Defamation Suits and Federal Employees
Trying to sue a federal official or employee for something he or she did that is related in any way to his or her job is not likely to be successful. You can see that play out in this week's Case Law Update, which reported on a defamation suit brought by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) of the Social Security Administration against a Senate Aide. The facts underlying the defamation suit are outlined in our Update. In sum, it appears from the court of appeals case that when the ALJ made a personal visit to the senator's office, the ALJ engaged in certain behavior towards the senator's staff that was viewed by the senate aide as inappropriate and unprofessional. When the senate aide wrote to the SSA to complain about the ALJ's conduct exhibited in this meeting, the ALJ sued the staffer for defamation. Two instructive points are worth noting about this lawsuit and the events on which it was based.
First, the lawsuit was destined to fail from its inception under the well-established law of absolute immunity granted to federal officials by federal statute. It's that law that allows federal employees to go to work each day and not worry about being sued for "doing their job." Under federal law, if you are sued for an act you performed that was related to the performance of your job duties, you need not worry about being sued, because under federal law you will be granted absolute immunity from suit and the lawsuit against you will be dismissed. That was the issue decided by the court of appeals reported in our Case Law Update.
Second, this case offers an opportunity to remind all federal employees about the proper and limited use of your position, title and authorities associated with your position. What precipitated the lawsuit was a personal visit by an ALJ to a senator's office, which apparently occurred on the ALJ's own time and was not related to the ALJ's performance of job duties. The senator's aide, however, perceived the conduct of the ALJ to be unprofessional and reported that conduct to the SSA. Certainly, any federal employee has a right to visit his or her senator's office on personal time and seek the assistance of the staff. Take care, though, not to give any appearance that you are attempting to use your position for the gain of yourself, a family member or close friend-and not just when you visit your senator's office. In whatever personal matters you attend to, be aware of your own conduct so as not to be perceived as attempting to obtain a personal result by reference to your federal position. The safest bet may often be to not mention your job title or your employing agency, so as to avoid any suggestion that you are trying to "throw your weight around." If you're conducting personal business, then carefully consider whether the person needs to know where you work and what you do. Is that information necessary? You will be surprised how often it is perceived that a federal employee is attempting to influence the results of a personal matter by happening to mention the federal agency at which he or she works -and then gets reported.
The Office of Government Ethics publishes government-wide regulations that outline the proper and limited use of your federal position and authorities. Specifically, the OGE regulations on "Impartiality in Performing Official Duties" and Misuse of Position" are instructive here. To read these OGE regulations click here .