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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