Court of Appeals Rules that Plaintiff Failed to Show that Allegedly Defamatory Statement Was Provably False

On April 26, 2012, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Rosen v. American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Inc., No. 11-CV-368, slip op. (D.C. Apr. 26, 2012) in which it considered a defamation claim by a former employee against his employer and its spokesman. The employee was terminated by his employer amid controversy (including a criminal investigation) regarding his receipt and handling of classified information from a government official. The defamation claim was premised on a statement by the employer’s spokesman to the media indicating that the employee was terminated because he “did not comport with the standards that [the employer] expects of its employees.” Id. at 6-7 (internal quotation marks omitted). The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants on the grounds that the statement was not “provably false.” On appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision. The Court concluded that any defamatory meaning of the statement would have to arise from an interpretation of the word “standards.” The evidence showed, however, that the employer did not have any written standards and merely had unwritten general expectations that its employees would obey the law, follow the advice of in-house counsel, etc. The Court concluded that “[w]hatever collection of unwritten ‘standards’ [the employer] may have had [during the relevant time period], each was too subjective, too amorphous, too susceptible of multiple interpretations . . . to make any of them susceptible to proof of particular, articulable content.” Id. at 21. Accordingly, the employer’s “‘standards’ – a word of aggregation expressing an even higher level of generality – could have meant many things, none self-evident, and certainly none specifically directed at ‘receiving or handling classified information,’ [the employee’s] central focus in bringing [the] lawsuit.” Id. The Court therefore ruled that the plaintiff could not prove the falsity element of his defamation claim and, accordingly, upheld the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment for the defendants.