What Can I Do If Someone Makes False Allegations Against Me?

Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.


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Warren Buffett allegedly said, "it takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to lose it." Accusations of wrongdoing, immorality or indecency can tarnish an otherwise sterling reputation with lightning speed. If false statements have damaged your reputation, you may wonder, "What can I do if someone makes false allegations against me?" This piece discusses your legal options and possible courses of action.

Can You Sue Someone for False Accusations?

Many countries, including France and Germany, have laws against making disparaging statements about another person's character or professional reputation. These systems place a higher value on protecting their citizens' privacy and preserving civility than the importance of uncovering and sharing "news." Publicly making embarrassing accusations can be a crime, even if they are true!

The United States prioritizes protecting free speech more than protecting people's privacy or reputation. In general, people can express their opinions of other people's character or reveal true facts that are embarrassing or damaging without fear of legal consequences. Even if a kernel of truth is generously embellished with opinions, the speaker can often use the truth as an absolute defense.

For example, a previous boss tells your current manager that you were chronically late and were lazy. It is undisputed that you were late three times in six months, which led to your termination. While you may feel this is an unfair characterization of your punctuality, the "truthiness" of that statement would probably weigh against you. The disparagement of your work ethic is a protected opinion.

In addition to matters of opinion, parodies and satire are also not defamatory. These types of humor and sarcasm are often political and are protected by the First Amendment. Whether a statement qualifies as a parody or satire may be a question for the court.

Despite the value we place on free speech, in certain circumstances, the target of false, derogatory statements may pursue a defamation claim. This is an action for a civil wrong, also called a "tort." Oral statements (whether in person or on the internet) are called "slander," while written statements (in hard copy or online) are called "libel." Most states have a general, combined defamation law that covers both types. Some states also have more protective laws against invasion of privacy and harassment.

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Elements of a Defamation Claim

Defamation laws vary from state to state. The general framework for these laws is set out in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, a compilation of "model laws" that states may adopt or customize. For a defamation claim, a plaintiff must prove:

  • Defendant made a false statement purporting to be fact.
  • Defendant published or communicated that statement to a third person outside of any privileged relationship (such as a psychiatrist, spouse or priest).
  • Plaintiff suffered damages or harm to their reputation.

If the plaintiff is a public figure, the defendant must have made the statement intentionally (knowing it was false) or with reckless disregard for whether it was true. This is known as the "actual malice" standard. Courts generally use an expansive definition to include celebrities, government officials and people involved in a newsworthy event as "public figures." This higher standard protects the press, especially in "breaking news" situations.

If the plaintiff is an ordinary person, the law holds the defendant to a "negligence" standard. If a reasonable person would have known the statement was false, or if the defendant actually knew the statement was a lie, they may be liable to the victim for damages.

Malicious Prosecution

If someone's false accusations led to your arrest or you had to defend yourself against a civil suit, you may be able to file a lawsuit for malicious prosecution. In states that recognize this cause of action, a plaintiff must prove:

  • The defendant made false accusations that led to a prosecutor charging you with a crime or the defendant filing a civil action against you.
  • The criminal or civil case was resolved in your favor.
  • There was no probable cause for the false accusations (that is, a reasonable person would not have believed the accusations were true).
  • The defendant acted with malice or intent to harm.
  • You were damaged by the false accusations.

You may be able to recover compensation for the costs associated with your defense, lost wages or business opportunities, the value of the time you spent defending the case and emotional distress. In some cases, you can pursue punitive damages.

What to Do When Someone Files False Claims Against You

State laws vary widely regarding the damages a plaintiff can recover in defamation claims. You may be able to recover economic damages related to the statements at issue, such as lost job opportunities, lost earning power and reimbursement for any medical expenses you incurred. You may also be compensated for pain and suffering and emotional damage. An attorney can help you understand your options and the potential value of your claim.

In many states, the victims of certain types of defamatory statements are automatically entitled to nominal damages without having to show evidence of financial loss. Falsely accusing someone of committing a crime usually falls under this umbrella. If you aim to hold someone accountable for false accusations but didn't suffer substantial damages, consider filing a small claims lawsuit.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • In many states, falsely accusing someone of a crime is a criminal offense, but individual citizens can't "press charges." Victims should contact law enforcement officials. If the prosecutor's office has enough evidence to support a charge, they will obtain a warrant, arrest and prosecute the defendant. A conviction may result in fines, imprisonment or other criminal penalties. If you want to recover compensation, you must file a civil lawsuit.

  • As in other civil cases, you can ask for any amount you believe is warranted to compensate you for your damages. Providing evidence to document your economic losses, such as lost opportunities, demotion, reduction in pay or other tangible losses, can improve your recovery if you successfully prove your case. An experienced attorney can help you understand the value of your claims and your chance of success.

  • The federal False Claims Act doesn't apply to false allegations made by individuals against each other. This statute applies when someone makes false claims to defraud the government or avoid paying taxes or other obligations. There is no federal law that applies to defamation claims. Malicious prosecution claims involving federal court cases should be brought under the applicable state law.

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