Disgruntled employee is how a whistleblower is often described. But another version of the same facts is that a public employee sought to expose illegal and dangerous conduct to protect the public. He or she, such a story might go, suffered retaliation and wrongful termination and was subsequently blackballed from future jobs. It’s no myth, of course, this really happened in Texas. It’s unfair and not at all unusual.
If a complaint qualifies under the Texas Whistleblowers Act, however, such wrongful termination is more than unfair. It’s illegal, and workers may have important legal protections.
Wrongful Termination for Filing a Whistleblower Complaint
Carter v. City of Abilene is a recent case in point. Not only did Chad Carter win his wrongful termination lawsuit, but his award was a jaw-dropping $2 million in compensatory damages ON TOP of lost earnings, benefits, and attorneys’ fees. What is so unusual about this award is that the jury awarded such a large amount of compensatory damages, which was to compensate Carter for mental, emotional pain or anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, or other non-economic losses. But only those employees who comply with the requirements of the Whistleblower Act are shielded from retaliation. If you find yourself considering filing a whistleblower claim, protect yourself from the outset against illegal employer activity by reaching out to an employment lawyer before you do anything.
Our Employment Lawyers Can Help Employees Who Experience Wrongful Termination in the Workplace
If you want to make a claim under the Texas Whistleblowers Act, the Texas employment lawyers at Kilgore & Kilgore can help you assess your legal situation and fight for your rights should you experience retaliation or a wrongful termination from your job. Click these links to learn more about whistleblower protection and wrongful termination. We offer a free review of the facts of your case. Use this link to reach us Contact Kilgore & Kilgore.
The Whistleblower Suffered Retaliation, Then Wrongful Termination
Chad Carter worked as an engineer for the City of Abilene. He complained to city officials and ultimately to the Texas Board of Professional Engineers that the City of Abilene did not have a professional engineer overseeing and inspecting certain road construction projects. Instead, the City assigned those tasks to regular city employees in violation of the Texas Engineering Practice Act and the city’s own ordinances. The City then fired Carter, citing performance and attitude issues.
Shortly thereafter, Carter filed a claim under the Texas Whistleblower Act. The City of Abilene never contested the substance of Carter’s complaint – that the road projects were inadequately overseen and inspected. But, for years, it raised procedural objections that the underlying complaint was made to the wrong people. Therein lies the rub with the Texas Whistleblowers Act. There are i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed.
The Texas Whistleblower Act and Wrongful Termination
Under the Texas Whistleblower Act, a public employee who experiences retaliation may be entitled to reinstatement to his or her former position, compensation for wages lost during the period of suspension or termination, compensatory damages and reinstatement of fringe benefits and seniority rights. Texas law can provide powerful protection against wrongful termination – the utterly unsurprisingly way that many employers respond to allegations of illegal conduct.
To be protected under the Texas Whistleblower Act:
- an employee must have believed that another public employee or
a government entity violated the law; and
- that belief must have been objectively reasonable
given all the facts and circumstances.
In other words, the employee does not have to be right, but the complaint must be made in good faith and be well-founded. Being right, however, is pretty good evidence of both those things. In addition, reports must be made to an appropriate law enforcement entity, which is one that the employee reasonably believes is authorized to regulate under or enforce the law allegedly violated, or to investigate or prosecute violations of criminal law generally.
Texas courts have held that an internal report of illegal activity to someone within the public entity (which is what Carter did first) does not qualify as a report made to an appropriate law enforcement authority. The question for litigation was whether the Texas Board of Professional Engineers qualified as a law enforcement authority or whether Carter reasonably believed that it did.
The lawsuit took a long time, but Carter ultimately prevailed. His $2 million compensatory damages award may ultimately be reduced under Texas law. Carter insists that he did not do it for the money, however. He wanted people to know what was going on. What this bodes for future retaliation or wrongful termination lawsuits based on the Texas Whistleblowers Act remains to be seen, but it is certainly a hopeful sign.
Employment-at-Will, Wrongful Termination and Whistleblower Protection
The unfairness of firing someone trying to protect public safety can seem so clear that it may be hard to understand why a retaliation or wrongful termination lawsuit can be hard to win. A little background in employment law is helpful. Texas, like many states, subscribes to the theory that an employer may fire an employee for a good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. This is called employment-at-will, and it is the default rule.
There are, however, a number of exceptions to the basic employment-at-will doctrine based on violations federal or state statutes. The Texas Whistleblowers Act is one of these exceptions because it explicitly protects whistleblowers from retaliation, including wrongful termination of employment.
If, for some reason, either substantive or technical, a complaint about illegal employer activity fails to qualify under the Whistleblower Act, then the default employment-at-will rule applies. The protections of the law vanish, and whistleblower becomes no more than a disgruntled employee – a former employee.
“If you come at the king, you best not miss.” Mangled for present purposes, that might easily be “if you come as a whistleblower, you best not miss.” This is not a do-it-yourself action. Whistleblowers need legal counsel before they blow the whistle.
It’s Difficult in Texas to Make a Whistleblower Claim
The Texas Whistleblowers Act has had plenty of critics in the 30 years since its adoption. Among the impediments they identify for those who fear or have already suffered retaliation or wrongful termination:
- No information about who to report problems to: As in Carter’s case, whistleblowers are protected from retaliation only when they report problems to a law enforcement officer. Many government employee policies describe only in-house reporting structures, which do not qualify for whistleblower protection. These employees have no easy way to know what to do.
- No form: There’s no form to properly document an official complaint and little information about how to file one.
- No information about the kind of offense that can be reported: The problem reported must be a violation of the law. Not all employees who are in a position to see wrongdoing are fully aware of the ins-and-outs of the law. Reports of financial irregularities, for example, may not be covered.
- No help: No Texas agency oversees the law or helps an employee who is trying to report possible whistleblower violations.
When someone is disturbed about goings-on at work, getting in touch with a lawyer would be very good idea. The best time for an employee to contact a lawyer about the possibility of workplace wrongdoing is at the very beginning, even before any complaint process is begun. A complaint will trigger a response. Expect it and be prepared.
The best time to contact an employment lawyer is as soon as possible. The attorneys at Kilgore & Kilgore have extensive experience and insight about handling employee claims.
Learn More about Whistleblower Claims, Retaliation and Wrongful Termination
Click on the links in this sentence if you wish to know more about whistleblower claims, retaliation, and wrongful termination. Contact us to request a free evaluation of the facts of your case by clicking here and sending us a contact request Contact Kilgore & Kilgore.