You may have a defamation claim against the old employer but it could be difficult to prove. California employers enjoy a qualified privilege when they provide reference information to other employers. This means that an employer is immune from liability and cannot be sued for defamation, as long as the employer provides the information to a prospective employer who requests it and acts without malice. This protection extends to statements about job performance, qualifications, and eligibility for rehire.
There are very many "disparaging" remarks that could be made about you that would be fully lawful for your former company to make. In fact, the scope of what could be a legitimate claim for defamation is very narrow.
First, a former employer is allowed to state its opinion about you without exposure. Even if that CEO is the only person in the world who holds that opinion, and you would find 100 people to say that his opinion is off base, that CEO is allowed to state his opinion about you, your work, your work ethic, your integrity, your skills, etc. Opinions cannot be the basis for a defamation claim.
Second, the California Civil Code gives employers a great amount of latitude to speak to other prospective employers about a former employee. There is a qualified privilege that allows as much. Essentially, to state liability against a former employer for defamation, you need to show the statement of a false present or past fact with something close to malice, meaning an intent to injure, as the motivation for the communication.
Finally, your facts suggest you are guessing that such a communication occurred. If you were to try to litigate this issue you would find out very quickly that most employers stick together and neither will admit to such a communication occurring.
Good luck to you.
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Depending on the circumstances, you may have a defamation claim, and intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, and a right to recover damages and punitive damages. Feel free to contact us for a free consult.
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