Would you have a cause of action if you refused to perform an illegal act at work and your employer fired you solely for that reason? If you are a whistleblower regarding an employer’s unlawful conduct, and your employer engages in retaliation against you, would you have a cause of action? State and federal laws apply to different situations and various industries. The Texas Supreme Court created an exception to the at will doctrine in 1985 with the Sabine Pilot case. This exception states that an employer in Texas may not legally terminate an employee for the sole reason of refusing to commit an illegal act.
Sabine Pilot and whistleblower cases can be complicated. If you have experienced either of these situations, you should contact an attorney to discuss the specific facts of your situation. You may or may not have a legal Sabine Pilot or whistleblower retaliation claim. To read about retaliation in the workplace, click here Dallas Employment Retaliation Lawyer. To read about whistleblower protection, click here Whistleblower Protection Attorney. Read on in this article to learn more about these topics.
Employment at Will
Texas is an employment at will state. This means that an employer in Texas can terminate an employee at any time and for just about any reason, unless a specific law or case is violated. Hence, an employer normally does not need cause to terminate an employee.
An Employment Contract Provides Protection
An employee who has a written employment contract for a specific term of employment would probably not be an employee at will. Typically, an employment contract specifies the kind of advance notice that must be given and the cause that the employer must have in order to terminate the employee before the employment term has expired. Thus, an employee can potentially gain some protection with an employment contract in place.
Employment Discrimination is Illegal
Of course, even under the permissive employment at will doctrine, an employer may not fire an employee for an illegal reason. For example, an employer cannot terminate an employee on the basis of an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Employment discrimination is unlawful under both state and federal law.
Wrongful Termination for Refusing to Perform an Illegal Act
An employer may not fire an employee in Texas solely because she or he refused to perform an illegal act. This is a narrow exception to the employment at will doctrine. The Texas Supreme Court created this exception in 1985 in the case known as Sabine Pilot Service, Inc. v. Hauck.
In this important case, commonly known as Sabine Pilot, Hauck was employed as a deckhand for Sabine Pilot. He testified that the company instructed him to pump daily the bilges of the boat that he worked on. Hauck noticed a placard on each boat stating that it was illegal to pump the bilges into the water, so he called the U.S. Coast Guard. The U. S. Coast Guard confirmed to Hauck that pumping bilges into the water was indeed illegal. So, Hauck refused to do so.
Hauck testified that the company fired him because he refused to illegally pump the bilges into the water. However, Sabine Pilot, through one of its officers, testified that Hauck was terminated for his refusal to swab the deck, man a radio watch, and other derelictions of duty.
In the Sabine Pilot case, the Texas Supreme Court held that an employer cannot discharge an employee for the sole reason that the employee refused to perform an illegal act. This decision was based on public policy. In order to have a cause of action, the employee must show that she or he was discharged solely because of her or his refusal to perform an illegal act, and not because of any other reason. This is a strict standard and a high burden of proof for an employee. In addition, the illegal act that the employee refused to perform must be subject to a criminal penalty.
Whistleblower Protections under Texas Law
A whistleblower is an employee who has witnessed illegal activity in the workplace and takes action. Typical actions might be reporting the unlawful conduct to a supervisor at work, to a governmental entity, or to a law enforcement authority. Certain whistleblowers are protected under specific state and federal laws. The Texas Whistleblower Act can be found in Chapter 554 of the Texas Government Code.
It protects an employee of a public, but not private, entity from retaliation if she or he in good faith reports a legal violation by the employer. The employer must be a governmental entity or a public employee and the report would have to be made to an appropriate law enforcement authority.
In addition, certain workers and professionals in nursing homes, mental health facilities, and hospitals are protected under Texas law against retaliation if they become whistleblowers.
Whistleblower Protections under Federal Law
Federal law provides protection to certain employees who become whistleblowers on violations of:
- Securities laws at public companies,
- Aviation laws and regulations,
- Laws regulating the handling of toxic substances, and
- Laws and regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
There are numerous other state and federal laws that provide protection to whistleblowers in particular professions and industries.
Reach Out to Kilgore & Kilgore’s Texas Retaliation Attorneys and Dallas Whistleblower Lawyers
Were you fired because you refused to perform an illegal act at work? Did you become a whistleblower on unlawful conduct at work? If your answer is yes, contact the employment lawyers at Kilgore & Kilgore to discuss the specific facts of your situation. Just click here, Contact Kilgore & Kilgore.