Fire Chief Loses Defamation Lawsuit Against Union

Bernard Becker was the Fire Chief for the Clearcreek Township Fire District in Ohio. In 2008, Local 4207 of the International Association of Fire Fighters sent an unsigned letter to the Township’s administrator. The letter contained allegations that Becker had engaged in acts of sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct, and abused his authority. Sometime later, the media publicized the letter.

Becker retired from his job and sued Local 4207, alleging that the letter defamed him. The Ohio Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit.

The Court found that “statements made about public officials are constitutionally protected when the statements concern anything that may touch on an official’s fitness for office. A public official may not recover damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. Proof of actual malice must be clear and convincing.

“Becker failed to produce evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Local 4207 had knowledge that the allegations were false or acted with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not. Since reckless disregard is not measured by lack of reasonable belief or of ordinary care, even evidence of negligence in failing to investigate the facts is insufficient to establish actual malice; investigatory failure alone, without a high degree of awareness of probable falsity, may raise the issue of negligence but not the issue of actual malice. The evidence submitted by Becker does not meet the standard for defamation.”

Becker v. International Assn. of Firefighters, Local 4207, 2010 WL 2892766 (Ohio App. 12 Dist. 2010).

This article appears in the October 2010 issue