Crockett Oaks III, a former FBI agent who led the U.S. security operations of Shell Oil Co., was part of a selection committee that last year recommended the hiring of a 53-year-old man with a military background as a security adviser. But when the company directed the committee to find a younger, female candidate, Oaks objected to hiring based on age or gender and was subsequently fired.
Those allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed by Oaks that is now testing the limits of employee confidentiality agreements. Shell Oil, the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, last week obtained a temporary court order blocking Oaks from revealing potentially damaging information about Shell’s personnel practices to support his claim.
As head of security, Oaks was privy to confidential personnel decisions that might show that his firing was retaliatory, according to court documents. Shell alleges that Oaks violated his employment agreement when he shared confidential information with his lawyer and a third-party mediator brought in to settle the dispute.
Shell also claims Oaks breached his duty of loyalty and good faith to Shell by threatening to disclose details of internal investigations at Shell that the company believes are confidential.
Seeking and obtaining a restraining order is unusual in cases involving confidential information, legal specialists said. Typically, both sides agree in advance to file confidential information under seal such as patents, trademarks or even Social Security numbers of individuals. The information can be used as evidence in the case, but it’s not part of the public record.
The issue of confidentiality comes up most often when employees who feel wronged were former high level executives privy to corporate secrets that they promised not to reveal, said Houston employment lawyer Martin Shellist. But confidentially agreements also can’t block an employee — or ex-employee — from getting legal help.
“It doesn’t mean they can’t talk to their lawyer about it,” said Shellist.
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