Many employees find themselves in a real quandary when the employer asks them to commit an illegal or unethical act. Texas law protects a worker who is asked to break a criminal statute. But, some employees become so vexed about their situation that s/he goes to the media. That is what happened in Peine v. HIT Services L.P., 479 S.W.3d 445, 2015 WL 6490290 (Tex.App. Hou. 2015). Joseph Peine was a CPA working as a CFO for HIT Services, a heavy turbine business group. According to Peine’s evidence, the company was in financial trouble. It had a history of inflating earnings in the past. He was hired to help turn things around, he alleged. This concerns a motion for summary judgment, so Mr. Peine’s allegations should be assumed as correct. The CFO alleged he was asked to inflate earnings for the year. He was told to claim a project had been completed, when it had not been completed. Mr. Peine refused. His boss, Durg Kumar threatened him and others in the CFO office if the CFO did not follow orders. He said he would “clean house” if the CFO did not comply with his order.
Mr. Peine went around Kumar to talk to higher-ups. Mr. Kumar went around Peine to get things included in the quarterly financial statement. The parent company placed Mr. Peine on leave with pay while it investigated claims made about him. About the same time, Mr. Peine contacted a Thomson Reuters reporter and provided documents. He suggested they wait to see if HIT would fix the problems before going forward with any news report. Soon, the company investigation uncovered the email from Peine to the reporter. The investigator, an in-house attorney, recommended that Mr. Peine be fired for violating the company’s confidentiality policy. Within a couple of months of his initial complaint to the parent company, Mr. Peine was fired.
The CFO filed a lawsuit based on Sabine Pilot Services, Inc. v. Hauck, 687 S.W.2d 733 (Tex.1985). Sabine Pilot is that rare case of judge-made law. That decision recognized an action to sue for a termination resulting from a worker’s refusal to follow an illegal order. The employer moved for traditional summary judgment alleging that Mr. Peine violated the confidentiality policy. The employee responded that there was a genuine issue of fact regarding why he was fired. The court of appeals discussed the standard of proof for a Sabine Pilot case. Sabine Pilot actions require a showing that the “sole cause” of the termination was the order to commit an illegal act. The Plaintiff pointed to statement by Kumar that he would “clean house” if the CFO did not do as he wished and a statement by the parent company that Mr. Peine was a “liability.” Those statements represent direct evidence, said the plaintiff. But, the court of appeals did not accept these statements as direct evidence. The court found they were circumstantial evidence, since there was no indication the persons making those statements had a direct role in Mr. Peine’s termination.
The court did not seem to be aware that in acknowledging the possibility of two different motivations, it was implicitly agreeing that that a jury should decide this issue, not a judge. If there is more than one possible interpretation of the evidence, then under the rules, the decision belongs to the jury, not a judge. But, this irony does not help the plaintiff. Since, few, perhaps no, plaintiffs will survive an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
The Plaintiff also presented an expert witness in the area of government compliance. That expert testified that this was a classic case of retaliation. But, the court was still troubled by the fact that he might have been fired for violating the confidentiality policy. The expert could not speak to that possible motivation. Mr. Peine then argued that he expressed concerns to a public forum and should be protected. But, no, said the court, Texas does not recognize freedom to report illegal activities in a private work place. That is true. The Texas whistle blower law only applies to government employees, not private sector workers.
So, the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment. Based on the decision, it does not appear the plaintiff contested whether he truly violated the confidentiality clause. Some employers claim to have such a policy, but upon closer examination, it turns out they often ignore it. It is also unfortunate he went to a reporter. Otherwise, his case should have been solid. Many employees, faced with an unjust termination, reach out to any possible avenue of protection. People who are facing the end of their financial well-being do desperate things. See decision here.