Texas has been an at-will employment state since at least 1888, when the Texas Supreme Court held that absent a contractual agreement to the contrary, an employee employed for an indefinite term could be terminated at will without cause. See, Young v. Nortex Foundation Designs, Inc., 2013 Tex.App. Lexis 1222 (Tex.App. – Fort Worth, 2013, no pet.). However, in the 1985 Sabine Pilot case, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed a wrongful termination lawsuit from the Beaumont Court of Appeals to create an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. See, Sabine Pilot Service, Inc. v. Hauck, 687 S.W.2d 733 (Tex.1985).
In the Sabine Pilot case, Sabine Pilot Services instructed Michael Hauck, one of Sabine Pilot’s deck hands, to pump bilge from Sabine Pilot’s boat into the water, which was an illegal act. After confirming with the coast guard that the act was illegal, Michael Hauck refused to pump the bilges of the Sabine Pilot vessel, and Sabine Pilot fired Hauck.
Attorneys filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Sabine Pilot on behalf of Hauck and the trial court granted summary judgment, dismissing the case. In response to the trial court’s decision, Hauck’s attorneys appealed to the Beaumont Court of Appeals. The Beaumont Court of Appeals addressed the question: Does an employee state a cause of action when the employee alleges wrongful termination because of his or her failure to commit an illegal act ordered by the employer? The Beaumont Court of Appeals concluded that Hauck stated a cause of action and reversed the decision of the trial court. Afterward, attorneys for Sabine Pilot appealed the Beaumont ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.
In deciding Sabine Pilot’s appeal in favor of Hauck, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the Beaumont decision that allowed a wrongful termination lawsuit exception to the at-will employment doctrine. The state’s highest court reasoned that public policy required a very narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine which covered only the discharge of an employee for the sole reason that the employee refused to perform an illegal act.
As discussed in later decisions from a Houston Court of Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court created this tort to promote the public policy of preventing an employee from being forced to choose between keeping his or her job and facing criminal liability. Physio GP, Inc. v. Naifeh, 306 S.W.3d 886 (Tex.App. – Houston [14thDist.] 2010, no pet.); Higginbotham v. Allwaste, Inc., 889 S.W.2d 411 (Tex.App. – Houston [14thDist.] 1994, writ den’d).
Stated differently, when an employer asks an employee to perform some act that is illegal, the employer places the employee in an unacceptable position of having to risk being fired or risk facing criminal penalties because the employee is saddled with the onus of being fired for insubordination. Recognized first by the Beaumont Court of Appeals and then created by the Texas Supreme Court as an exception to the Texas employment-at-will doctrine, this wrongful termination tort action promotes public policy preventing workers from being forced by employers to decide between their jobs and facing criminal prosecution and liabilities. When an unscrupulous employer forces an employee to decide between committing a crime and keeping their job and then fires the employee because the employee refuses to commit the crime, the employee subjected to the wrongful termination may bring a claim against the employer as result Michael Hauck suing Sabine Pilot.
Consequently, a purpose behind Sabine Pilot is to protect employees who are asked by employers to commit a crime.
That purpose was recognized last year by the Fort Worth Court of Appeals decision Young v. Nortex Foundation Designs, Inc., 2013 Tex.App. Lexis 1222, (Tex.App. – Fort Worth, 2013, no pet.). In that case, Adam Young’s attorneys filed a wrongful termination lawsuit on his behalf against his employer, Nortex, after Nortex fired Young and escorted him from the building because Young refused to commit a crime Nortex asked him to commit.
According to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals opinion, Young worked as a drafter for Nortex, helping design foundation plans based on copyrighted architectural plans provided to him by Nortex, and, in 2010, Nortex provided Young a plan bearing a black stamp stating, “IF THIS STAMP IS NOT RED IT IS AN ILLEGAL SET OF PLANS,” and “REPRODUCTION OF THESE PLANS BY ANY MEANS IS PROHIBITED BY FEDERAL LAW,” and further providing that violations could be punished by fines up to $100,000. Young testified that in his years with Nortex, he had otherwise never received a plan with such a stamp, and reported to the office manager that he was uncomfortable designing the foundation because of the black stamp. When the officer manager got back to him, she said the company president did not care who prepared the plan but that it needed to be done. Neither Young nor a co-worker would proceed with the assignment. After a meeting in which he explained that he was not comfortable using the plan with the black stamp and illegal plan notation, Young was terminated. After Young sued Nortex for wrongful termination, Nortex obtained the red-stamped plan and defended against Young by arguing that legal paperwork existed so Young could not have been asked to commit a crime because the act was legal after all. As pointed out in the court’s opinion, Young contended he was never told that the builder had the red-stamped copy of the plan.
The Fort Worth Court of Appeals said that Nortex’s defense to the wrongful termination lawsuit did not change the fact that Nortex asked Young to commit a crime by using a black-stamp copy, did not provide him with the legal red-stamped copy, and fired him when he would not use the unlicensed copy. Citing Sabine Pilot, the court affirmed a $300,000 jury verdict, saying “[t]this is precisely the situation to which Sabine Pilot was meant to apply.”
Whether wrongful termination occurs in Beaumont, Houston or elsewhere in Texas, employees terminated from their employment because of their refusal to commit an illegal act or crime may have a potential case and may consult an attorney to determine if the facts and circumstances of the employment termination support pursuit of a wrongful termination lawsuit.