Last week, I noted that the Texas Supreme Court had decided all of its September, October, and November cases, save one. With today’s orders list, the Court issued its opinion in that last case from the November sitting.

Internal investigations while a company is itself under investigation are given absolute privilege against defamation

Shell conducted an internal investigation into some allegations of violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which pinned blame on the plaintiff here, among others. When sued for defamation, the company asserted that the statement was entitled to absolute privilege because it was made as part of a criminal proceeding.

The trial court agreed. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that Shell had not sufficiently proven that this privilege applied. (( The privilege was presented by traditional summary judgment, so the defendant had to establish it by conclusive evidence. ))

The Texas Supreme Court held that this record did, conclusively, establish a privilege that defeated any defamation claim. The analysis focused on the circumstances under which the report was made. As the Court summarized it, "Shell met with the DOJ, agreed to perform an internal investigation and report the results to the DOJ, and then did so."

This case's holding may be narrower than it first appears. The Court was careful to say that it was adhering to, and applying, the legal framework from Hurlbut v. Gulf Atlantic Life Insurance Co., 749 S.W.2d 762 (Tex. 1987), where it held a company official's voluntary statement to law enforcement made prior to that company being investigated was not afforded this same privilege.

The Court distinguished Hurlbut because, here, Shell actually was a target of a law-enforcement investigation at the time it made this report. The Court also emphasized that, while the company official's statement in Hurlbut had been made voluntarily, Shell making a report to the DOJ was "practically speaking, compelled." The Court noted the realities of being prosecuted under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), under which the DOJ more harshly penalizes companies that do not cooperate. Because this internal-investigation report was provided to the DOJ in "serious contemplation of the possibility" of a prosecution, Shell was entitled to absolute privilege against defamation claims.