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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

"Printer-Gate" Backfires on Charter



Seven Charter Communications workers at Charter’s call center in Louisville, Kentucky were each given a Hewlett-Packard (HP) computer printer by Charter’s Louisville office administrative assistant, according to a recent court decision. Each testified that they believed her distribution of the printers was authorized by Charter management. Charter, however, considered each employees’ acceptance of the printers to be a violation of its policy against removing company property without authorization, and it terminated most of the employees involved.

Image result for bad printer clip artApproximately one month after the employees were fired, a Charter Human Resources Manager gave a PowerPoint presentation during a Charter leadership conference. On a slide with the heading “Leadership and Judgment,” he referred to “Operation Green-light, Buzz-kill, Printer-gate.” He then encouraged employees in the training to “act with Integrity and Character.” The notes for his oral presentation accompanying the slide stated: “Let’s get the elephant in the room out in the open, how many of you have heard of these Operation codes for things that weren’t right! All examples of poor judgment. Not bad people, people we know and love but they made the wrong choices.” Green-light referred to an incident in which a Charter employee allegedly used a company credit card for personal benefit and was terminated as a result. Buzz-kill involved the alleged sale of illegal drugs on Charter property by Charter employees; those employees were also terminated.

Upon hearing about the Charter Human Resource Manager’s training presentation, the fired employees sued Charter for defamation on the ground that Charter made false statements alleging misconduct relating to the distribution of HP ink jet printers. They contend that the use of the term “Printer-Gate,” particularly in conjunction with references to employee theft and drug-dealing, implied that their actions were criminal.  Charter sought a summary dismissal on the grounds that “Printer-Gate” is not defamatory and that any implication of wrongdoing was true.

In Kentucky, defamatory language is broadly construed as language that tends to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with them. Additionally, in Kentucky a person need not be specifically identified in the defamatory matter itself so long as it was so reasonably understood by the person’s friends and acquaintances familiar with the incident. Under the law, certain statements are actionable per se, meaning that they give rise to a conclusive presumption of both malice and damage, including false accusations of theft.     

Recently, a federal district judge in Kentucky ruled that the fired employees involved in “Printer-Gate” had presented sufficient evidence to put their cases before a jury on their defamation claims against Charter.

Common Sense Counsel: One of the most dangerous fired employees is one to whom the ex-employer delivers the ammunition. Creating a post-discharge training session, based on fired employee alleged misconduct, is just begging for a lawsuit. These 4 Tips are taken straight from my Litigation Landmines Training. When an Employee leaves remember; 1) Keep Situation Confidential; 2) Even with Peers; 3) Respect Privacy; and 4) Refer Questions to Human Resources.

Kruti Desai v. Charter Communications

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901 and blog at www.alabamaatwork.com with link to full court opinion.