Can an RN sue her nurse manager for defamation?




Details of the defamation claim

A reader asked if she could sue her nurse manager over false oral statements about her nursing care that resulted in a transfer to another unit and a four-week leave of absence cause by the stress about the statements and the transfer.

Oral defamation, or slander, occurs when a person speaks to another about a third person and the information shared is not true. In this case, it is assumed that the nurse manager shared her allegations with her immediate supervisor (and possibly others in the chain of command) in order to support her decision to transfer the nurse.

“Oral defamation, or slander, occurs when a person speaks to another about a third person and the information shared is not true.”

In addition, the nurse manager placed the nurse on “First Warning” (pursuant to the employer’s disciplinary policy), so the assertions went to the human resources department for personnel there to see. At this point, any of the charges, if untrue, become written defamation, or libel, as well.

When there are false allegations about an individual in his or her profession, the law sees these false allegations as “defamation per se,” which means special damages are presumed (e.g., loss of a job).  Therefore, no special damages need to be proven by the defamed person.

Why was the write-up withheld?

In the reader’s case, one of the allegations against her was true: She failed to document her nursing care in the progress notes.

The nurse manager did not allow her to see the write-up for the First Warning, and without more information, it would be difficult to know if this reader could sue her nurse manager. Too much information is missing, including what the write-up stated. In addition, what were the other allegations against this nurse? Were they factual or not? Were they also based on the lack of documentation in the patient’s progress notes?

The nurse’s stress requiring a four-week leave is troubling, as is the nurse manager’s refusal to allow the nurse to see the write-up. It would’ve been helpful if the nurse had filed a grievance concerning the nurse manager’s failure to see her write-up. Access to the write-up, could have given her clarity on how to proceed; she could’ve proven the discipline was unnecessarily harsh and had it reduced or removed.

It is important to keep in mind that whenever you are disciplined in your workplace, you need to review the disciplinary procedure and follow it. Time is often “of the essence,” so you need to also keep within the time frames allotted for filing a grievance, responding as needed and moving the grievance through the procedural steps of the policy. You can read about some suggested components of an employer grievance procedure for tips.

Also, remember that accurate and timely documentation is essential to patient safety. The reader’s nurse manager had the authority to discipline the nurse for her failure to document patient care. What remains unclear is whether the nurse manager went beyond her legal obligations and accused the nurse of untruthful conduct and unfairly withheld the written discipline.

Have you experienced a discipline you believe was based on false accusations?  If so, what did you do?

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About the author
Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN 

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, Nurse.com's legal information columnist, received her Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and concentrates her solo law practice in health law and legal representation, consultation and education for healthcare professionals, school of nursing faculty and healthcare delivery facilities. Brent has conducted many seminars on legal issues in nursing and healthcare delivery across the country and has published extensively in the area of law and nursing practice. She brings more than 30 years of experience to her role of legal information columnist. To ask Nancy a question, email BrentsLaw@nurse.com.

24 responses to “Can an RN sue her nurse manager for defamation?”

  1. I work 6p to 12 a. The next day, my director of nurses called me at noon to tell me the morning meds for that morning were missing. I was to come in immediately and sign a write up and med error. Not my med pass, not my med cart after counting and handing off keys at 11p the night before. What I find even more difficult to believe than her accusation, is the morning med pass starts at 6a.and I will gather the meds weren’t given by the day nurse? Needless to say, I quit. Don’t want to be part of that negligence.

  2. While reading this interesting article, I was curious as to the hospital having a union. Normally if there is a union, there is representation on behalf of the person suing there supervisor. Management is not part of company or facility union representation.
    I had been an employee for a large facility and also represented employee grievances in looking at the credibility of the grievance.

  3. this happens every day. you keep seeing managers talking to others about another nurse. you see nurses are being placed in pressured work place every single day as implied discipline, not even telling them why they suppose to be under massive pressure. nurses should have their attorneys too. specially new grads whom are very open to new listens and information, and know less about ten years term, or more.

    • I’m a new grad and have been postponing applying to hospitals for work because of fear of not enough supportive training provided to new grads. I hear all the time from my friends that they are faced with situations where they don’t know what to do but they take a risk and use their critical thinking hoping that all will be alright. This does not work for me. I can’t risk patients life and jepertize my license and I know that a lot of the new nurses stay quiet when verbally abused by doctors or bullied by experienced RNs. How to get passed these obstacles and safely go through training process without getting in legal trouble?
      Also what to you mean by saying nurses need to have their attornys especially new grads …. ” they know less about ten years term, or more”
      What is this 10 year term or more?
      Pllease reply to my email address
      Thank you

  4. some nurses are just jealous of a smart nurse a pretty nurse or a popular nurse so they try to find little “””things””” to make the nurse look bad or even go s far as this. setting the nurse up for failure and then writing her up Sad state pf affairs…………….Document everything and note that the director was notified or aware of the situation in your note……………………. LPN

  5. It is true the management is not telling the true and used other co-workers to say untruth about other nurse to be able to terminate her/he base on false accusation. True story an LPN with no experience new graduated lied about her supervisor and the Director of Nurse performed very poor investigation to be able to terminate the supervisor due to her work related injury, instead to accommodate supervisor duty the Director of Nurse and Administrator terminated her base on her co-worker false accusation. The supervisor followed company’s policy and procedure, the administration fell to see that policy and procedure was implemented. Than LPN resigned and went to work at other place, many other workers quitted them job because the administration terminated very good worker base on false accusation and poor investigations. Than in finally the Director of Nurse and Administrator lost them job too. This was big lost for the company because the management did poor decisions and refuse to listen to all revision of story to perform proper investigation. I saw many times nursing staff coming against one another, it is to much bulling in nursing field, if tried to speak up you are terminated, then the workers quit them job by not telling the really true reason because their concern about retaliation and bad reference. I believe that the missing documentation about patient care, medication error, and poor patient care is because to much bulling in nursing field which distract nurses and make them less appreciate in nursing field, and second think is because the nurses with less degree is taking management position, for example the Director of Nurse assigned the nurse with BSN degree and experience to pass the medication, treatments, and nursing documentation, and schedule RN with not BSN degree to be supervisor or in management, this supervisor with less education is getting more money because her tittle and the worker with high education level and experience get less money because she is nurse in charge. I can wrote a novel about nursing experience and poor judgments. If you speak second language you have chance to be less appreciated in nursing field and more bulled then others.

  6. What recourse does the nurse in a small facility have when she is tried, convicted, and sentenced before she knows she did something wrong? When I asked how the “investigation process” was carried out, I learned that management will talk to those who support their side of the story.

  7. I obtained information about a product that is used to stop local site bleeding, after discussion with and at the request of a dental resident for a patient with oral bleeding. I called over the phone to the company, they emailed me the package insert and studies on the use of the product, both on and off label. I printed the emailed information and placed at the patient’s bedside. I also emailed the product information to the dental resident. A clinical leader who overheard the phone call I made told me that by calling the company I had practiced out of the scope of a Registered Nurse. I assured her that obtaining information about a product or a drug was not out of the scope of practice. I did not place the product on the patient, I left it at the bedside with the information, which is where it remained for the dental resident to review.
    Two days later I was called to the nurse manager’s office and cited for “practicing out of the scope of nursing”, a serious accusation, as you well know. I stated to my manager that I was very familiar with the scope of practice and that my actions were well within the scope. I told her I did not agree.
    A few days after that incident, I received a written notice in the mail stating I had gotten a verbal and now written warning regarding this incident, and there it was in writing.
    I asked for a meeting with the assistant director of nursing to hopefully get clarification on exactly how this action was “out of the scope” of practice. The assistant director was unable to state clearly why it was out of the scope. I refused to leave the meeting until they could either site clear reason. Long story short, I was fired on the spot for refusing to leave the meeting. (Insubordination)!
    The firing was soon reversed by the Director of Nursing/ Vice President of the hospital after review by whomever, but I could not work in the same area, for obvious reasons. I was offered any compertable position in the system, but I could not find a place to work that I was comfortable in.
    I left that hospital and went to work in another system.
    Would you consider this an example of libel/slander/defamation?

  8. I am a nurse of 20 years who recently left the bed-side, where I thrived and was good to my patients and coworkers until (new) management took over my office and essentially gave me no other choice but to leave, because of something very similar. Sadly, because of management’s unfair treatment of a good nurse, I am in a completely different area of healthcare. Why do nurses do this to one another? Why don’t we support and do our best to retain each other, rather than bully and run each other away? Then, they are the first to complain about not having enough staff and certainly not the experienced kind. I am convinced that nurses mistreatment of each other is why so few of us are in the C-suites of health care systems. Shameful!

  9. As a new nurse; I was abused by my nurse director and one of the nurse leader. I worked 7 PM to 7 AM; it was 8:45am while the charge RN asked me to put an extra Iv on a pt, and also started transfusion while the blood wasn’t even ready. I told her that couldn’t do it because I had to pick up my kids. She reported me to the manager, and the manager disciplined me, and had me stay home for 1 week because I refused to stay over time. Before the manager addressed me, she said as a new nurse. She screamed at me one day, and I reported her to HR; they still didn’t do anything. As a registered nurse, I had never been humiliated and abused by any manager before in my whole life, but since I stated working as a RN; I’ve been bullying and abused. Specially as a new nurse with an accent.

  10. I was told, by a nurse manager, that if you are written up, you have to be allowed to SEE the write up, as well as be allowed to make your own written statement on said write-up… What kind of facility does this nurse work at that doesnt allow a write up to be seen by the employee?!

  11. I think there shld be a committee to look out for employee when there is negligence or malpractice or slander which shld be investigated thoroughly.Also there must be a chain of command in nursing and so the question is, is she the one that give the disciplinary action or the boss which is the DNS.Ofcourse documentation is very important buh is the job of the nurse manager to ask for d document at the right time and also shld remind d nurse of the importance everyday coz nursing job is quite stressfull n so one might forget.Nobody is perfect n above mistakes.

  12. These managers have it all wrong. Did they forget how hard it is to be a staff nurse? They seem to be out to get their subordinates. In fact, they should be supportive to their staff. Setting up an “us vs. Them” culture is self defeating. The goal is to care for patients, not crack the whip.

  13. In my nursing experience, it has been mentally abusive the “way” fellow nursing co-workers are bullies. Trying too hard 2 prove their signed opinion is correct to make themselves look good for trusted opinion, truth is, can’t trust the people you work with. It is a sad, often depressing system 2 work in.

  14. I worked 7p-7a at a hospital as new grad 7 yrs ago when a nurse manager fired me the morning i was getting off work. The previous day she praised how great a job i wad doing as a new grad with interventions and how the nurses should follow my example. But then wrote the opposite on the pink slip, she stated to me how incompetent i was and that i was unsuccessful inserting IV. I felt that she thought i was a threat to her since the VP was my mentor and came on the floor to ask about me as well other members in administration whom i worked with on a project in addition to the fact that i had my BSN and she only had her ASN with a bachelor in business. Also two days before she fired me, she said to me “i see some people are asking about you, who have you been talking to?” to which I answered “i don’t know what you’re talking about”. I confronted her then told her i forgave her. I have forgiven her. I would never wish those kind of false accusations on anyone.

    • Not only her accusations were false, I inserted my own IVs, i never called phlebotomy and i was helping the other nurses with IVs. It was a long list of accusations. I didn’t get to read what she wrote but she told me while she was writing it and had her best friend who is also her assistant on the speaker phone. Then asked me to sign. I told her I was not going to sign a false report.

  15. I have been an RN for 23 years and have never been seen as a trouble maker. I loved every job I have ever worked at. My last position was a brand new experience for me and I loved it. As an experienced RN, working with mentally and physically challenged young adults and adults was like a dream come true. I finally found my niche!! After 10 months, I was being groomed as the New House Supervisor. While in training, I had a change to my assignment that night and simply asked “why the extra RN in the building was not able to do it?” The Nurse Manager who was with this facility for 13 years, told me it was not for me to question her decision and then blatantly call me a “liar and a fake”. I was so shaken by those words. I had never been written up or disciplined at this facility and could not understand why she was saying this. I asked her and was told that it was none of my business. I went on to do my job that night with a smile on my face and take care of the residents that needed taken care of. I was off the next day and then the morning after, before I went into work, I received a phone call telling me that I was being terminated from my position and no clear explanation was given. Totally devastating. This was true defamation of character and termination with no just cause. I often wonder if I should have sued this facility for this. A month has passed and I am still unemployed. This has effected my whole world……

    • Sorry to hear of your troubles. First off when I ready your “years of service” I thought, oh they want to get rid of the experienced staff. Then as I read the comment, I felt as though I was reading my journal entry of my last experience in a hospital job. Not sure what is happening to the nursing profession. We are taught to care and provide for our patients, but the hate and back stabbing of the staff is so unhealthy and encouraged by some management that it is scary. I will never understand what is accomplished by destroying one good staff for the benefit of keeping the not so good staff that just kisses butt. Never will understand.

  16. Hi! I would like to share this. I need your help. My brother was confined in a local hospital, our mom is assisting him. Then one day, my mom asked a nurse, who’s on duty at that time, “at what time should the antibiotic be given to my son?” the nurse said “12 noon today”. After few minutes, my mom checked the clock and it was already 12:30, so she rushed to the nurse counter for a follow up. “Nurse, it is already 12:30, you said the scheduled time is 12 noon”. The nurse replied with sarcastic tone, “yes right! can’t you wait?can’t you wait?! are you in hurry?! huh?! can’t you see it?! I am looking for the papers already! can’t you see I am the only one working here?! My duty is until midnight! I won’t sacrifice my license for a small salary here!”. He exclaimed so many statements not related to the question of my mom. So my mom was shocked. The nurse was so rude. The nurse even challenged my mom to file a demand to our city Governor. He said ” Now what?! are you going to file a complain against me?! Go on! I’ll even accompany you to the governor!”.

    What advice could you give? I can’t let this pass. That nurse must be give a disciplinary action.

  17. There is absolutely NO accountability for managers or DON’s. You get fired for hear say, leave employment because of being bullied by staff RN’s,managers, and Dr’s, and have to endure being locked in an office while an unofficial manager yells and curses at you after falsifying documents to HR (on dates you never even worked) and by another employee that took it upon herself to break into the locked box that contained personal communications that she had no authorization to get and change. I have been wrote up and wouldn’t have known it except I decided that being locked in an office was “false imprisonment” and since it caused me to have my autoimmune condition flare up with a vengeance to be at the point I am now unable to work I wasn’t going to just sit back. Unfortunately I live in a small town where there are more cows than people and I am a transplant, the manager has lived here her entire life. The good ol’boy system regardless of how much evidence is there is just never enough for the hometown team. After reading all of these “poor” experiences, living the nightmare first hand, and also witnessing so many more it appears that perhaps there needs to be a shift and action of those that are tired of this behavior. Many hospitals and areas do not have nursing unions as an option and so any good RN’s are left to endure being bullied, harassed, terminated, or left to keep quiet to avoid the risks of being bullied, harassed, and terminated. What do you do when there’s nothing to protect You? What do you do when there’s not a union? What do you do when you live in a state that’s an at will employment and you can be fired for anything at anytime without any reason even if there is a company policy handbook? Nothing?

  18. I m a nurse and have been medically assaulted.Ive experienced police misconduct,power and control over my life and mistreatment by former coworkers .I am suffering defamation by a landlord and native ,personal injury and malpractice damages.I want punitive and monetary damages.

  19. The nurse managers at the hospital where I work are all women and they are all friends. I haven’t yet decided if they are quite as misogynistic and their male “superiors”. If not, they are not far behind. I think they hate the folks above them and the folks below them. Despite low morale, an overworked staff, and a serious lack of retention, they continue to pick, pick, pick at the staff. Having had meetings with several, I can say the ones I have spoken with resort to the same hammer down tactics, even changing subjects when their argument does not hold water and mentioning other employees in private meetings. I am a damn good nurse who cares deeply for my patients and I have never been “written up”. Should anyone ever attempt it, I will turn the paper over and submit my 30 day resignation on the back of it. They can walk me to the car if they wish and I will go directly to my next job. Have you forgotten that you are a nurse? If you are a good one, you can get a job at any time. Don’t be intimidated by some goon in a 10 sq foot office who pretends to have your back one minute and throw you under the bus the next. You control your nursing career, not them.

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