PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld a trial court decision for summary judgment, dismissing a truck driver’s claims of defamation, libel and intentional interference with contractual relationships against his former employer.
Judges D. Brooks Smith, Thomas M. Hardiman and Patty Shwartz ruled a lower Philadelphia federal court was correct in granting a motion for summary judgment to Werner Enterprises, Inc. and Driver’s Management, LLC, against appellant James Bentlejewski.
Hardiman authored the Court’s opinion in this matter.
According to court records, Bentlejewski worked as a truck driver for Werner from May 2011, until his resignation one year later. After leaving Werner, Bentlejewski began training as a conditional driver associate at Schneider National, Inc.
In following Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations, Schneider requested Bentlejewski’s accident and driving history report from his previous employer, Werner. In response, Werner provided Schneider with an employment verification which identified four minor accidents involving Bentlejewski during his employment with Werner, and classified each accident as “preventable.”
Schneider notified Bentlejewski by email on May 25, 2012 that he would not be considered for a driving position.
Nearly one year later in March 2013, Bentlejewski started probationary employment with Vitran Express, Inc. Like Schneider, Vitran requested Bentlejewski’s accident and driving history report from Werner, in complying with the FMCSA. That June, Werner provided Vitran with an employment verification which again identified the same four “preventable” minor accidents.
Two days later, Vitran notified Bentlejewski that his probationary employment there would not be continued. This led Bentlejewski to file a lawsuit in September 2013, alleging the employment verifications that Werner provided Schneider and Vitran contained “false and misleading information.”
“After discovery, the District Court granted Werner’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Werner published information about Bentlejewski’s driving record subject to a conditional privilege and Bentlejewski failed to defeat that privilege,” Hardiman said. “The Court also found that Bentlejewski failed to show that Werner acted improperly in providing information to Bentlejewski’s prospective employers. This timely appeal followed.”
Hardiman specified there was “no dispute that Werner’s submissions of the employment verifications to Bentlejewski’s prospective employers were conditionally privileged under both Pennsylvania and federal law.”
“In evaluating whether Werner abused its privilege, the District Court applied an ‘actual malice’ standard under Pennsylvania law. In other words, Bentlejewski needed to show that Werner intentionally included false information on his employment verifications or did so with reckless disregard for the truth to defeat the conditional privilege,” Hardiman stated. “This error by the District Court is unavailing to Bentlejewski, however, because the Pennsylvania negligence standard is preempted by federal transportation law.”
Hardiman stated the law “protects employers against defamation and interference with contract actions when they provide information about a driver’s safety performance history”, but does not apply for “persons who knowingly furnish false information.”
“Turning to the question of whether Werner abused its privilege, Bentlejewski argues that the employment verifications contained false information regarding three of the four accidents. Bentlejewski’s evidence does not support that conclusion, even under the deferential summary judgment standard,” Hardiman said.
“He signed accident review reports admitting the facts regarding two of the three accidents at issue and has not offered any evidence to counter those initial findings, which were later confirmed by Werner’s Safety Director,” Hardiman said.
“During his deposition, Bentlejewski admitted that he had no evidence other than his own recollections. And although Bentlejewski initially contested the third accident, he produced no evidence except for an inconclusive video. This was insufficient to show that Werner knowingly submitted false information regarding these accidents. In sum, Bentlejewski did not show that Werner provided false information, knowingly or otherwise, regarding his driving record,” Hardiman said.
Hardiman concluded by upholding the trial court decision.
“Bentlejewski next argues that the District Court erred when it granted Werner summary judgment on his claim of intentional interference with contractual relationships,” Hardiman said. “This claim fails for largely the same reason his defamation claim failed, namely for want of evidence to support the notion that Werner knowingly provided any false information or otherwise acted improperly in providing the employment verifications to Schneider and Vitran. For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the District Court’s order.”
The appellant is represented by John David Newborg in Pittsburgh.
The appellees are represented by Frank M. Gianola of the Law Offices of Frank M. Gianola, plus Timothy R. Smith and Christopher T. Sasada of Pion Nerone Girman Winslow & Smith, also all in Pittsburgh.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-2870
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania case 2:13-cv-01385
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org