There’s an extensive range of issues that employers can get sued for.  If you ever sit down to make  a list, don’t forget to include employee gossip.

In 2007, Chevron fired a sales manager (Richard Duste) for approving one subordinate’s inappropriate expenses.  These included airfare for trips the subordinate didn’t take and expenses for taking clients to strip clubs.  Duste admitted that he, too, had gone to strip clubs with clients, where he got lap dances.  But Duste felt that that was a legitimate way to entertain oil-company executives.  As he put it, “he was frequently required to entertain executives from oil-consuming companies,” and “as a practical matter, entertaining oil-company executives does not always involve trips to fancy tapas restaurants and nice wine bars.”

Another employee, Tim Black, provided information in connection with Duste’s investigation.  He also was talking about the investigation after the fact.  But Black’s version contained inaccuracies.  In Black’s version, Duste was"frequenting" strip clubs and brothels.  Duste denied that his five visits to "gentlemen’s clubs" over several years qualified as "frequenting" and further denied that he ever went to brothels.  So Duste sued.  

But he didn’t sue Black, he sued Chevron.  Chevron moved for summary judgment and, while it got some claims thrown out, the slander claim survived.  There are a number of reasons why Chevron should not be held responsible for Duste’s slander.

  • Chevron didn’t make the statement.
  • It told Black to keep the issues confidential.
  • Employers, as a rule, aren’t liable for conduct of their employees that occurs outside the scope of their employment.
  • It didn’t do anything wrong!

The court, however, denied summary judgment earlier this month.  It felt there was enough of an issue as to whether Black’s statement was connected to his employment to have a jury decide whether Chevron is legally responsible.  So the lawsuit (Duste v. Chevron Products Company, Inc., N.D. Cal. Case No. 3:08-03890-MEJ) is likely heading to a jury trial in the first half of 2011.  Is it any wonder why employers in California don’t sometimes feel that they have a big target on their backs?