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Stolarczyk v. Spherion Corporation: US District Court : EMPLOYMENT | TORT - defamation claims fail on summary judgment; no provably false statements; absolute or qualified privlidge

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
08-CV-4678(JMR/FLN)
Lauree Stolarczyk )
)
v. ) ORDER
)
Spherion Corporation a/k/a )
Spherion Atlantic Enterprises LLC )
This is a defamation case arising out of a somewhat
complicated employment situation.
Plaintiff was employed by defendant, Spherion Corporation
a/k/a Spherion Atlantic Enterprises LLC (Spherion). Spherion is
a temporary staffing service. In 2003, Spherion placed plaintiff
in a temporary information technology position with R.R. Donnelley
Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. She served in that position for
approximately four months. When she left R.R. Donnelley, she left
her employment with Spherion. Three years later, plaintiff again
applied for work at Spherion as a temporary employee. Spherion did
not rehire her.
Spherion told plaintiff its decision against rehiring her was
primarily based on plaintiffs having stored an eleven-inch knife
in her desk during her employment with R.R. Donnelley. After
receiving this explanation, plaintiff sued Spherion for defamation.
Defendant seeks summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Fed. R. Civ. P.) denying its
statement was defamatory, and claiming it was both privileged and
true.
2
Plaintiff did not respond to defendants motion. Defendants
motion for summary judgment is granted.
I. Background
The facts are either undisputed or considered in the light
most favorable to plaintiff. Plaintiff, Lauree Stolarczyk, was
employed by Spherion from September 15, 2003, through January 17,
2004. Three months after being placed at R.R. Donnelley,
Stolarczyks co-workers reported strange behavior. On December
10, 2003, one co-worker saw Stolarczyk rifle through office drawers
without permission. (Stolarczyk Dep. 92:2-7.) A week later, coworkers
complained that plaintiff engaged in disrespectful
outbursts. (Stolarczyk Dep. 95:8-15.) On January 8, 2004, two
co-workers witnessed Stolarczyk chanting and drawing pictures of
dead people. (Stolarczyk Dep. 100:18-25.) The next day, a coworker
complained that Stolarczyk kept a large knife in her desk.
The co-worker removed the knife and gave it to the on-site Spherion
representative. Spherion recorded these incidents in its employee
database.
Stolarczyk admits looking through office drawers and doodling.
However, she denies making outbursts and drawing dead people.
(Stolarczyk Dep. 44:16-20; 92:2-16; 95:8-17.) She admits she had
disagreements with co-workers and kept an eleven-inch knife in her
desk. She says the knife was used to cut her lunch. (Stolarczyk
Dep. 46:17-20.)
3
On January 12, 2004, Stolarczyk and her supervisors met to
discuss these issues. Stolarczyk was placed on probation for 90
days for bringing a weapon to work, which was against company
policy. Three days later, Spherion told Stolarczyk her assignment
at R.R. Donnelly would end the next day. On January 21, 2004,
Stolarczyk applied for another temporary position with Spherion.
She was not hired at that time.
Spherion did not hear from plaintiff until January 11, 2007,
almost exactly three years later, when she applied to Spherion for
another temporary position, and was granted an interview. During
the interview, Spherion employee Amelia Walicke found Spherions
employee database records concerning Stolarczyks past behavior.
Walicke told Stolarczyk she would not be rehired based on reports
that she had drawn dead bodies and brought a weapon to work.
(Stolarczyk Dep. 17:1-10.)
On February 1, 2008, Stolarczyk sent an email to Spherion
asking for an explanation of Amelia Walickes statement finding her
ineligible for rehire. Kerry Lennon responded on behalf of
Spherion, saying she would follow-up with more information.
(Lennon Aff. 12-14.) Lennon gathered information and called
Stolarczyks former supervisor and co-workers, one of whom reported
having received an anonymous and insulting phone message. Spherion
employee emails discussing the phone message do not attribute the
voice mail to Stolarczyk, but reference an anonymous caller.
4
(Stolarczyk Dep. Ex. 4.)
Between March 3, 2008, and March 6, 2008, Stolarczyk emailed
Lennon three more times. She indicated her intent to pursue legal
action against Spherion. After these emails, Spherion limited its
communications with plaintiff by placing a do not communicate
note in Stolarczyks personnel file. The company also emailed
office managers warning them not to speak with Stolarczyk.
On October 31, 2007, Stolarczyk filed an EEOC discrimination
charge, accusing Spherion of age and gender discrimination.
Spherion replied by submitting a position statement to the EEOC.
The EEOC found no probable cause, and issued Stolarczyk a right to
sue letter on December 20, 2007. Plaintiff did not file a
discrimination suit within the required 90 days. She did, however,
file this suit in Minnesota state court on May 1, 2008. She
accuses Spherion of criminal coercion, personnel file violations,
and defamation. On July 11, 2008, Spherion removed the suit to
federal court and filed for summary judgment.
II. Discussion
A. Summary Judgment
Summary judgment is appropriate when the evidence, viewed in
the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, presents no
genuine issue of material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Celotex Corp.
v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). An opposing party has an
1As Minnesota does not recognize a private cause of action for
criminal law or personnel file violations, the Court focuses on
plaintiffs defamation claim. See, Minn. Stat. 181.9641 (stating
the Department of Labor and Industry will enforce personnel file
violations); Wild v. Otis, 257 N.W.2d 361, 363 (Minn. 1977).
5
obligation to respond to a summary judgment motion. Fed. R. Civ.
P. 56(e)(2). If the opposing party does not so respond, summary
judgment should, if appropriate, be entered against that party.
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). Plaintiff has not responded to
defendants motion. Accordingly, if defendant meets its burden,
summary judgment should be granted.
A statement is defamatory under Minnesota law if it is
communicated to a third party, is false, and tends to harm the
plaintiffs reputation in the community.1 Aviation Charter, Inc.
v. Aviation Research Group/US, 416 F.3d 864, 868 (8th Cir. 2005).
Plaintiff, in her complaint and at deposition, alleged the
following statements were defamatory: (1) Amelia Walickes
statement saying plaintiffs file showed her as having brought a
weapon to work and drawing dead people; (2) statements in her
personnel file stating plaintiff had outbursts, that her coworkers
were uncomfortable with her outbursts, that she drew
pictures of dead people, chanted, brought a knife to work, and had
behavioral problems, and rifled through office drawers without
supervision; (3) statements in Spherions EEOC position statement
and in this cases Rule 26(f) report describing plaintiffs
tumultuous [employment] history and termination for misconduct,
6
as well as repeating the personnel files information; (4) Spherion
employees notations and emails stating plaintiff was not qualified
for rehire and employees should contact the legal department if she
contacted them; and (5) statements in a March, 2008, email between
Spherion employees describing an anonymous individuals insulting
message on Spherions voice mail. None of these statements support
plaintiffs claim of defamation.
Even if these statements were not afforded any privilege, the
statements cannot be defamatory if true. It is axiomatic: A true
statement cannot be defamatory. Graning v. Sherburne County, 172
F.3d 611, 617 (8th Cir. 1999). Therefore, the Court examines
whether Spherion issued any provably false statement[s] of fact.
Fjelsta v. Zogg Dermatology, 488 F.3d 804, 811 (8th Cir. 2007)
(quotations omitted). Plaintiff does not deny bringing a knife to
work, looking through files without permission, or doodling.
(Stolarczyk Dep. 27:9-21, 32:23-25, 92:9-11.) She claims the knife
was not a weapon. But a decision to categorize a knife as a weapon
is not a false statement. Similarly, statements that plaintiff
drew dead people are merely interpretations of her artwork. Such
statements are not provably false.
Notations saying Stolarczyk had behavioral problems, engaged
in outbursts, and was not qualified are subjective views of
plaintiffs behavior. In McClure v. American Family Mutual
Insurance Co., the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a grant
7
of summary judgment where a company accused employees of
disruptive activity and conduct unacceptable by any business
standard. 223 F.3d 845, 853 (8th Cir. 2000). The court noted
remarks on a subject lending itself to multiple interpretations
cannot be the basis of a successful defamation action. Id.
(quotation omitted). Here, the Court finds, as a matter of law,
defendants description of plaintiffs behavior falls within the
realm of interpretation no threshold showing of falsity is
possible in such circumstances. Id. (quotation omitted).
In addition to plaintiffs failure to cite an untrue
statement, Spherions statements in its EEOC position paper and the
Rule 26(f) report are protected by absolute privilege.
[D]efamatory matter published in the due course of a judicial
proceeding is absolutely privileged and will not support a civil
action for defamation although made maliciously and with knowledge
of its falsehood. Matthis v. Kennedy, 67 N.W.2d 413, 417 (Minn.
1954). This privilege is not restricted to trials, but extends
to all proceedings before a tribunal or officer clothed with
judicial or even quasi-judicial powers. Id. In determining
whether the privilege applies, courts ask whether alleged
defamatory statements reference the underlying actions subject
matter. Id. at 418. Here, the alleged defamatory statements are
Spherions stated reasons for not rehiring plaintiff. This is the
core of the parties dispute. The Court holds that defendants
8
statements in the Rule 26(f) report and its EEOCs position paper
are entitled to absolute privilege.
Finally, Spherion did not defame plaintiff when it instructed
employees to avoid communicating with her after her threat to sue
the company. Its statement that a Spherion employee received a
threatening voice mail from an unknown caller does not state that
plaintiff made the statement. In order for a statement to be
defamatory, it must assert a defamatory fact against the
plaintiff. Michaelis v. CBS, Inc., 119 F.3d 697, 701 (8th Cir.
1997). Where neither statement sets forth facts about the
plaintiff, they cannot give rise to a defamation claim.
Accordingly, defendant fails to make out a prima facie case of
defamation.
Defendant also claims that all of the alleged defamatory
statements are protected by a qualified privilege. For a
defamatory statement to be protected by a qualified privilege, the
statement must be made in good faith and must be made upon a proper
occasion, from a proper motive, and must be based upon reasonable
or probable cause. Bol v. Cole, 561 N.W.2d 143, 149 (Minn. 1997)
(citation omitted). Where defendants statements qualify as
privileged, plaintiff must offer proof that defendants statements
were made with actual malice. Stumpges v. Parke, Davis, & Co., 297
N.W.2d 252, 256-57 (Minn. 1980) (In the context of employment
recommendations, the courts generally recognize a qualified
9
privilege between former and prospective employers as long as the
statements are made in good faith and for a legitimate purpose.).
Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a prima facie case of
discrimination, and her failure to respond to defendants summary
judgment motion means she has failed to show actual malice.
Defendant is entitled to summary judgment.
III. Conclusion
For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds there are no
unresolved facts which call for a trial on the merits, and
defendant is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.
Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that:
1. The Court grants defendants motion for summary judgment
[Docket No. 53].
2. The Court declines to award Spherion Corporation
attorneys fees and costs.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
Dated: March 11, 2009
S/JAMES M. ROSENBAUM
JAMES M. ROSENBAUM
United States District Judge
 

 
 
 

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