The Right To Privacy: A $5.3 Million Lesson For Shell?

In many ways, Jeffrey Collins was the very model of a company man--Shell Oil Co., that is. His father retired after 37 years with Shell. Collins spent his entire career there, rising after 19 years to become the No. 2 executive at its Triton Biosciences Inc. unit in Alameda, Calif. But he has spent the past five years suing Shell for wrongful discharge. In June, he won that suit, along with $5.3 million in damages.

Collins' life with Shell ended abruptly in November, 1985. He had used the office computer to prepare invitations for a nude party planned by his gay sex club. A secretary found one and showed it to company officials. They discharged Collins--wrongfully, a California state judge found. Blasting the company for "outrageous" behavior, Judge Jacqueline Taber held that Shell broke state laws by using information about Collins' personal life as the basis for firing him. "The evidence is clear and convincing that he was terminated for private homosexual conduct away from his employment . . . and not for unsatisfactory job performance," her decision said.

LIFESTYLE QUESTION. Shell, which denies the charges, plans to appeal. A Shell lawyer maintains that Collins was terminated "for preparing a sexually explicit memo" at the office, using company equipment, and "for leaving it where it could offend other employees." The company, which has since sold Triton, denies that it discriminates because of sexual orientation: In fact, it once fired a heterosexual employee for preparing and circulating sexually explicit documents in the office. "We do consider lifestyle characteristics a private matter," the spokesman says.

The Shell case is yet another unsettling reminder to employers of the growing controversy and litigation concerning privacy in the workplace. The Shell judgment "expands the rights of employees who are being discriminated against because of lifestyle. Employers must make employment decisions on job-related criteria," says Victor Schachter, a prominent employment lawyer in San Francisco who represents several national corporations. Employers certainly will notice the initial size of Collins' award--the largest award yet in a homosexual discrimination case, says Jury Verdict Research Inc.

Indeed, Taber's decision went far in denouncing Shell. Not only did she conclude that Collins' dismissal was "solely" because of his homosexuality but she criticized Shell's handling of the termination. To justify it, Taber held, managers in Alameda and Houston, the company's headquarters, inappropriately told a headhunter of his homosexuality. And she concluded that the termination was an "overreaction" to Collins' mistake: leaving the party memo in the office.

Paul F. Wotman, Collins' lawyer, says the Shell verdict "has sent the message throughout Corporate America that being gay isn't an acceptable reason for firing someone." Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin--along with some 100 cities and counties--have passed laws protecting gays from bias in housing and employment. No federal law exists, though gay activists have been lobbying since the mid-1970s for a "sexual orientation" amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For Collins, 47, redress comes not a minute too soon. Unable to find a job comparable to his $115,000 position at Triton, he now makes $25,000 a year at a San Francisco company that ships pets across the U. S. Still, Collins says hopefully, his court win "will offer a lot of encouragement to people who suffered what I did."

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