In Texas, a person cannot be sued for defamation for statements made in judicial or legislative proceedings. However, the rule has not been so clear with respect to statements made before such proceedings begin, such as those made during an internal investigation of employee misconduct by employer. Last week, the Texas Supreme Court in Shell Oil Co., et al. v. Writt held that a company’s statements made during an internal investigation while a company itself is under investigation are absolutely privileged against defamation, i.e. what a company says about an employee in that situation cannot serve as grounds for defamation.
In this case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) approached Shell about their investigation of one of the company’s subcontractors for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The DOJ suspected that the subcontractor was paying bribes to local officials in violation of the FCPA.
Understanding that Shell could face similar charges if its employees knew about the subcontractor’s violations, Shell cooperated with the DOJ and conducted an 18-month long internal investigation into its employees. As a result, it provided the DOJ with a report that stated that one employee was aware of “several red flags” concerning the subcontractor’s activities. In addition to providing the report to the DOJ, Shell terminated the employee, stating in the termination letter that the employee’s conduct was a “significant, substantial and unacceptable” violation of the company’s General Business Principles and Code of Conduct.
The employee sued Shell for defamation and wrongful termination based on the statements in the company’s report provided to the DOJ, claiming that the company falsely accused him of approving bribery payments and participating in illegal conduct. Shell sought a summary judgment on the grounds of absolute privilege, and while the motion was pending, the DOJ charged Shell with violations of the FCPA. It then entered into a deferred prosecution agreement because of the company’s cooperation in the investigation. The trial court granted Shell’s summary judgment motion, but was reversed by the court of appeals, to be later reversed by the Texas Supreme Court.
As the Supreme Court explained – in Texas, any statements made during judicial or legislative proceedings are protected from a claim of defamation. Additionally, statements that are made preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding or as part of a judicial proceeding in which a person is testifying, are also immune from defamation claims if they have some relation to the proceeding.
Thus, statements made before a judicial proceeding has been initiated will still be privileged from defamation as long as: (1) the statements relate to the contemplated proceeding and (2) the party making the statements in good faith believes that it will be a party to the proceeding once it is initiated.
In this case, because the DOJ told Shell that it was investigating its employee and Shell, Shell’s report was given to the DOJ as part of the ongoing DOJ investigation, Shell compiled and provided the report under serious and good faith contemplation of a judicial proceeding – the statements in the report were privileged from defamation, and the employee’s claim against the company arising out of such statements failed. The result would have been different if Shell had provided the report voluntarily, without the threat of prosecution from the DOJ.
TAKEAWAYS: Under Shell Co. ruling, if a company’s internal investigation is conducted under a threat of being involved in litigation, any statements about third parties that are related to such potential litigation and are made during the investigation are likely to be protected from defamation claims. However, a company that voluntarily provides information to a government agency without a threat of prosecution might not have that protection.
This case is a great example of how complicated defamation law can be in Texas. Contrary to the media’s portrayal of defamation lawsuits, very few of those cases are straightforward, as that area of law is full of nuances, privileges, and defenses. When in doubt, an employer should consult with an attorney before making any statements about a former (or current) employee to third parties, including government agencies.
Leiza Dolghih practices business and employment litigation and often advises employers on how to prevent or minimize the risk of litigation before it occurs. For more information, contact Ms. Dolghih for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@GodwinLewis.com or (214) 939-4458.