In federal court yesterday, one of the nation's leading employment agencies won its defamation case against a Baltimore business without really winning much.
A jury ruled that Spherion Corp. was maligned when the Rosen Group, a Baltimore-based publishing and marketing company, criticized the employee placement giant in widely circulated e-mails and a business magazine article.
In 2003, the agency had recommended to the Rosen Group a new employee who turned out to be a convicted thief, a man who would be indicted later on charges of stealing $127,000 from the Rosen Group.
Furious, group President Wendy Rosen gave an interview for a subsequent article about her experience and shot off a series of searing e-mails that requested compensation from Spherion. Eventually, Rosen's increasingly intense and public demands prompted the company to file suit.
But yesterday, the six women and two men on the panel refused to award any damages to either party. They declined to comment on the case after listening to three days of testimony this week.
Spherion's attorney praised the verdict, saying that the lack of a monetary award was beside the point. Spherion, lawyers pointed out again and again during the four-day trial, has $2 billion in annual revenues.
"The jury showed that e-mails were harmful in and of themselves," said lawyer Raymond C. Baldwin.
On a counterclaim filed by Rosen, the jury separately concluded that Spherion had acted negligently when it referred now-indicted Raheim Jackson to the Rosen Group. But the jury again failed to grant any damages because jurors ruled that the Rosen Group was also partly to blame for Jackson's alleged theft, and therefore ineligible for a monetary award.
Spherion lawyers argued that the Rosen Group was partially liable because the checks Jackson is accused of stealing were not kept in a locked box.
"I guess free speech doesn't count for much any more," Rosen said as she walked out of Courtroom 3A yesterday afternoon.
When asked whether the verdict would lead her to change her business methods in the future, she said: "I know I won't use a staffing firm for the rest of my life."
It was the e-mails that served as the center of Spherion's case against the Rosen Group. In one, the headline was "Spherion Placed a Thief in my Business."
Baldwin argued the e-mail's accusation was untrue, that Spherion had no idea that Jackson was a convicted thief. (The company also acknowledged that it violated its own screening policy because it never checked his references, which turned out to be fake).
But Andrew White, one of the Rosen Group's attorneys, said in closing arguments that the e-mail's accusation was true. He added that there were so many red flags in Jackson's application that experienced recruiters at Spherion should have known he was a fraud.
"He didn't fall through the cracks," White said, arguing that the company was motivated by its finder's fee. "They pushed him through."
Jackson faces federal criminal charges in the theft of 27 company checks from the Rosen Group and using them for his own benefit. He was convicted of stealing from a previous job with the Salvation Army.
The bank for the Rosen Group eventually covered its loss, but Rosen could not seem to let Spherion out of her sights.
"Don't you think its time to give me a refund on the fee you charged me for this creep???" Rosen wrote in a July 1, 2004, e-mail threatening to tell colleagues and friends about her predicament.
Eight days later, Spherion issued its answer - with a lawsuit.