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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:On Nov. 20, 2003, Exxon Mobil Corp. terminated the employment of Dwight Hines and Shannon Everett. At the time of their terminations, Hines was 52 years old and had worked for Exxon Mobil Chemical Co. (a division of Exxon) for 23 years. Also at that time, Everett was 50 years old and had worked for the same division for 19 years. The reason given by Exxon for the terminations was violation of the guidelines governing Exxon’s educational matching gift program. Through this program, Exxon employees and retirees who contribute to colleges and universities may request that Exxon “match” their contributions (not to exceed $5,000) at a ratio of 3 to 1. In 2002, Exxon undertook a periodic audit of the Matching Gift Program. In the course of their investigation, two internal auditors, David Hintz and Thomas Barnes, became interested in contributions Hines and Everett made to their alma mater, Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. At the close of their investigation, the auditors concluded that Hines and Everett had contributed to a scholarship fund at Graceland and had applied for Exxon to match those contributions during the same period of time in which their children were receiving scholarships from the fund. The auditors further surmised that Hines and Everett knowingly participated in a scheme designed to obtain a benefit for their children in violation of program guidelines, which preclude members of the employees’ families from benefiting from the charitable contributions and matching funds. In July 2003, the auditors presented their findings to the supervisors of Hines and Everett and those of other employees who had been identified through the audit as having made suspect contributions. Subsequently, Charlie Jones, a human resources manager, reviewed the findings. In August 2003, Jones gave his recommendations for discipline to the employees’ managers. Then, on Sept. 23, 2003, he presented the recommendations by way of a conference call to the division vice presidents responsible for certain of the employees in question. Participating in this meeting were Jones, Bruce Macklin (vice president for chemicals), Don Daigle (vice president for refining and supply), Nate Jenkins (a controller in chemicals, who, according to Jones, helped the auditors with the investigation) and Jack Clark (Jones’ supervisor in the human resources department). During this meeting, Jones specifically accused Hines and Everett of participating in an “elaborate funding scheme” with “intent to defraud” the program. Subsequently, on Oct. 23, 2003, Jenkins gave a substantially similar presentation to Daniel Sanders, president of Exxon Mobil Chemical Co., who then approved Jones’ recommendation that Hines’ and Everett’s employment be terminated. On Nov. 20, 2003, Hines’ and Everett’s employment was terminated. On Dec. 1, 2003, Exxon sent a letter addressed to all current employees and retirees who had previously applied for matching funds for contributions to Graceland, informing them that Graceland was no longer eligible to receive matching funds as a result of an audit of such contributions. The letter further stated that “[a]buses of the program by a few individuals and institutions jeopardize its continuation. . . . [D]ecisions to rescind an institution’s eligibility . . . are made to preserve the integrity of the program.” Hines and Everett sued Exxon, alleging defamation and age discrimination. Hines and Everett asserted that various statements made by Exxon representatives were defamatory and compensable. They further alleged that Exxon’s stated reason for the dismissals, i.e., violation of the program guidelines, was a mere pretext for age discrimination. Before trial, Exxon filed a partial motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion against Hines’ and Everett’s age discrimination claims. The defamation claims proceeded to trial. The jury found that four sets of statements made by Exxon were defamatory against Hines and Everett. In regards to Everett, the jury found that other statements in addition to the four were defamatory toward him. In answer to the damages submissions, the jury found that Hines suffered $100,000 in past mental anguish, $100,000 in injury to character and reputation, and $100,000 in past and future lost income and lost unemployment benefits. It further found that Everett suffered $75,000 in past mental anguish, $75,000 in injury to character and reputation, and $100,000 in past and future lost income and lost unemployment benefits. Lastly, the jury found that Exxon was responsible for 85 percent of the damages awarded, and Hines and Everett were each responsible for 15 percent of their own damages. Based on the verdict, the trial court awarded Hines $255,000 and Everett $212,500 plus pre- and postjudgment interest. Both sides appealed. Exxon attacked the defamation judgment; Hines and Everett challenged the summary judgment against their discrimination claims. HOLDING:Affirmed as modified. In its appeal, Exxon contended that: 1. as a matter of law, the allegedly defamatory statements were protected under the qualified privilege for investigations of employee wrongdoing and were not excessively published; 2. the Texas employment at-will doctrine bars appellees’ claims; 3. the employment at-will doctrine, at a minimum, prevents appellees from recovering economic damages under the facts of this case; 4. the evidence is legally insufficient to support the award of non-economic damages; and in the alternative, 5. the trial court erred in its submission of the excessive publication issue to the jury. Hines and Everett, the court stated, had the burden of proving both the existence and amount of damages in order to maintain their defamation causes of action. Under the at-will employment doctrine, an employer may generally terminate an at-will employee without fear of legal repercussions for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all. Additionally, as a corollary to the doctrine, Texas does not recognize a cause of action for “negligent investigation” in the employment context. Hines and Everett do not allege, and there is no evidence to suggest, that Exxon ever communicated the substance of the Sept. 23 and Oct. 23 presentations to anyone outside the company. Under Hines’ and Everett’s theory, the internal communication of the reason for the terminations (i.e., the alleged defamation) enables them to recover the damages caused by the terminations. This theory, the court stated, would clearly violate the at-will employment doctrine � and its general prohibition against wrongful termination claims by at-will employees � by creating liability where at law none may exist. An employee cannot recover as defamation damages those damages caused by employment termination, the court elaborated. Next, the court noted that to sustain a jury award of mental anguish damages in the defamation context, the underlying evidence must show a high degree of mental pain and distress that is more than mere worry, anxiety, vexation, embarrassment or anger. It further must directly demonstrate the nature, duration and severity of the mental anguish, which caused a substantial disruption in the claimant’s daily routine. The court found no such evidence. Thus, all of the amounts awarded as defamation damages by the jury, the court stated, “are either barred by application of law or unsupported by more than a scintilla of evidence in the record.” As for Hines’ and Everett’s discrimination claims, the court found that the summary judgment arguments and evidence provided, at best, very weak evidence that Exxon’s proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the terminations was merely a pretext for age discrimination. In conclusion, the court held that the trial court erred in awarding judgment for Hines and Everett on their defamation causes of action but properly granted summary judgment against Hines and Everett on their age discrimination claims. Accordingly, the court modified the trial court’s judgment to render judgment that Hines and Everett take nothing on their defamation claims. OPINION:Hedges, C.J.; Hedges, C.J., and Seymore and Price, JJ.

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