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Woodfield v. Providence Hospital

September 06, 2001


Before Terry and Glickman, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Belson, Senior Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Gregory E. Mize, Trial Judge)

Argued July 27, 2001

Appellant Miriam Woodfield comes before us to appeal the trial court's grant of the joint motion for summary judgment by Providence Hospital and Denice Easterling, appellees, in Woodfield's defamation suit against them. Appellant contends that the trial court erred in ruling as a matter of law that she consented to the allegedly defamatory statements by her former supervisor and that Providence Hospital and Easterling did not act maliciously in making the statements. We affirm.


Providence Hospital employed appellant Woodfield as a registered nurse for approximately twenty months. Denice Easterling acted as appellant's supervisor at the hospital. Upon her employment, appellant received an employee manual that contained Providence Hospital's policy on employee references. The manual stated that "Providence Hospital will release only employment dates and last position title." Throughout her employment, appellant never applied for any promotions and was never disciplined or reprimanded.

Appellant resigned her position with Providence Hospital and several weeks later was offered a position with Suburban Hospital in Maryland. Suburban Hospital hired an employment verification service to conduct a background investigation into appellant's former employment. Appellant listed Providence Hospital as her former employer and Easterling as her former supervisor. Appellant also completed and signed a release for Suburban Hospital entitled "Notification and Verification to Conduct Background Investigation." The form included the following statement:

I hereby authorize Suburban Hospital Healthcare System, Inc. and/or its agents to investigate my background to determine any and all information of concern to my record, whether same is of record or not. I release employers and persons named in my application from all liability for any damages on account of his/her furnishing said information.

The employment verification service contacted Easterling and asked her, "Were there any promotions [for appellant]"? Appellant submitted evidence that Easterling responded, "No, she did not receive any promotions because of her poor performance. Because of her poor performance, I choose not to answer any further questions." Thereafter, Suburban Hospital retracted its offer of employment, and appellant commenced a defamation suit against Providence Hospital and Easterling.

Following discovery, Providence Hospital and Easterling moved for summary judgment arguing, inter alia, that appellant had released both appellees from all liability and, therefore, Easterling's statements, even assuming they were defamatory, were privileged because they were made with appellant's consent. After an opposition and reply were filed, the trial court granted appellees' joint motion for summary judgment. The trial court concluded that "the only reasonable conclusion that a jury could reach is that [appellant] did consent to the statement by Easterling." The trial court assumed arguendo that malice could overcome the defense of consent and found that appellant had failed to put forth evidence sufficient to establish that Providence Hospital and Easterling had acted maliciously. This appeal followed.


Appellant argues that the defense of consent is unavailable to Providence Hospital and Easterling because (1) Easterling was unaware of the release at the time she made the allegedly defamatory remarks and (2) appellant did not authorize Providence Hospital to release more information than that described in her employee manual (i.e., employment dates and last position title). Additionally, appellant argues that consent is a qualified privilege that may be defeated by a showing of malice, which appellant contends was demonstrated in her opposition sufficiently to overcome a motion for summary judgment.

We review the trial court's grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo, applying the same standards the trial court must. See Anderson v. Ford Motor Co., 682 A.2d 651, 652 (D.C. 1996); Holland v. Hannan, 456 A.2d 807, 814-15 (D.C. 1983). "[A] motion for summary judgment should be granted if (1) taking all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, (2) a reasonable juror, acting reasonably, could not find for the nonmoving party, (3) under the appropriate burden of proof." Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 42 (D.C. 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1078, 100 S. Ct. 1028, 62 L. Ed. 2d 761 (1980). The moving party carries the burden of demonstrating the absence of a material factual dispute and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Anderson, supra, 682 A.2d at 652. Once the moving party (Providence Hospital) initially meets its burden, the non-moving party must ...

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