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Yahoo! Exec Accused of Harassment Countersues for Defamation

By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 21, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Yahoo! executive who's being sued over alleged sexual harassment has countersued her accuser for defamation.

Maria Zhang, Yahoo!'s Senior Director of Engineering, filed suit against Nan Shi, the woman who accused her of coercing her into multiple sexual encounters for fear of her job. Zhang claims in her countersuit that the allegations are entirely false and that Shi's only goal is "financial gain," GeekWire reports.

Could Zhang's accuser be facing more liability than the Yahoo! exec?

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Defamation, IIED Alleged

According to Zhang's suit, Shi filed false reports leading to her harassment lawsuit, after she consistently received negative performance reviews while at Yahoo!. The company allegedly investigated the claims of sexual harassment, and Shi was allegedly unable to produce even one email, photograph, or communication that supported even a consensual sexual relationship between Zhang and Shi, according to Zhang.

Since Zhang believes these allegations are entirely untrue and were damaging to her reputation, she's accused Shi of defamation. False statements published to others that are damaging to one's reputation can be the basis for a defamation suit, as long as the statements are not privileged and the plaintiff can prove monetary damages.

Zhang alleges that she has suffered severe damage to her business reputation through Shi's allegations of sexual coercion, and that these kinds of statements are defamatory on their face. She also claims that because Shi intentionally accused Zhang of this conduct in order to both retaliate against Zhang and delay Shi's firing, she is entitled to punitive damages.

If that doesn't stick, Zhang is also suing for alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress, claiming that Shi's outrageous conduct was a malicious and willful attempt to cause Zhang emotional distress.

SLAPP in the Face?

One potential problem with Zhang's suit: It feels a bit like a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). Since Zhang is a high-level Yahoo! executive, it may look like Yahoo! or Zhang are trying to silence Shi by suing her for defamation.

California is one of many states that has an anti-SLAPP statute, considering petitions in furtherance of matters of public significance protected speech under the First Amendment. Under this law, Shi could file an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming that her speech is protected and is therefore not defamation.

It's also possible that one or both parties will want to settle, now that dueling lawsuits are involved. Only time will tell.

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