What does the Depp vs Heard trial tell employers about workplace investigations?
June 2, 2022
Regardless of whether you are team Heard or team Depp, this legal decision is going to have wide reaching implications on workplace investigations.
The jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million dollars in punitive damages in his defamation action. The jury awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages and no money for punitive damages. As a reminder… Depp sought $50 million in damages and Heard sought $100 million. Punitive damages in the state of Virginia are capped at $350,000, so the judge reduced the punitive damages award to that amount. So Depp walks away with $10,350,000 awarded in damages in his defamation claim against ex-wife Amber Heard.
What does this mean for employers and businesses dealing with workplace complaints of discrimination and harassment?
It’s a good reminder that employers have an affirmative duty to undertake fair and impartial investigations and must listen to all sides before taking an adverse employment action. Otherwise, as this verdict makes clear, doors open for claims of defamation and wrongful discharge, among others.
As an employer or business, your best defense BEFORE taking an adverse employment action is to talk to a lawyer. Don’t guess. In the event of workplace complaints, conduct a fair and impartial investigation. Consider using an experienced outside attorney who does not work for the company. Using inside counsel or internal HR when conducting workplace investigations creates an inference of bias. Your best defense in court as an employer is an offense so you have evidence to support your workplace decision if it goes to court.
It’s a great reminder. Do it right the first time. And avoid paying a lot more later.