If an employee files a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, his or her employer will be required to file a response to the allegations of the EEOC charge. I strongly encourage any reader of this blog to obtain legal counsel before responding to an EEOC charge. But, what if you or your lawyer says something false about an employee in your response to the EEOC charge? Could the employee then use that false statement to sue you for defamation?
On January 15, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which reviews decisions from Alabama) issued a decision indicating that it would be very difficult for such a defamation claim to succeed. In Mack v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., No. 15-11945, 2016 WL 197162 (11th Cir. Jan 15, 2016), a lawyer submitted a response to the EEOC charge for Delta Air Lines. When the employee sued, she included a state-law claim for libel as part of her complaint, claiming that false statements in Delta’s EEOC response defamed her.
The Eleventh Circuit found that, under Georgia law, all filings in quasi-judicial proceedings are protected by absolute immunity and cannot be libelous. The court further found that the EEOC’s investigative process was a quasi-judicial proceeding. As a result, the court affirmed dismissal of the libel claim.
Obviously, the Mack case applies Georgia law. But, Alabama also grants absolute immunity to statements made in quasi-judicial proceedings. Sullivan v. Smith, 925 So.2d 972 (Ala. Civ. App. 2006). As a result, it would probably be difficult for an employee to succeed on a defamation claim arising from your response to an EEOC charge. In fact, at least one federal court in Alabama reached that conclusion before Mack was issued. See Hatfield v. Bio-Medical Apps. of Ala., 2012 WL 4478769 (M.D. Ala. Sep. 24, 2012).