Company sued for telling employees why someone was fired

megaphoneStaples, the office-supply retailer, can be sued for firing an employee and then sending a mass e-mail to other employees saying why it fired him.

That's the word from the federal appeals court in Boston.

The employee can sue Staples for "libel" ... even if what it said about him was true.

In most states, truth is a defense to libel. But Massachusetts is unusual. In Massachusetts, it's illegal even to broadcast the truth about someone if (1) you do it with malice or ill-will, (2) you're not a newspaper or other traditional news source, and (3) the person is a private individual and not a public figure such as a celebrity or politician.

In this case, Staples fired someone for filing bogus expense reports. It then conducted an audit and claimed it discovered that another employee had also falsified travel reports. It fired this other employee, and sent an e-mail to more than 1,500 Staples workers saying why he had been fired.

The employee sued, arguing that Staples acted wrongly in publicly humiliating him in this way.

According to the employee, a Staples executive was embarrassed that he didn't catch the first employee sooner, and maliciously singled out the second employee in order to detract attention from his failure to realize what was happening with the first one.

Staples suggested that it was merely trying to drive home the importance of filing accurate expense reports, but the employee said this wasn't likely because since a large number of the 1,500 employees who got the e-mail never filed such reports.

The court didn't say the employee should win, but it said he had the right to go to trial and let a jury decide.