In a Fox interview last night, the stepmother of former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe raised what sounds like a defamation suit against her former employer Equity Prime Mortgage in Atlanta. Melissa Rolfe says she was released after her stepson was charged with murdering Rayshard Brooks. Her dismissal was in the news, but Rolfe's legal position seemed to challenge the dismissal. She appears to be an "at will" empire loyee who can normally be dismissed, as is often said, for "good reason, bad reason or no reason" (without violating any legal or constitutional protection). However, it appears that she is considering a lawsuit not based on the termination by Equity Prime Mortgage, but on how the company explained the termination after being criticized for allegedly firing Rolfe only for her son. This could be an interesting defamation measure and a warning story for companies dealing with such important matters.
Melissa Rolfe started working for Equity Prime Mortgage in Atlanta in February as a human resources manager, claiming that the company had assured her that her job was safe and that she would not be punished for her son's case. She expressly states that Equity Prime Mortgage president Eddy Perez called and offered her six to eight weeks of paid free time so that she could be with her family. She says that she offered to work from home, but was told that it was not necessary, and quoted him as saying, “Your job is safe. Don't worry about anything … Just take care of your family. "
She said she was released abruptly on June 18, the day after her son was hit with eleven charges, including crime murder. She said that she and her husband had just dropped their son off to book when she received a 56-second call from her direct manager who told her that she was being released.
At this point, the company could be criticized by those who believe that this was retaliation against a family member, but it could probably not be successfully sued if she were an arbitrary employee. As the Court in Reed v City of Albany, 622 S.E.2d 875 (2005), found:
Under Georgian law, employees can be fired at will for whatever reason and generally cannot recover due to unlawful dismissal. The motivation underlying the termination is usually irrelevant; An employer can fire an arbitrary worker without liability. As our Supreme Court has found, this obstacle to illegal layoffs in the context of arbitrary employment is "a fundamental legal rule for relations between employers and workers in Georgia".
Many people criticized Equity Prime Mortgage for its action. In this case, the company may have inadvertently moved the matter from a wrongful termination framework to a defamation framework. She publicly replied by saying that Rolfe had been fired for creating a hostile work environment.
This is a specific allegation of misconduct that indicates possible racist or intolerant views in the workplace. The statement states that there have been certain violations of company policies and that it is "a safe environment for all employees".
If this is a defamation case now, the threshold problem is to define what Rolfe is: a private individual or a public figure. As we have discussed on several occasions, the Supreme Court ruled the New York Times against Sullivan to provide safeguards for speeches that criticize officials and later public figures. It is a protection of the free press and freedom of speech that President Trump has often protested against. The "actual malice" standard required proof that the newspaper published a false report, either with actual knowledge of its falsehood or with a ruthless disregard for the truth. Brennan set a high standard for the detection of the defamation and tried to give the free press "breathing space" to fulfill its key function in our system.
The standard for public figures was published in Curtis Publishing v. Butts (1967). The case concerned an issue of the Saturday Evening Post of March 23, 1963, which claimed that former University of Georgia soccer coach Wallace Butts had teamed up with Alabama University coach Paul "Bear" Bryant fix a 1962 soccer game in favor of Alabama. In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote an agreement that extended the New York Times ruling against Sullivan on civil servants to public figures. He found the same reasons for applying the higher standard to civil servants as in cases involving public figures:
(I) It is clear that "public figures" like "civil servants" often play an influential role in the order of society, although they are not subject to the restrictions of the political process. And surely these "public figures" as a class have as easy access as "civil servants" to the mass media of communication, both to influence politics and to counter criticism of their views and activities. Our citizens have a legitimate and significant interest in the behavior of such individuals, and freedom of the press to freely debate their participation in public issues and events is as important as in the case of "officials". The fact that they are not accessible to the constraints of the political process only underscores the legitimate and substantial nature of the interest, as this means that public opinion can be the only tool that society can use to try to influence their behavior.
Before the criminal charges against her son, Rolfe was clearly not a public figure. She was not a public figure or even a "limited public figure" just because her son was charged. However, Rolfe has publicly defended her son on social media. This could be considered a sufficient basis for the claim that for the purposes of this controversy she is at least a limited figure in public life. She may face the same problem as my former client Eric Foretich, who was declared a limited public figure due to a brief commentary on ABC's against Foretich. (I was his lawyer in another constitutional case). Her defense of her son is understandable, but could be seen as a trigger for the higher standard.
If she is a public figure, she would have to prove that Equity Prime Mortgage made a false statement if she was actually informed of her falsehood or was ruthlessly disregarding the truth. Of course, the primary defense in such a case is the truth. If the company could show that there were clear violations, the defamation would fail. However, the company has not given specific examples of these violations, and even Rolfe says that the specific reasons were not communicated to her.
The company would request an early release, but assuming that it is sufficient to substantiate a plea, it could be subject to a discovery, including deposits from all of its officers. If this were an established justification to get rid of an employee because of their trusted connection, it could be both costly and embarrassing. In addition to providing evidence of the violations, the company would also have to refute Rolfe’s report that it was told that their job was secure, or to show that these violations were discovered later. There could be such evidence, but the company's statement took a weak layoff and turned it into a viable defamation measure.