Stepmother Of Ex-Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe Raises Defamation Allegation Over Her Termination

30245586-8476955-image-a-1_1593559010600In a Fox interview last night, the stepmother of ex-Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe raised what clearly sounds like a claim of defamation against her former employer Equity Prime Mortgage in Atlanta.  Melissa Rolfe says that she was fired after her step son was charged with the murder of Rayshard Brooks.  Her firing has been in the news, but the legal standing of Rolfe seemed questionable to challenge the termination. She appears to be an “at will” employee who can ordinarily be fired, as it is often said, for “good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all” (absent the violation of a statutory or constitutional protection).  However, it appears that she may be contemplating a lawsuit based not on the termination by Equity Prime Mortgage but how the company explained the termination after it was criticized for allegedly firing Rolfe simply because of her son.  That could present an interesting defamation action and a cautionary tale for companies in dealing with such high-profile matters.

Melissa Rolfe began work at Equity Prime Mortgage in Atlanta in February as the human resources director and she claims that she was assured by the company that her job was safe and that she would not be punished because of her son’s case.  She specifically states that Equity Prime Mortgage’s president Eddy Perez called and offered her six to eight weeks of paid time off so she could be with her family. She says that she offered to work from home but she was told it would not be necessary and, she quotes him as saying something along the line of “Your job is safe. Don’t worry about anything…Just take care of your family.”

She said that she was abruptly fired one June 18th, a day after her son was hit with 11 charges, including felony murder. She said that she and her husband had just dropped off their son to be booked when she received a 56-second call with her direct manager telling her that she was fired.

At this point, the company could be criticized by those who believe that this was retaliation against a family member but it probably could not be successfully sued if she was an at will employee. As the court stated in Reed v. City of Albany, 622 S.E.2d 875 (2005):

Under Georgia law, at-will employees may be terminated for any or no reason, and they generally cannot recover for wrongful discharge. The motivation underlying the termination usually does not matter; an employer may discharge an at-will employee without liability. As noted by our Supreme Court, this bar to wrongful discharge claims in the at-will employment context ‘is a fundamental statutory rule governing employer-employee relations in Georgia.’

Many people did criticize Equity Prime Mortgage for its action.  That is when the company may have unwittingly moved the matter from a wrongful termination framework to a defamation framework.  It responded publicly by claiming that Rolfe was fired for creating a hostile workplace environment.

That is a specific allegation of wrongdoing that suggests possible racist or intolerant views expressed at the workplace. The statement says that there were specific violations of company policy and that she endangered “a safe environment for all employees.”

If this is now a defamation case, the threshold issue will be to define what Rolfe is: a private citizen or a public figure.  As we have previously discussed many times,  the Supreme Court handed down New York Times v. Sullivan to add protections for such speech criticizing public officials, and later public figures.  It is a protection of the free press and free speech that President Trump has often railed against.  The “actual malice” standard required a showing that the newspaper published a false report with either actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.  Imposing a high standard for proof of defamation, Brennan sought to give the free press “breathing space” to carry out its key function in our system.

The public figure standard was established in Curtis Publishing v. Butts (1967). The case involved a March 23, 1963 edition of The Saturday Evening Post alleging that former University of Georgia football coach Wallace Butts conspired with University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to fix a 1962 football game in Alabama’s favor. In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote a concurrence that extended the ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan on public officials to public figures. He found the same reasons for applying the higher standard to public officials as present in cases involving public figures:

[I]t is plain that, although they are not subject to the restraints of the political process, “public figures,” like “public officials,” often play an influential role in ordering society. And surely, as a class, these “public figures” have as ready access as “public officials” to mass media of communication, both to influence policy and to counter criticism of their views and activities. Our citizenry has a legitimate and substantial interest in the conduct of such persons, and freedom of the press to engage in uninhibited debate about their involvement in public issues and events is as crucial as it is in the case of “public officials.” The fact that they are not amenable to the restraints of the political process only underscores the legitimate and substantial nature of the interest, since it means that public opinion may be the only instrument by which society can attempt to influence their conduct.

Rolfe was clearly not a public figure before the criminal charges against her son. She was not a public figure or even a “limited public figure” simply because her son was charged.  However, Rolfe has publicly defended her son on social media.  That could be viewed as sufficient basis for alleging that she is at least a limited public figure for the purposes of this controversy.  She could face the same problem of my former client, Eric Foretich, who was declared a limited public figure due to a brief comment to the media in Foretich v. ABC. (I was his counsel on a different constitutional case).  Her defense of her son is understandable but could be viewed as triggering the higher standard.

If she is a public figure, she would need to show that Equity Prime Mortgage made a false statement with actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.  Of course, the primary defense in any such case is truth. If the company could show that there were clear violations, the defamation would fail.  The company however has given no specific examples of those violations and even Rolfe says that she was not told of the specific grounds.

The company would move for early dismissal, but assuming that this is sufficient to state a cause of action, it could be subject to probing discovery including depositions with all of its officers. If this was a manufactured rationale to get rid of an employee due to her familiar association, it could prove both costly and embarrassing.  The company would have to not only offer proof of the violations but either disprove Rolfe’s account of being told that her job was assured or prove that there was a subsequent discovery of these violations. It could have such evidence but the company’s statement took a weak termination case and converted it into a viable defamation action.

18 thoughts on “Stepmother Of Ex-Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe Raises Defamation Allegation Over Her Termination”

  1. Fascinating case. Don’t see it going in her favor. Would love to see the arguments made but there’ll probably be a settlement. A much smaller settlement than she’d be going for but just something enough to make the whole thing go away.

  2. The question I have: Is the hostile work environment cited by the company due to the Plaintiff defending her Step Son on social media? This ventures into the waters of a person’s personal social media being used by a company to justify a termination. Georgia, being at will, was enough reason for the company to fire her without reason. They stepped in it when they attempted to justify their reasons to the public. If it comes out that the Hostile Work Environment was manufactured by the need to appear to be on the right side of the issue, this can really drag down the company. While I’m unsure whether or not she will get her job back (at will is at will), the company’s sloppy handling of the reason puts them in jeopardy of actual damages. Going to be interesting to watch.

  3. Missouri lawyer, black man, calls for McCloskey’s to “lose their law licenses” and “be disbarred” for the offense of…. defending themselves?

    https://twitter.com/dcstl/status/1277465463430266880

    but at least he has the grace to declare his desire openly! The fact is there is a quiet covert plan to do exactly this and it has already been underway for years. I could supply a list of white male lawyers who have been censured or disbarred for “offensive speech” in other words FREE SPEECH which somehow is denied to them as a lawyers when it it is supposedly we who are supposed to be protecting that very right for others. but we don’t have it???

    I have said here for years, and a few others have as well that, white lawyers under under a pattern and threat of more planned “purges” of us from the profession– under rule of professional conduct 8.4 g. if WE CAN BE CHEATED as a class of white guys, then ANY GROUP CAN BE CHEATED. denying US “equal protection” and free speech will open the door to the very same kind of discrimination this is all supposedly being done to deter. It will eventually circle around,

    the scary thing is that some of the people who want to do this and are at the tip of the knife coming at us– are themselves white. This is insanity!

    1. All these actions are pushing normal people to vigilantism. If you can’t get justice through the courts, people like Melissa Rolfe in the future might just burn the company down instead or target the owners/managers.

  4. Yet another case of intimidation and harassment of someone deemed unpopular under progressive mob and the cancel culture. It is only getting worse- see the couple in Georgia who were threatened in their home, the driver shot by rioters in Provo on Monday night, and the political prisoner Michael Flynn. There but for the grace of God go any of us.

    Most states have a public policy exception to the employment at will doctrine. Georgia is one of the handful of states that does not. This is a great case for the extension of Georgia law. A woman was fired because her police officer son became a political symbol. Her employer says she created a ‘hostile working environment?’ She defended her son against the mob, for Pete’s sake. Doesn’t her son deserve due process and a defense? Should a mother be forced to abandon their children or risk losing their livelihoods and reputations because it makes somebody feel ‘uncomfortable?’ No, the employer failed miserably by allowing her to be victimized by a workplace mob. Of course, progressives will argue that firing victims of mob action is the public policy goal.

    There have also been a number of cases where even true statements made in connection with an employee’s termination triggered liability under a defamation theory. There is strong reason to argue that this one of those cases.

    One would like to think of this woman as a sympathetic victim, but that is largely dependent on the makeup of the judge and jury. Not feeling super optimistic.

    There but for the grace of God.

  5. Maybe she did, or said, something else at work. It will all come out in the wash. We are not even at rinse cycle.

    1. She was on a leave of absence. It’s likely to do with a social media post. If she posted something nasty on social media, I assume we would know about it. Instead, my guess is that she defended her son and that is being twisted into someone being ‘uncomfortable’.

      1. If I’m correct, she posted the word “nonsense” to describe the public protests to what her step son did. If she had black coworkers I can imagine how they might view such words as contributing to an “oppressive” work environment.

        IMO those cops should have let that guy go and arrested him at home later when he was more sober. Their excuse could be they did not have a clear shot. The fact is the shooter’s errant bullet hit the car of an innocent bystander, thus proving my idea is consistent with reality. They could have killed an innocent. There was no way that guy was getting away permanently. He wasn’t getting on a plane or boat to avoid capture for DUI.

        1. But mediating a race-based or race-related disagreement in the work place in a way that privileges one race over the other is straightforward race discrimination that trumps the at-will doctrine.

  6. The Warren Court decisions on defamation law, like everything else the Warren Court did, were bad. Loathsome transaction – you give us boffo press coverage, we protect you from ever being accountable for your lies and your negligence. End it, don’t mend it.

    Other than in re public agencies and public corporations, lawyers should not be able to second-guess an employer’s decisions unless the employer is in violation of freely assumed contractual obligations. One must always remember the actual effect of ‘anti-discrimination law’: (1) to allow lawyers to stick their noses in everyone else’s business and (2) to anoint protected classes per the consumer preferences of gentry liberals. Gentry liberals do nothing but damage our common life.

    One can surmise one of two things happened here: (1) the company is run by hollow men who are all about the optics or (2) an intra-office rival to this woman buffaloed him into firing her.

  7. What a great defamation case with a sympathetic plaintiff. I’d take that case all day every day. I’d ask for a year of the company’s gross profits and punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

    1. She’s sympathetic to normal people. To the hollow-man caucus in our professional-managerial class, she isn’t. To gentry liberals, she isn’t. To black chauvinists, she isn’t. To the people who make most of the decisions in this country (people who are unworthy of the positions they hold), she isn’t.

  8. “Rolfe has publicly defended her son on social media. That could be viewed as sufficient basis for alleging that she is at least a limited public figure . . .” Jeez, by that definition the bar is set so damn low that just about everybody is a “limited public figure.” Then by responding to your article am I now legally considered to be a “limited public figure,” and I can be (whimsically) defamed in the media, in the name of journalism, with no chance of retribution?

    This sounds like a gross perversion of free speech: because I express an opinion, on anything on some social media platform, I become classified as a limited public figure and I am now relieved of any legal recourse to seek consideration for defamation, or other (normally) wrongful acts? That’s a very liberal definition of journalistic license and a distorted expansion of the 1st Amendment that I doubt the framers (more than “limited public figures) intended to be included.”

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