• Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Defamation of character arising from the workplace in Nigeria

Handling change in the workplace

In the workplace, a staff member or employer may make false statements against another staff member, causing damage to the staff’s reputation. The false statements may be written or oral. The management may or may not investigate the false statements. If the management investigates, they may find the statements false and the staff innocent. Ordinarily, the innocent staff expects disciplinary action to be taken for the false statements.

Usually, the innocent staff is lowered in the estimation of other members of society, exposed to hatred, contempt, ridicule, scorn, obloquy, and shame, and causes other persons to shun or avoid the staff or discredit the staff office, trade, profession, financial credit, etc.

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Generally, it is the High Court of the state that has jurisdiction to adjudicate over defamation. Written or oral false accusations are simply a tort of defamation. When it is written, it is libel. When it is oral, it is slander. Defamation was considered in the case of Chikied Security Services & Dog Farm Limited v. Schlumberger (Nig) Limited & Anor (2018) LPELR SC 85/2007 as the injury occasioned to another person’s reputation by either written or spoken words.

Many employees are not aware that an employee can sue at the National Industrial Court for defamation of character arising from the workplace. As a matter of fact, the explanations above are similar to many facts in some cases decided upon at the National Industrial Court of Nigeria.

Whether an employee can sue at the National Industrial Court for defamation of character arising from the workplace was severally a question for consideration before the National Industrial Court and Court of Appeal. Also, many defendants, employers, and employees have argued and contested the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court to hear cases related to defamation of character arising from the workplace.

They argued that the National Industrial Court has no jurisdiction over defamation, given that defamation can be litigated in its own right and is independent of any claim in labour or employment law. It is relevant only for determining the quantum of damages where an unlawful or wrongful termination or dismissal stigmatizes the employee in the process.

In Lucia Balonwu vs. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) International Suit No. NICN/ABJ/280/2018. The claimant sued the defendant and prayed for N500 million in aggravated and exemplary damages against the defendant for “humiliating, degrading, and belittling” the claimant in the eyes of her subordinates, peers, and superiors. The defendant, in response, argued that the said claim, being in the realm of defamation, is not covered under Section 254C (1) of the 1999 Constitution dealing with the jurisdiction of this Court.

Also, in the case of Geoffery v. Setraco Nigeria Ltd & ors unreported Suit No. NIC/ABJ/296/2012, an applicant was assaulted by fellow workers or superior officers and verbally abused, the National Industrial Court was reluctant to assume jurisdiction, even when the “matters incidental thereto or connected therewith” as provided for under Section 254C (1)(d) of the 1999 Constitution was argued.

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However, in the case of Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria vs. Dr. Alfred Ehigiegba [2018] LPELR-44972(CA) the court, after careful consideration of the submissions of the parties on the claim for N100 Million for defamation of character, held that the NIC has jurisdiction over defamation arising from the workplace given the “matters incidental to it or connected therewith” phrase used in Section 254C (1) of the 1999 Constitution. The Court of Appeal even reviewed a good number of the decisions of the court on the issue and held that they were wrongly decided.

Also, the court relied on the decision of the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria v. Dr. Alfred Ehigiegba in Mr Olu Fasan v. FBN Capital Limited, unreported Suit No. NICN/LA/87/2014, where the issue of whether the court has jurisdiction over defamation in the workplace was raised and preferred the most recent of the conflicting decisions of the appellate court and held that the National Industrial Court has jurisdiction over defamation.

The law and the court did not create a special required proof different from the usual proof expected in the defamation of character in the High Court. This does not water down the right of the court to hear defamation matters arising from the workplace or for an aggrieved employee and employer to sue for defamation of character, as the case may be.

The court in Jezreel Elo Mayor vs. Eco Exim Allied Limited NICN/651/2013 confirmed that one of the principal requirements for a successful claim in defamation is that the defamatory imputation must be published, and publication means bringing the defamatory matter to the notice of some person other than the person defamed.

In that case, in paragraph 15 of the statement of facts, the claimant pleaded that the defendants referred to him as a “Black Monkey” and a “Local Cheat” in the presence of other members of staff, and in paragraph 20 of the sworn deposition of CW, the claimant merely averred in like words. There was nothing before the court to indicate who these members of staff were. None was called in evidence to testify. The court, in that case, wondered how counsel to the claimant hoped to succeed in that relief without pleading and proving publication. The court concluded that even if the court has jurisdiction, there is no evidence of publication before the court to warrant the granting of the said relief.

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Finally, there is no doubt that an employee or employer can sue at the National Industrial Court for defamation of character arising from the workplace. The same onus of proof and diligence required to succeed in defamation of character case at the High Court is also required at the National Industrial Court.