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Quotidian commentary or defamatory snarkiness? Legal secretary loses suit over partner-wife emails

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A federal judge in New York has tossed a lawsuit by a former legal secretary at Thompson Hine who claimed she was defamed when a partner and his wife exchanged emails questioning the legitimacy of the employee’s leave for postpartum depression.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer ruled that legal secretary Valerie Medcalf can’t sue for defamation because the emails were protected by spousal privilege and they expressed opinions, the New York Law Journal reports. The judge also dismissed Medcalf’s claims of tortious interference with business relations and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Medcalf was originally assigned to work for the partner and had access to his email, according to Engelmayer’s opinion. The secretary discovered the emails between the partner and his wife after returning from leave in November 2011.

In a section of the opinion dealing with the emotional distress claim, Engelmayer said the emails in question were “banal, not lethal” and the spouses had no reason to suspect Medcalf would ever read them. “That her curiosity or inclination to snoop led her to do so does not give her a cause of action that otherwise is lacking,” Engelmayer said. The email statements “are the sorts of quotidian negative commentary exchanged in countless daily conversations in our free society,” the judge wrote.

Among the emails cited in the opinion:

• From the partner’s wife, commenting on Medcalf’s request for a leave of up to five months: “Generally true post partum depression appears after a few months and I’d ask why they’re asking for five months so early in the process. … Is it coincidence that that this gives her the rest of the year off and eligible for disability benefits? Sorry, I hope she ok but it just all seems suspect to me.”

• From the partner’s wife, commenting after the partner forwarded to her Medcalf’s email response to his questions about her well-being after Hurricane Irene. “Once again I have to say that [Medcalf] doesn’t act like a person who has such severe post partum that she can’t work. The email is not indicative of any mood disorder and she talks right along.”

• From the partner’s wife, commenting on a picture of Medcalf’s baby that she had sent to several people at the law firm: “[The baby] is adorable but if [Medcalf] had had a decent shower she would have some nice cotton, clean and non fuzzy blankets to safely sleep [the baby] on. Ugh.”

Medcalf was fired after emailing the wife to confront her, copying the partner and blind carbon copying her supervisors.

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