take its course.
posted by rudd135 at 6:16 PM on October 24, 2018 [10 favorites]

(I’ve secretly via a proxy done what rudd135 recomends. Results were A++. It was a different political climate, tho, so ymmv.)
posted by jbenben at 7:10 PM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

What kind of lawyer should I seek out?

Libel, slander and defamation. If you wanted to dig back to the actual firing, employment or whistleblower.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:58 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Rudd135 for the win.
posted by Jubey at 10:11 PM on October 24, 2018

You can most likely consult with a lawyer over the phone - look in the nearest large city in your state. But a lawyer that does DUIs and divorces can probably write a letter just fine!
posted by mskyle at 6:31 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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