san antonio employment lawyer

Why is it so hard to speak up at a toxic work culture? The Harvard Business Review described what occurred at Nike when some women informally surveyed other female employees and found a problem. As a result, top male executives are having and bias training has ben instituted. The real problem started long before those women started their own survey. It started when some female em-loyees went to Human Resources and found no assistance.

As the HBR article points out, is is hard to challenge the status quo. Some workers see abuse occurring, but believe it is not their place to intervene. Or, they fear the consequences of intervening. In one study, actors played a man harassing a female worker. In the first scenario, the male actor was smaller and less threatening in his appearance. If a bystander was present, 50% of observers would help. If there was no bystander, only 5.9% of participants would help the woman. When the male actor was larger and more fierce looking, the numbers dropped considerably.

When I was in the Army, every Army unit took a “climate survey” every few years. The survey asked on an anonymous basis how the soldiers viewed the leadership. But, after a few years in the military, I did not need a survey. I felt I could visit a unit and know within minutes whether the climate was good or bad. If soldiers would talk to me as a captain or major who they had never met, then I knew the unit was functional. But, if the subordinate soldiers avoided engaging me in conversation, then I knew these were soldiers who did not believe they were supported by their chain of command. They feared to make a mistake.

People in general are more likely to conform to certain behavior if they know others were also conforming. For example, one study found that hotel guests were more likely to re-use their towels if they knew that most guests re-used their towels – as opposed to otherwise simply hearing a message about protecting the environment. The level of re-use rose 26% if the guest knew other hotel guests had also re-used their towels. And, if the guests knew that the very persons who had been in that same room also re-used their towels, they were 33% more likely to re-use their towels. That is the power of following behavior displayed by others.

Yes, but what happens in a hierarchical situation? What happens when persons outrank other persons? That is the employment situation. In the Army, the message was clear: the leader must set the example. The HBR article makes the point that organizations need to covey a message that some behaviors will not be tolerated. In doing so, the mistreated persons will find their voice. Yes indeed. See the Harvard Business Review article, “Why Its So hard to Speak Up Against a Toxic Culture” here.

An engineer worked for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or 23 years. Shiyan Jiang was never in any trouble until in 2014, he was assigned a new boss, Kim Wilson. The new boss believed Mr. Jiang placed some papers in a permit folder that did not belong there. The plaintiff then filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on age and ethnic origin. The supervisor then found many more things wrong with the long-time engineer, including raising his voice and disputing settled policy matters. Ms. Wilson placed the engineer on probation. During the probation, he had two meetings with supervisors. No incident occurred after the second meeting, yet, the supervisor recommended termination.

Mr. Jiang filed suit as Jiang v. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, No. 17-CV-00739 (W.D. Tex. 8/13/2018). The TCEQ moved for summary judgment. The Western District court noted that there was evidence that some other co-workers raised their voices on occasion. Other co-workers sometimes placed draft documents into a permit folder. And, others debated policy with their supervisors. Mr. Jiang submitted a statement on his behalf in responding to the motion for summary judgment. The employer tried to argue that Jiang’s Declaration was based on subjective belief. But, his testimony was corroborated by co-workers. The employer then argued that the co-worker affidavits were based on subjective belief. But, noted the court, the co-workers presented facts to support their beliefs.

The court also noted that two other senior employees were placed on probation or issued written warnings after they complained about age discrimination. And, the court noted  that Mr. Jiang complained about race discrimination at the second probation meeting. The very next day, the supervisor recommended he be terminated. That is a very close nexus indeed between opposing discrimination and then suffering an adverse personnel action. The court found that viewing all this evidence in totality, a jury could infer a pattern of behavior of retaliation against persons who complaint about discrimination. It found that there were issues of fact regarding the employer’s articulated reasons for the termination. So, the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment. See the decision here.

The judge ruled correctly. The affidavits of co-workers, if supported by factual observations, are much more than mere “subjective” belief.

When I was a young lawyer, I did child abuse cases. I represented children who had been abused or neglected. In one of those cases, I represented two children. The mostly absent father came to my office and made threats to almost everyone he encountered there. I was gone, so I missed the drama. One of the lawyers present practiced family law. He confronted the father and told him he needed to leave. That same lawyer was involved in many difficult divorces. He shared with me several stories of spouses following him or thereatening him. He said he once pulled up to a traffic light in his car. He glanced to his right to see a husband in a car pulled up next to him pointing a pistol at him.

In Georgia, a husband apparently objected to how the lawyer representing his wife conducted himself. Within hours of the divorce becoming final, the man went to the lawyer’s office, shot him and then shot himself. See CBS news report.

The lawyer, Antonio Benjamin Mari, was said to have told colleagues he thought the ex-husband might try to harm him. The lawyer business can be very dangerous.

Well, the Texas Supreme Court surprisd me. They rejected the City of San Antonio’s appeal regarding the fire fighter’s union contract. I mentioned in 2015 that the City seemed to be relying on an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. See my prior post here. The Supreme Court rejected the City’s appeal with no comment. That can mean the Supreme Court did not believe the issue was worthy of their time. Or, it could mean it did not disagree with the Fourth Court of Appeals decision. We do not know what the denial of the appeal means. When a Supreme Court rejects an appeal, the rules do not require an explanation.

The issue concerned the evergreen clause in the firefighter’s contract. When the Collective Bargaining Agreement ends, the provisions stay in effect for another ten years. That sort of clause is known as an “evergreen clause.”

For the City, whatever the meaning of the denial, the result is the same. They must now deal with a fire fighter union that feels vindicated. See San Antonio Express News report.

In Myles v. UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, No. 17-00871-XR, 2018 US Dist. LEXIS 5080 (W.D. Tex.), we see an instance in which the state employee successfully sued the state employer for a violation of the Family Medical Leave Act. Normally, a state employer is immune to a suit based on the FMLA, if the allegation is the employee had to stay home to care for herself. The state employer can simply cite its Eleventh Amendment immunity, and the lawsuit would end. But, in this case, the employee also sued the individual managers who were responsible for her termination.

Loretta Myles worked for UTHSC for many years, eventually rising to the manager level in the Human Resources department in 2009. In 2015, she requested FMLA leave to care for her ill husband. He suffered from prostrate cancer. But, Plaintiff’s supervisor, Ann Gaeke told her not to use FMLA leave. At one point, Ms. Gaeke warned Ms. Myles she should start looking for another job. The Plaintiff then took several weeks leave, saying she needed a break from harassment by her supervisor. On her first day back at work, Ms. Gaeke presented the employee with written discipline. Three days later, she was fired.

At the outset, the employer submitted a motion to dismisses citing Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Agency also argued that the two named defendants, Ann Gaeke and Heather Kobbe, are not “employers” as defined in the FMLA. But, the district court pointed to caselaw which did find that “employer” could include a public employee. Looking at Ms. Myles’ leave request as “self-care,” the court rightly noted that the Supreme Court has held that state employees cannot sue the state under the FMLA for taking care of oneself. But, the district court noted that Ms. Gaeke took sufficient actions against the plaintiff that her actions were in controversy. This was more than a supervisor simply carrying out state mandated requirements.

In its reply brief, the state raised the issue of qualified immunity regarding Ms. Gaeke. But, accepting the Plaintiff’s allegations as true, as the court must, the plaintiff has shown sufficient facts to indicate Ms. Gaeke violated clear statutory rights. Therefore, qualified immunity does not apply.

In a recent decision, the Fifth Circuit addressed the turbulent area of non-solicitation agreements. Michelle Moffitt-Johnston used to work for GE Betz, Inc. GE Betz applied chemicals to fuel prior to export. Ms. Moffitt-Johnston signed a non-solicitation agreement with GE Betz during her employment, in which she agreed to not solicit Betz’ customers for up to 18 months after any resignation or termination. After some ten years with GE Betz, Ms. Moffitt-Johnston resigned in 2012. Soon after, she started working for AmSpec Services, a competitor of GE Betz.

GE Betz had installed monitoring software on its worker’s computers. Monitoring logs on Ms. Moffitt-Johnston’s computer showed suspicious activity in the weeks leading up to her resignation. Days after she had announced her departure, someone using her computer downloaded some 27,000 files to an external hard drive. The evidence regarding this download was disputed. Plaintiff Moffitt-Johnston said this was the GE Betz IT department doing back-up, while the employer claimed Ms. Moffitt-Johnston had use of the computer at the time.

GE Betz admitted it had no smoking gun evidence that Ms. Moffitt-Johnston had solicited customers. Instead, it relied on a “mosaic” of evidence. The “mosaic” essentially consisted of AmSpec’s success with the customers who were included in an email from Moffitt-Jounston to AmSpec on her last day at work. But, as the court noted, it is just as likely that those customers worked with AmSpec because their cost was lower. “Many” but not all of Moffitt-Johnston’s former clients went with AmSpec. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the mis-appropriation of trade secrets claim. For similar reasons, the court also affirmed summary judgment regarding GE Betz’ claim for tortious interference with prospective business relationships.

To recover her attorney fees, Ms. Moffitt-Johnston relied on the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act (Tex.Bus.&Com.C. Sec. 15.50). The act requires several factors before a court could award attorney’s fees to the employee. One of those factors involved whether the employer knew the non-solicitation agreement included no geographic limitation. The GE Betz non-solicitation agreement was silent regarding any geographic limits. And, Texas jurisprudence provides, said the Fifth Circuit, that a limit regarding one’s customer base is reasonable – even if no geographic limit is specified. So, found the appellate court, it was not clear that the employer knew its non-solicitation agreement had no geographic limit. The Fifth Circuit then agreed the employee was not entitled to recover her attorney fees. See the decision in GE Betz, Inc. v. Moffitt-Johnston; AmSpec Services, LLC, No. 15-20008 (5th Cir. 3/13/2-18)  here.

I first wrote about Kolby Listenbee’s lawsuit here. He is suing Texas Christian University because he claims the football staff, including the head coach, bullied him into playing even though he was hurt. Mr. Listenbee was recently cut by the Indianapolis Colts. A website, frogswire.com then posted a satirical post suggesting Mr. Listenbee is fragile and made of glass. Listenbee lashed out in a tweet accusing the TCU Horned Frog fans of being fake fans. His tweet claims that TCU fans only support the team when it is winning. He later deleted that tweet.

Frowgswire appears to be an independent website devoted to Horned Frog sports. See the frogswire post here.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a difficult lawsuit for the plaintiff. Mr. Listenbee is trying to argue the coaches’ conduct toward him harmed his athletic ability. But, here he is competing for a spot on a professional football team. Too, he is basically suing football for being football. To some degree, all coaches apply pressure to players to play with some injuries. To win his lawsuit, Mr. Listenbee will have to show that the TCU coaches went beyond the normal conduct of the average football coach.

A few years ago, Coach Mike Leach was fired by Texas Tech University in part because he sent a player suffering from a concussion to go stand in a dark shed on the practice field. And, of course, many years ago, the famous coach, Woody Hayes was fired after he struck a player. In every field or industry, the norm will vary. Compared to these two cases, the TCU coaching staff was relatively benign. Mr. Listenbee will have to have something better than simple verbal pressure or a guilt trip.

Full disclosure: I graduated from TCU with the class of 1980. Yes, it is true that attendance at games is way up compared to the late 1970’s. But, his lawsuit is not about the fans. It is about football.

Yes, shifting explanations alone can show pretext. A changing explanation for a firing can serve as evidence of lying. Numerous courts have so held. See, e.g., Henderson v. AT&T Corp., 939 F.Supp. 1326, 1338 (S.D. Tex. 1996); Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., 798 F.3d 222, 238-239 (5th Cir. 2015). So, when Pres. Trump initially said he knew nothing about payments to Stormy Daniels and that reporters should ask his lawyer Michael Cohen about those payments, that was one explanation. And, now a month later, he says he did know about the payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels and it was not a campaign contribution. This is a new explanation. Now, this is a shifting explanation. As the Fifth Circuit said in Burton, a jury can infer pretext from shifting explanations. Burton, 798 F.3d at 236. A jury need not draw that inference. But, it can do so.

And, as lawyers around the country are saying at this moment, Pres. Trump just made his defense much more difficult.

Mandatory arbitration clauses have become an accepted part of many contracts, when we buy cars, open bank accounts and when we apply for jobs. The mandatory arbitration clauses block employees and consumers from their day in court. But, those clauses are increasingly under attack, according to a recent story in the San Antonio Express News. Arbitration clauses are criticized by the #metoo movement because they are used to hide sexual harassment.

They were also used by Wells Fargo to shield complaints by customers when the bank abused customer data and opened bogus accounts. One state, California, passed a law preventing financial services companies from using arbitration clauses in cases of fraud.

Some companies are re-thinking the use of mandatory arbitration clauses altogether. Microsoft has dropped mandatory arbitration clauses in cases of sexual harassment. Some lawyers here in Texas are advising their corporate clients that mandatory arbitration clauses are not wise. One Dallas lawyer told about a client who lost an arbitration with a supplier. The company then had no avenue for appeal. The losing company was then hit with an arbitration bill of $200,000. Yes, in arbitration, the loser generally pays the expenses of the arbitration. AAA has rules for employment arbitrations in which the employee will not pay the expenses even if s/he loses. But, in most arbitrations, the loser pays the expenses of the arbitration. We tend to think of a lawsuit being free, more or less. The loser in a lawsuit will not be expected to pay the salary of the judge, the court reporter, the court clerk and the bailiff. The losing party will not have to pay for the use of the court room. But, in most arbitrations, someone has to pay those expenses.

One Houston lawyer who advises small automobile dealerships advises his clients to avoid arbitration clauses. He says in the judicial process, you know what to expect. With an arbitrator, you never know quite what to expect. See San Antonio Express News report.

 

Well, the San Antonio court of appeals recognized same sex harassment in Alamo Heights ISD v. Clark and now the Texas Supreme Court has overruled that decision. This has long been a difficult area of law for courts. In the federal court system, the Supreme Court reached a compromise of sorts. It recognized that harassment can be based on gender stereotypes, even if the harassers are not homosexual. See the decision in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998). The Fourth Court of Appeals in Alamo Heights ISD v. Clark reached a similar result. The Fourth Court found there could be harassment under the state version of Title VII based on gender stereotypes that did not involve apparent homosexual conduct or desire.

I previously wrote about the Fourth Court’s decision here. As I noted then, the harassment by Coach Monterrubio included non-stop comments about Coach Clark’s buttocks and breasts. Coach Monterrubio discussed sexual intercourse frequently with Coach Clark and discussed her breasts almost daily. A second coach often joined in. The appeal concerns a plea to the jurisdiction. So, the issue is not whether Coach Clark can win her case, but whether she can simply advance a claim based on gender stereotyping. The Texas Supreme Court gets the last word and they say no, she cannot advance such a claim.

During the oral argument, Justice Guzman was troubled by the lack of obvious homosexual intent by Coach Monterrubio. Justice Guzman claims the jokes and bullying were not based on Coach Clark’s gender. The judge pointed out that Monterrubio’s remarks also suggested Coach Clark should be a stay-at-home mom where she could be “smug, wealthy and snotty.” But, it is disingenuous to argue that comments like these could not be linked to the plaintiff’s gender: “Wow, Coach, I think your boobs are going to pop out of your shirt!” Telling her that her thong underwear and the dimples on her buttocks were visible. And, upon receiving a candle from Coach Clark, Coach Monterrubio said she would make love next to her candle and think about Coach Clark. To claim these sorts of comments are not linked to her gender is a big stretch. This claim concerns a plea to the jurisdiction. The issue is not who wins at trial, but whether the plaintiff advance the claim.

The Texas Supreme Court rightly noted that courts which follow Oncale are divided regarding whether homosexual motive by the harasser is required. But, the Texas Supreme Court found it did not matter whether Coach Monterrubio was motivated by homosexual desire or not. The majority decision finds a paragraph in Oncale to provide two different methods of proof. Although, I read the same paragraph and do not see any sort of proscriptive injunction to lower courts. It is simply the Oncale court providing two possible examples of how a plaintiff could show same sex harassment under Title VII. They are examples, not rules.

The court is then troubled by the lack of any allegation on Coach Clark’s EEOC charge or in her lawsuit that Coach Monterrubio was motivated by homosexual desire. But, really, that was the point of Oncale, that a man could harass another man even though there was no homosexual desire on the part of either man. The Court claims that Oncale says a claim of homosexuality must be “credible.” But, the Oncale court was simply providing one example of how a person could allege same sex harassment and still be protected by Title VII. Indeed, in Oncale, there was no evidence or claim that the harassing men were homosexual. There was no evidence that the male victim was homosexual. Justice Guzman has found a requirement in Oncale that simply is not present.

Yet, there is ample evidence that the female harasser in Alamo Heights ISD v. Clark was focused on the victim’s gender, which is indeed a requirement of Oncale. Justice Guzman has completely mis-interpreted the decision on Oncale. The majority decision also fails to interpret the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. It explicitly looks at the evidence in ways detrimental to her case. It looks for comments that do not suggest sexual motivation. In the end, this is yet another result-oriented decision from the Texas Supreme Court.

The majority decision is quite long, some 66 pages. Any decision that requires those many pages to make a point is stretching credulity. The majority decision devotes some 15 of those 66 pages to rebutting the dissent. See the majority decision here.

The minority decision makes a good point. If a male coach had said those same things to Coach Clark, there would be no doubt he was sexually harassing the young coach. But, because the harasser was female, the employer gets a pass. The dissent also noted that the majority decision fails to construe the facts in favor of the non-movant. It pointed to an incident in which Coach Monterrubio grabbed Clark’s buttocks during a photo shoot. That sort of incident does tend to show possible lesbian behavior. Yet, the majority decision dismissed it as “horseplay.” Justice Guzman drew conclusions when she should have simply allowed this created a factual issue. See the dissent here.