In 1985, the Supreme Court of Texas decided the case of Sabine Pilot Service, Inc. v. Hauck. The ruling has become a significant one for employers in Texas because it concerns an employee who filed a claim against his employer after he refused to commit an illegal act. The Texas Supreme Court established a limited exception to the employment-at-will doctrine used in the state of Texas. Specifically, the Court clarified that an employee can have a valid claim against an employer, even when that employee is an at-will employee, if the employee has been terminated for refusing to perform an illegal act. However, the employee has the burden of proof of showing that he was fired solely because he refused to perform an illegal act.
Why is this case relevant now? It is important for employers to understand what they can and cannot ask of employees during a pandemic, and what recourse an employee might have in the event the employee is fired. We want to tell you more about this case and to apply it to current situations that could arise for employers in Dallas, Texas.
At-Will Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Aside from wrongful termination lawsuits arising out of state or federal law pertaining to discrimination or retaliation, an at-will employee generally cannot file a wrongful termination claim against an employer. However, there are exceptions. In Hauck, the employee was required to perform a task — as part of their job — that was illegal. The Texas Supreme Court clarified that “refusing to perform an illegal act states a cause of action,” and that an at-will employee may have a claim if she or he is terminated for such a refusal. Yet, as we mentioned above, the burden of proof is on the employee.
What does this case mean for employers during the era of COVID-19? Most significantly, perhaps, employers cannot require employees to violate stay-at-home orders issued by the governor or by the county. For example, if a stay-at-home order requires that all non-essential businesses close, an employer cannot require a non-essential employee to return to work and terminate the employee—even if the employee is an at-will worker—for refusing to violate the law to come to work. Similarly, if you employ workers in a county where a face mask is required in businesses, telling an employee not to wear a face mask in order to make certain customers more comfortable would be requiring an employee to violate the law. Accordingly, if you then fired the employee for failing to abide by your instructions, the employee could be eligible to file a claim against your business for wrongful termination under Hauck.
Contact an Employment Law Attorney in Texas
Employers can have difficulty determining what their rights are during the pandemic when it comes to making requests of employees, and in determining what obligations they have (and do not have) to employees. It is critical for employers to have a clear understanding of when they can and cannot terminate an employee during the pandemic, and what steps they need to take to protect themselves against lawsuits arising out of Hauck. If you have questions about your role as an employer, you should seek advice from a Dallas employment law attorney as soon as possible. Contact Simon Paschal PLLC for more information.