Monday, January 4, 2016

Unfair Termination

In my 57 years of law practice I've had all kinds of calls.  One of the questions most frequently asked, however, is related to unfair treatment of working folks in Texas.  Most have been let go from their jobs and are calling to inquire whether or not they have some legal remedy.  Most feel they were unjustifiably terminated from their employment because of a minor disagreement with one of their supervisors, or an argument with a fellow worker, or a wrongful allegation of wrongdoing.  Unfortunately, in most cases in Texas, there is little a lawyer can do for a working person unfairly cast loose in the cold world of our present economy.

Texas, I must tell all of them, is in fact an “at will” employment state.  This simply means you are employed and may continue to be employed at the will of your employer.  Generally, a Texas employer can terminate an employee for any reason he or she chooses so long as it is not a prohibited reason for discharge.  The exception to the rules related to at will employment is if the employee has the benefit of working under a personal contract or a union contract.

Personal contracts are generally related to executive services such as sales managers, supervisors, technicians or professionally qualified employees.  Union contracts generally provide no employee can be discharged unless there is proper cause and thereafter provides various types of remedies such as grievance procedures in arbitration agreements.

Under Texas law there is generally only one provision which prevents an employer from discharging an employee.  An employee who is discharged for failure to perform an illegal act in connection with his or her employment may seek protection of the courts.  An example of the leading case in this involves the operator of a vessel who was ordered to dump all of his sludge into a waterway.  After having refused to do so, he was discharged.  The court ordered him reinstated in his job with back pay.  There are probably not more than two or three cases on the Texas law books of this nature.

Generally, prohibitions on unfair discharge are contained in our federal law which mainly ban unfair treatment in the workplace related to race, national origin, gender, age or health.  In order to pursue a claim under the federal Equal Employment Statutes, one must first seek a remedy by filing a complaint with the federal office of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The nearest office to Jefferson County is located in Houston.  Once a complaint is filed, a worker will be assigned to the complaining employee, an investigation made and resolution sought.  In some instances the agency is able to reconcile employee and employer and allow the employee to regain his or her job.  If no resolution can be made through the investigative process, the EEOC will grant the aggrieved employee a right-to-sue letter.  The complaining employee thereafter must file suit within 90 days, and suit can be brought in state or federal court.

Suits claiming violation of the equal employment provisions of law generally are heavily burdensome to those filing them.  The burden of proof is on the aggrieved employee, and usually turns out to be fairly expensive.

Most of the callers to my office are normally shocked to learn they have no remedy simply because they were treated by their employer in a manner they consider grossly unfair.  Sadly, I have to tell these disappointed, out-of-work folks that it is one of the prices they pay so our politicians can brag of the great business climate that has been created by our political leaders in Texas.

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