Truth is a Defense to Tortious Interference – Why the Johnny Northside Case Matters To Employers
On August 20, 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an opinion that reversed a $60,000 jury verdict for tortious interference claims against North Minneapolis blogger, Johnny Northside. At the trial court, the jury determined that Johnny Northside tortiously interfered with Jerry Moore’s employment contract with the University of Minnesota by suggesting on his blog that Moore had some involvement with a fraudulent mortgage in North Minneapolis. The jury awarded $60,000 in damages to Moore. The jury also found that the statement regarding Moore’s alleged involvement with the fraudulent mortgage was not false.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict against Johnny Northside and held that truth is “a defense to a claim for tortious interference with a contract arising out of an allegedly defamatory statement.” Because the jury found that the statement about Moore on the Johnny Northside blog was true, it could not serve as a basis for Moore’s claims for tortious interference with contract or prospective business advantage. The court also found that there was insufficient evidence of other tortious conduct, apart from Johnny Northside’s constitutionally protected speech, to sustain the jury’s verdict.
The Court of Appeals’ decision in the Johnny Northside case is a good decision for employers because there are some contexts in which protection of an employer’s business may require informing third-parties about irresponsible conduct by an ex-employee. For example, it may be necessary to alert a former employee’s new employer that the former employee has violated a non-compete agreement or misappropriated confidential information or trade secrets. The Johnny Northside case makes clear that as long as the statements made to the new employer are true, they cannot form the basis for a tortious interference claim.
Takeaways: In most situations, it is advisable for employers to limit disclosures about former employees to the information protected by Minnesota’s employment references statute. However, there may be other situations, such as non-compete disputes, when additional disclosures may be necessary. In these cases, employers can reduce potential liability by making sure that any information provided about the former employee is factually true. In some contexts, it may be helpful to consult with counsel to avoid factual misstatements.