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.

14 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.

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