san antonio employment lawyer

Arbitration is becoming more and more a significant feature of the legal landscape. Arbitration is a creature of contract. Whatever the parties agree to becomes the arbitration. What if the parties agree to arbitration, but then allow some form of appeal? In a recent decision, the Fourth Court of Appeals wrestled with that question. In Methodist Healthcare System v. Friesenhahn, No. 04-16-00825 (Tex.App. San Antonio 10/11/2017), the employer invoked arbitration. But, the arbitration did not go as the employer had hoped. The arbitrator awarded the employee almost $214,00 in damages and $170,000 in attorney’s fees. So, the employer got creative and filed a motion to vacate the arbitration award. Methodist Hospital argued that the arbitration agreement provided for expanded judicial appeal. It pointed to a small number of cases that recognized arbitration agreements that provided for appeals of decisions which contain reversible error. That is, they sought to appeal the arbitration decision based on traditional litigation type appeals. For example, in one section, the agreement states that the arbitrator will apply the same law as would a judge in court. The employer argued this meant reversible error would be grounds for appeal.

But, no, the Fourth Court was not going there. The court of appeals discussed the provisions cited by the employer. It said those provisions do not provide for an expanded appeal. They simply explain that the arbitral forum is simply another forum. The same legal theories apply in arbitration and apply in court. To provide expanded judicial review, the agreement would have to apply limitations on the arbitrator’s authority. For example, noted the appellate court, the agreement could have incorporated a reference to reversible error. It did not include any such reference. See the decision here.

The employer wanted arbitration. It drafted the arbitration agreement and then invoked the agreement when the plaintiff field suit. But, in the end, the employer found arbitration was not what it wanted, after all. Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.

Many workers believe they have been subjected to discriminatory comments by co-workers. Harassment by co-workers is sometimes referred to as a hostile work environment. It does not become actionable until management becomes aware of the harassment and fails to take action. But, what if the perceived discrimination is not necessarily discrimination? In Barnes v. Prairie View A&M, No. 14-15-01094 (Tex.App. Hou. 6/15/2017), Patrice Barnes, African-American, believed she was subjected to racist comments by co-workers. A long-time employee, she began complaining in 2007 about racist comments. A white co-worker observed ceiling insulation falling on people below and said it looked like an “old fashioned tar and feathering party.” Ms. Barnes explained to a third co-worker that tar and feathering referred to actions taken against slaves, and the white co-worker still made the remark again. Ms. Barnes accused co-workers of hiding paperwork and files, of asking her the same questions over and over, talking over her at meetings, etc.

The 14th Court of Appeals in Houston said this conduct did not amount to a hostile work environment. To constitute harassment, the actions by the co-workers must be severe or pervasive. The court addressed the tar and feathering remark and a second remark.  A secretary told one of Ms. Barnes’ clients to go to the white agent, not Ms. Barnes, because Ms. Barnes’ office was the “black” program. It found those two remarks, even if they were deemed racist, were not enough. Two remarks are not enough to constitute a severe or pervasive harassment. Prairie View argued the remarks were based on mis-understandings. The court was not willing to characterize them as racist. Indeed, we have to comment that tar and feathering has some notoriety in American history, but at least to my knowledge, not involving slavery. A remark that is capable of two or more different meanings will not be deemed to be racist.

Regarding the other allegations of conduct by co-worlers and her supervisor, the court found no connection to race. Ms. Barnes argued that since she was the only African-American in the office and because she was the only person subjected to those actions, then it must be race related. The court would not go there. Most courts will not infer racism from targeted actions alone. There has to be something more. The Fourteenth Court did agree that racism need not be explicit. But, the plaintiff has not pointed to any evidence which would support a racist animus on the part of the supervisor. The court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment. See the decision here.

I have been told myself by potential clients that an entire office is discriminating against him/her. But, it is exceedingly difficult to show several employees are acting in concert based on race. That sort of allegation would need better evidence, not lesser evidence.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued a local icon, Whataburger. The Tallahassee Whataburger, the EEOC alleges, harassed a manager after she refused to hire only white people. The EEOC claims the General Manager told the assistant manager to only interview people with “white sounding” names. Vanessa Burrous, instead, hired seven black employees and one white employee. The GM later chided Burrous for the hiring and told her the order came from upper management. The GM allegedly added that our customer base is white and we want workers who reflect that base. Ms. Burrous says she was harassed and forced to quit. See San Antonio Express News report.

Yes, it does violate Title VII to hire workers of a particular nationality or race, even if some customers might prefer persons of a particular race. If the plaintiff can support her case, Whataburger’s action would constitute a violation of Title VII. It is unfortunate that Ms. Burrous quit. It is difficult to show things were truly so bad that she had to quit – as opposed to simply wanting to quit. Whataburger is headquartered here in San Antonio.

What is a disability? A potential client asked me that recently. A broken leg, for example, is not an impairment that would qualify for coverage under the Americans with Disabilities Act. To qualify as a disability, the impairment must be permanent or something like permanent. It must also be serious. In Datar v. National Oilwell Varco, L.P., No. 01-15-00541 ((Tex.App. Hou. 1/19/2017), the employee claimed a impairment involving his back. He said he had a lower back sprain that made it “harder” to sit down, to walk and to pick things up. The Court of Appeals found that an impairment does not rise to the level of a disability unless it affects a major life activity. Yet, the court apparently disregarded evidence that at least once, the employee was in such pain that he had to go to the emergency room and could not work. Too, the court relied on caselaw issued prior to amendment of the ADA in 2009.

The court discounted the plaintiff’s testimony that the sprain made it harder for him to work. It relied, instead, on the medical note that released him back to work. See the decision here. This will be a continuing issue in future cases. Many persons suffer from these debilitating back injuries.

The Fourth Court of Appeals denied the appeal of the City of San Antonio regarding its labor agreement with the San Antonio Firefighters Union. See San Antonio Express News report here. The City had argued that the evergreen clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement made the contract an unconstitutional “debt.” This is the second time the city has lost on that issue before the Fourth Court of Appeals here in San Antonio. I mentioned the prior loss when the issue was the CBA with the San Antonio police officers. It is the same issue in both labor agreements, the “evergreen” clause that keeps the contract in place even while a new pact is being negotiated. See that prior post here.

As before, the City surely knows its chances for success increase dramatically when it appeals to the Texas Supreme Court.

There is a song about a Scottish soldier who perished during WW I in the trenches. It goes like this (with English translation):

Lay me down in the cold, cold ground

Where before many more have gone

Thoughts of home take away my fear

Sweat and blood hide my veil of tears

Once a year say a prayer for me

Close your eyes and remember me

“Sgt. MacKenzie” by Joseph Kilna MacKenzie.

Every veteran wants to be remembered. The biggest fear when you serve in some far off land is that the folks back home have forgotten about you. Even in Iraq, as closely tied as we were to the home front, we wondered, usually after six months or so in country, whether the folks back home had moved on with their lives and forgotten us.

Now, some folks in San Antonio want to forget the Confederate veteran. Things have changed so much since 1900 when the Confederate monument was erected. Many people find the monument offensive. The monument does not recognize some great general. It represents the common soldier, with his rifle at rest, he points skyward recalling his departed comrades.

It is wrong to suggest the statue was erected to keep African-Americans in their place or to show who controlled the Jim Crow South. Yes, even San Antonio had some Jim Crow laws. But, the statue was built not to overwhelm others, but to recall the sacrifices of those Confederate veterans. Veterans were dying in greater and greater numbers in the 1890’s. A movement spread across the South to recall their sacrifices. The San Antonio monument specifically asks us not to forget the Confederate veteran. It says, “Lest we forget.” It was nothing more than an attempt by the families of veterans to recall their departed loved ones. The state government did not erect the San Antonio monument.

My ancestor helped erect the Robert E. Lee monument in New Orleans. In his diary, he wrote about the public entertainment put on by volunteers to raise money. He said “thousands” came and had to be turned way because the hall was so full. Paula Allen in the Express News explains in today’s paper that bake sales and subscriptions by San Antonio businesses paid for the Travis Park Confederate monument. The city government donated the land. So, no, these monuments were generally not erected by Jim Crow governments. They were erected by average people, like you and me.

In a recent editorial, Josh Brodesky of the San Antonio Express News, and others, have suggested the Confederate veteran was motivated by racism and a desire to maintain slavery. That is not accurate. The veterans are long gone. We cannot now ask them to take a survey and study their motivations. But, James McPherson in his book, For Cause and Comrades, (Oxford Univ. Press 1997), accomplished a pretty decent survey by reviewing the personal letters and diaries of some 400 Confederate soldiers. He looked at the contemporary correspondence and diaries of some 647 Union soldiers and 429 Confederate soldiers. In his career, he explains that having looked at perhaps 25,000 such records, he believed this was a representative sample. For Cause, p. viii. Dr. McPherson is a well known Civil War historian.

According to Dr. McPherson’s study, some 57% of Confederate soldiers espoused patriotic fervor for the South. That is, their service was motivated by patriotism. For Cause, p. 102. Just some 20% of Confederate service members espoused pro-slavery views during the war. For Cause, p. 110. That is still too large a number for us today. But, it pales when compared to Union soldiers who referred to slavery as a motivation for serving in the war. The number of Union soldiers who espoused anti-slavery views was much higher. As the author explains, slavery was a political issue among the Union army. It was discussed and debated more. It was not such an issue among the Confederate army. So, perhaps, if there was more actual debate, then the pro-slavery view might have been higher among Confederate soldiers.

But, the point remains, if they fought to “own people,” they did not discuss it much. And, I can speak from experience. When you are hungry, tired, hot, far from home, you devote much of your free waking moments to why you are here. Why are we in this god forsaken land? If the Confederate soldier was concerned about continuing slavery, he would have said so.

Should it matter what motivated those Confederate soldiers? When I went to Iraq in 2005, I did not stop and say to my commander, “please explain to me the basis for this war?” Sgt. MacKenzie, it is said, died protecting a wounded comrade in the trenches. At those moments, you do not ask why. You simply react. In the song, Joseph MacKenzie, the great-grandson of the sergeant, did not ask for bugles and flourishes to commemorate the death of his ancestor. He simply asked that his great-grandfather be remembered. That is all any veteran can hope for. Say a prayer for those who fell. Recall the rest of us when our times come. We answered the call. We did not hesitate.

Mary Ellen Johnson worked at Southwest Research Institute for many years before she was fired. Some time before her termination, she complained about possible discrimination against her due to her gender. She filed an internal complaint with SWRI in June, 2012. She then filed a complaint with the EEOC on Aug. 3, 2012. Several days later, she was fired on Aug. 15, 2012. She was told the reason was failure to observe timekeeping requirements. She had a security clearance in her former position. She lost the clearance when she was fired. The timing of the termination alone suggests the employer was motivated by reprisal because she went to the EEOC.

The employer moved to dismiss the retaliation claim. It claimed she was fired because she lost her security clearance and only because she lost her clearance. If any employer is not motivated by retaliatory intent, but by something neutral, then she could not claim reprisal. When reviewing a motion to dismiss, a judge must look at what the plaintiff says she can show. To dismiss a lawsuit, the judge would have to find there was no set of facts that could support her claim. The employer must show “beyond doubt” that she cannot prove a plausible fact scenario for her retaliation claim.

The court reviewed the papers concerning her termination. It found that the documents were not clear. Neither the memo recommending dismissal or the email concurring in termination mentioned any loss of a security clearance. The letter to the Plaintiff notifying her of her termination does mention a lack of “trustworthiness.” That term matches terminology used for loss of a security clearance. But, said the court, it would be a stretch to conclude from the use of that term that her termination was based on the loss of access to classified material. The letter itself did not otherwise mention the loss of her security clearance.

She might have lost her clearance because she was fired. Or, she might have been fired immediately after losing her clearance. The clearance issue could have come before the termination, or after. The records submitted by the employer did not show one way or the other which came first.

Because the documents are not clear, the motion should be denied. A fact-finder, a jury, should determine what happened. See Johnson v. Southwest Research Institute, No. 15-297-FB (W.D. Tex. 9/28/2016). And, seriously, if the employer makes a claim regarding why someone was fired, but it cannot produce better evidence than the use of one term, with no apparent connection to the decision-making process, then it is either rather very unorganized or it is trying to mis-lead the court. Either way, the employer loses some credibility with the court when it makes an argument based on fairly weak evidence.

The Texas Whistleblower Law has many limitations. One of those limits includes the requirement that the whistleblower must report the alleged violation of law to a law enforcement authority. For most laws, the local police force would be the appropriate authority. But, what about those many obscure white collar type crimes? We see one such violation in Office of the Attorney General v. Weatherspoon, 472 S.W.3d 280 (Tex. 2015). In this case, an Assistant AG, Ginger Weatherspoon says she was asked to submit a false affidavit regarding her dealings with a judge. She reported the unlawful request to her superiors within the Child Support Enforcement Division. She was later fired.

Ms. Weatherspoon filed suit under the Texas Whistleblower Statute. Tex.Govt.C. §554.0035. The OAG moved for a plea to the jurisdiction, which is like a motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial. The Texas Supreme Court found in favor of the employer and reversed the denial of the plea. The main issue was other she reported the violation to the correct authority. She reported to the chief of her division, which in turn was required to make a report to the Office of Special Investigations. OSI was apparently the correct law enforcement agency. But, the Texas Supreme Court said that was not enough. Since, said the court, the division chief was not vested with authority to speak for the OSI or to conduct her own investigation.

The employee pointed out that if reporting to her division chief does not suffice, then OAG employees have no place to report. Since, they are subject to termination if they contact any law enforcement authority directly. The court essentially replied, “too bad.” The Whistleblower Act protects employees from reprisal, said the court. That should be dissuade employers from reprisal. See decision here.

The problem with that analysis is that the Texas Whistleblower statute is supposed to protect persons from reprisal, not lead them toward reprisal. The Court has taken the unrealistic view that employees should be willing to undergo financial hardship or worse in order to protect Texas citizens from law breakers. No other employer would have such a rule, that contacting law enforcement authorities directly is cause for dismissal. No one should have to risk her/her job to protect the public. The decision does not explain the basis for a rule prohibiting direct contact with any law enforcement agencies. We can only assume it has some nondiscriminatory purpose. But, if it has such a legitimate purpose, OAG employees should not be required to violate internal rules in order to comply with the Texas Whistleblower statute.

 

If a female employee is assaulted and harassed, can she sue for assault or for sexual discrimination or both? According to the Waffle House, Inc. v. Wiliams, 313 S.W.3d 796 (Tex. 2010) decision, she would have to sue under the Texas Commission for Human Rights Act for discrimination. Limiting the female employee to sex discrimination when her damages might be far worse than allowed under the TCHRA severely limits her. I wrote about that decision here. I also wrote about the pending appeal in the case of B.C. v. Steak ‘n Shake, No. 15-0404 (Tex. 2017). As the B.C. decision illustrates, what happens when the sex discrimination is just one single violent act? In that situation, the female employee could not make out a case for sex discrimination. Her case would be dismissed. A single act of harassment by a co-worker will almost never suffice to establish a claim for sexual harassment by a co-worker.

Fortunately, the Texas Supreme Court recognized that conundrum. In perhaps the only employee friendly decision from the Texas Supreme Court since before 2000, it found that the basis of B.C.’s claim is assault, not harassment. The assault was not tied to any promotion or threat of termination. There was nothing about the assault that suggests her supervisor had the intent to interfere with her job performance. In short, said the court, nothing about this situation indicated that the employer might be liable for tolerating a hostile work environment. That is an important distinction. That means the employee does not need to show the employer knew or should have known the supervisor was capable of sexual violence. The employer can still avoid liability for other reasons. But, it cannot avoid liability by showing it took steps to prevent sex harassment.

The Supreme Court found that the Legislature in passing the TCHRA, intended to create a scheme to combat workplace harassment, not abrogate common law assault. But, the court did not really reconcile its decision in Steak ‘n Shake with Waffle House. In Waffle House, it said flatly that common law tort claims like negligent supervision were incorporated by the Legislature into the TCHRA. See Waffle House decision here. The two opinions can probably not be reconciled. As  the dissent to Waffle House points out, common law claims are not pre-empted unless clearly so stated in the statute. The TCHRA does not specifically pre-empt any common law tort claim. Even so, we can all agree that assault claims are not preempted by the TCHRA. See the B.C. v.Steak ‘n Shake decision here.

Texas has a whistleblower statute. It applies only to government workers. In a recent whistleblower decision, the Fourth Court of Appeals here in San Antonio reversed a grant of summary judgment. In the case of Torres v. City of San Antonio, No. 04-15-00664 (Tex.App. San Antonio 12/7/2016), Lt. Torres worked for the City Fire Department. In 2009, he was assigned to the Arson Division, where he would spend time at the San Antonio Police Department building. As an arson investigator, he had credentials to access a secure area at SAPD. He noticed two former arson investigators using credentials to get into the same secure area. They should have turned in their investigator credentials when they left the Arson Division. So, Lt. Torres mentioned this to his Captain. A few days later, he submitted a report to the Deputy Fire Chief. Believing no action was being taken, a few days later, he submitted a complaint to the City wide Office of Municipal Integrity. OMI investigated and found the two former Arson investigators were indeed retaining their former credentials. Fire Department Chief Hood was aware they were retaining their credentials, but the Chief did not realize that retention violated statute. Changes were made in procedures to keep this from happening again. Lt. Torres left the Arson Division a few months later.

In 2012, Lt. Torres applied to return to the Arson Division. He was turned down in favor of someone less experienced and without the necessary certifications. The persons making the selection included Chief Hood and Torres’ former supervisor, Capt. Casals. Both Hood and Casals said they overlooked Lt. Torres for the position in part because of his prior complaint to OMI. That evidence amounts to a clear violation for he Texas Whistleblower law. Under the statute, a claimant must show: 1) he was a public servant, 2) he made a good faith report of a violation of law by his employer governmental agency, 3) he made the report to an appropriate law enforcement agency, and 4) he suffered retaliation at work for making the report. Yet, the lower court granted summary judgment.

The City presented evidence that Torres made the report not out of good faith belief, but to shield himself from consequences of unilaterally causing the credentials to be cancelled for the two prior former Arson Investigators. Lt. Torres responded with evidence showing that other officers would have made the complaint, and that he only went to OMI after he saw no action was being taken by the Fire Department. The court of appeals found there was genuine issue of material fact regarding whether his report was in good faith. The employer also argued that the plaintiff did not show his being turned down for the position was related to his report to OMI.

The City showed several reasons why Lt. Torres was not selected, other than his prior whistleblower complaint. But, said the Fourth Court, the plaintiff is not required to show his reporting the credentials issue was the sole reason for being passed over. Instead, the employee need only show that but for the report, he would not have been turned down. That is, the employee need only show the report played some role, however small in the action taken against him. The issue should be resolved by a jury, said the court. See the decision here.