A Massachusetts jury has decided that a truthful mass e-mail criticizing the former employee of an office supply company is not libelous because it was not sent with actual malice, Law.com reports. The verdict was the latest round in a case that questioned well-established libel jurisprudence when a federal appeals court found that the truth can still be libelous.
The case, Noonan v. Staples, began when an employee filed a libel suit against Staples, Inc., for sending out an e-mail message that discussed his dismissal for travel and expense policy violations. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) refused to dismiss the case on appeal and ruled that although the information in the e-mail was true — truth normally being a defense to a libel claim — a 1902 Massachusetts statute put forth an exception to the truth defense if the plaintiff could show "actual malice" on the part of the defendant.
The standard for actual malice in modern libel law, which was established by the 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, defines it as a statement that is published with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. But the circuit court chose to cite the earlier Massachusetts statute and interpreted actual malice in that law as intentional ill will.
The appeals court remanded the case back to a the district court in Massachusetts, where the jury found that the e-mail had not been sent with actual malice. The federal Court of Appeals’ opinion interpreting the Massachusetts standard of actual malice, however, will remain valid law, although it is not binding on state courts.