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Defamation, (libel if written, and slander if spoken) is any communication to a third party which harms your reputation. To be actionable, the statement must be a false "statement of fact." So, if they wrote that you are a terrible employee, while false, this would be a statement of opinion, and not fact, and thus would not be actionable. However, if they wrote that you stole, or were absent 5 times when you were not or did not then this would be considered defamation. California law requires that employers allow employees and former employees access to their personnel files and records that relate to the employee’s performance or to any grievance concerning the employee. Labor Code Section 1198.5 So, if the employer is placing something in your file that is a false statement of fact, then you would be able to bring an action against the employer, and the individual who told them of this. You will first want to get a written copy of your employment record. Your employer is required by law to give it to you. Then, you would want to bring a defamation suit against the individual and the company for the false statement of fact.
You may want to consider getting an attorney involved in this matter. If you decide to hire an attorney a great resource is www.Martindale.com. This is a nationwide directory that is useful in finding highly qualified legal specialists in various fields of law. The lawyers in Martindale are not selected because they paid to be included, but rather because they have been rated by other attorneys as qualified experts in their field. Consider consulting with two or three different attorneys willing to take your case prior to selecting the one you feel most comfortable with.
Even the threat of a lawsuit in this situation will likely be enough to have them clear any statements of fact out of your employment records.
Unemployment, however, is a separate matter. When you claim unemployment, they will likely claim that you were fired for "misconduct" You will argue why this is false. You are allowed to bring witnesses, witness statements, and any other proof as to why no one could come to this conclusion given the facts of this matter.
The way unemployment works, is that by default you are granted unemployment if you make an argument that you lost your job through no fault of your own. Then, you will be denied unemployment if your employer decides to fight it. At this point an appeal will occur. It is at this stage that you must prove that you could not have been fired for misconduct.
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So, if you can get a picture of the door mechanism showing that it cannot be locked from the outside then you should be able to easily win your unemployment claim. If you are a for cause employee, or if you are part of a union, then you may also have a breach of contract claim. Finally, because this is part of your employment file, you "may" have a claim for defamation. The reason for this is that if you are an at will employee then they can fire you for any reason that is not in violation of your civil rights or in breach of contract. Thus, you will have to be denied a job based on this information in order to create damages. However, if all you want is for this to be taken off of your record, you can definitely threaten a lawsuit and see if they will remove it.
However, you mention "hostile work environment." Are you sure this employee is not complaining of gender discrimination? i.e. that you locked the door while you were both inside with the intention to do something untoward? Because if this is the case, you may be able to already have damages, and should absolutely speak to an attorney in your area immediately.
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