Noel v. River Hills Wilsons, Inc., 113 Cal. App. 4th 1363 (2003)

Brandon J. Noel sued his former employer, River Hills Wilsons, Inc. (Wilsons), and a Wilsons manager, Shelly Santillan, for defamation arising from Santillan’s erroneous statements to a background investigator (Choice- Point) retained by Noel’s new employer (GTE) that Noel left Wilsons because of “loss prevention issues” and that his “rehire status” was “unfavorable.” In fact, Noel actually had no “loss prevention issues” with Wilsons; Santillan mistakenly believed that ChoicePoint was inquiring about another former Wilsons employee who did have “loss prevention issues.” ChoicePoint provided the erroneous information that it had received from Santillan to GTE, along with information that ChoicePoint had discovered in its criminal records search on Noel – i.e., that five years before, Noel had been convicted of carjacking, three counts of attempted robbery, two counts of exhibiting a weapon other than a firearm, two counts of residential burglary and four counts of robbery. (As for his criminal past, Noel had previously disclosed to GTE that he had been convicted of a felony that he described as “aiding and abetting [sic]/not fully involved.”) After GTE received the results of ChoicePoint’s investigation, it terminated Noel’s employment. The trial court granted summary judgment to Wilsons and Santillan on the ground that the conditional common-interest privilege of Civil Code § 47(c) barred the claim because the statements were made by a former employer to a prospective employer without malice. The Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment on the ground that no reasonable jury could find malice to be a motivating cause of Santillan’s statements about Noel since she had established that she sincerely (though erroneously) believed ChoicePoint was inquiring about another employee.