Michigan Restaurant Owner Sues Former Employees for Online Defamation

When you post a review of a business or even make negative comments online, you may be opening yourself up to a possible lawsuit. This is what former employees of one Michigan restaurant have learned after they posted critical online comments about one restaurant that laid them off from their jobs. Now, after these employees made online posts, their former boss is suing them for defamation because he claims that the negative posts caused him to lose business. Being sued for online social media comments is becoming a more common occurrence in today's society as businesses are highly impacted by online reviews.

The Plaintiff Tried to Call Employees Back to Work

Here, the plaintiff owns several restaurants in an area about 50 miles outside of Detroit. When COVID-19 hit, he was forced to close his restaurants and laid off his staff. However, he did tell his staff to be ready to return to work when he was able to reopen his restaurants. Once the restaurant owner was able to obtain a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, he was able to reopen his outlets on a limited basis for curbside pickup. In fact, the terms of the PPP required him to reopen so that he could begin to spend the money that he borrowed and obtain loan forgiveness.

At that point, he reached out to the fired employees through an email. According to the employees, the email read like an ultimatum. The employees were required to reply within 24 hours or would be deemed to have surrendered their jobs. The email did inform employees that they would need to return to work within the coming week. These facts do not seem to be in dispute. However, the interpretation of this email is in dispute between the parties.

One or more of the employees felt unsafe returning to work due to the pandemic. They did not believe that it was safe to do so. Apparently, the employees felt that their former boss was pressuring them and issuing threats. Some employees also felt uncomfortable leaving their families in the midst of a pandemic to return to work.

Beyond not returning to work, the employees took to social media to complain about the business and its personnel practices. They were joined by at least one former employee who also used social media to air his grievances. Not only were the employees fired for defaming the business, but they were also sued for $25,000 in damages.

The Plaintiff Claims that the Online Comments Crossed a Line

According to the business owner's attorney, their client would not mind if people posted negative reviews of the food or the service at the restaurants. However, the owner believed that posting comments critical of employment practices goes beyond what is permitted in an online comment and crosses the line to defamation. The lawsuit claims that the restaurants' business has suffered as a result of negative attention that the online posts drew.

The owner also claims that he needed employees back to work in a hurry because the terms of the PPP mandated that the money be spent within eight weeks. Therefore, if his previous employee were unwilling or unable to return to work, he needed to find new workers in a hurry.

One of the defendants in the lawsuit claims that everything that she posted was completely true and that she has the evidence to prove it. Defamatory comments are not grounds for a judgment if the comments are in fact true. In other words, no matter what the defendants say, they are not liable for any damages if what they said is not false.

Another issue revolves around the question of what is considered to be defamation. Complaining on social media is a time-honored tradition of people who feel that they want the public to know of certain questionable business practices. The person who publishes the statement does not need to intend to cause economic harm to the person described in the statement in order for the lawsuit to be successful. The statement just needs to be false and cause economic harm.

What seems to be undisputed is that there was a backlash against the restaurants due to the way that the terminations were portrayed. Newspaper headlines talked about a "backlash" against the company for "firings" of employees. In addition, numerous people added negative comments about the business to the original online posts.

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