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Intra-Corporate Immunity Rule Alive, Applied, and Affirmed in Dismissal of Missouri Defamation Suit

ABSTRACT: The Missouri Court of Appeals affirms the trial court's dismissal of a claim for defamation, based on the intra-corporate immunity rule, which protects certain internal communications made to corporate managers.

In Lovelace v. Van Tine, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, applied the “intra-corporate immunity” rule, and upheld the dismissal of a defamation claim filed by a medical assistant against a physician at the hospital where both worked.

Plaintiff Lovelace worked for the Washington University School of Medicine for 12 years, but was terminated after the Defendant, Dr. Van Tine, reported to her supervisors that Lovelace said a certain job candidate should not be hired because that job candidate, as quoted in the opinion, “doesn’t like working with white people.” After being confronted by her supervisors about this allegation, Lovelace called in sick for several days, allegedly due to her distress. She was first placed on administrative leave, but her employment was later terminated. Her lawsuit against Dr. Van Tine followed, asserting that his report to her supervisors was false and defamatory.

A claim for defamation requires a Plaintiff, such as Lovelace, to plead and prove the following elements:

1) a publication,

2) of a defamatory statement,

3) that identifies the plaintiff,

4) that is false,

5) that is published with the requisite degree of fault, and

6) damages the plaintiff’s reputation. 

At issue with Lovelace’s Petition was the element of “publication” -- the communication of the defamatory matter to a third person. The pivotal question was whether Dr. Van Tine’s communication was made to a third person, or whether, in the eyes of the law, it was a protected internal communication, within the hospital’s management group, and subject to intra-corporate immunity.

The idea behind this long-standing rule, as it applies to a defamation case, is that when a false statement is made and/or repeated in the context of a business, this generally does not constitute a publication when the business is merely communicating with itself.

The rule, however, does not offer protection to all communications within the corporate entity. The Missouri Supreme Court, in Rice v. Hodapp, has held that defamatory statements made by company supervisors or officers to non-supervisory employees constitute publication for purposes of a defamation action. However, communications between company supervisors or officers, or made by a non-supervisor to a supervisor or officer, are a different matter.

The public policy behind the intra-corporate immunity rule is to promote responsible reporting of issues within the work place from the bottom to the top or, in certain situations, along the same, linear supervisory lines, without fear of reprisal against the person making the report. The rule encourages reporting of inappropriate work place actions or comments to those in the business who are responsible for addressing those issues - i.e. those who handle the hiring or discipline decisions. Those who receive the reports are expected to take reasonable steps to investigate the report to ensure the report was made in good faith.

Conversely, per the Rice decision, communications made to non-supervisors - who have no need to know the information, and no responsibility for acting on inappropriate conduct – are not protected.

Without the intra-corporate immunity rule, there could be a chilling effect on responsible reporting to management by employees, for fear they could face a lawsuit for reporting the issue. However, the intra-corporate immunity rule apparently is alive and well in Missouri. Indeed, in the case of Lovelace, it was used to affirm the dismissal of a defamation complaint where the information in question was reported only to company management, and no outside publication of the alleged defamatory statement occurred.