Fired For Refusing to Commit a Crime

Texas is an at-will employment state, meaning that unless there is a contractual agreement saying otherwise, an employee employed for an indefinite term may be terminated at will without cause. A Beaumont wrongful termination lawsuit appealed to the Texas Supreme Court created an exception to the employment at-will doctrine. In its 1985 Sabine Pilot decision, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed a wrongful termination lawsuit from the Beaumont Court of Appeals reasoning that public policy required a very narrow exception covering only the firing of an employee for the reason that the employee refused to perform an illegal act. See, Sabine Pilot Service, Inc. v. Hauck, 687 S.W.2d 733 (Tex.1985).

Why? 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.

The Sabine Pilot decision has applied in different types of employment. For example, in a federal court case Laurence v. Atzenhoffer Chevrolet, 281 F. Supp.2d 898 (S.D.Tex.2003), a United District Court in Victoria, Texas held that a car salesman allegedly fired for refusing to misrepresent the trade-in value of a buyer’s car stated a tort action pursuant to the decision in Sabine Pilot.

At the time he was terminated by the auto dealership, the employee, Frank Laurence, was 62 years old and had been employed with the dealership for over ten years. According to Laurence’s lawsuit, his supervisor at the auto dealership advised him to misrepresent the trade-in value of automobiles to consumers and that he was criticized by his supervisors for not making misrepresentations and then discharged. Laurence argued, in part, that he was terminated for refusing to commit an illegal act. More specifically, he contended that misrepresenting the trade-in value would violate Texas Penal Code Section 32 which criminalized representing the price of property or service falsely or in a way tending to mislead and prohibited making a materially false or misleading statement of fact concerning the amount of a price or price reduction and making a false or misleading statement otherwise on the connection with the purchase or sale of property or service.

In response, the automobile dealership filed an Answer and a motion to dismiss, arguing that the representation was not criminal and that Laurence could not state a Sabine Pilot tort action because he also alleged age discrimination and he therefore was not asserting that his refusal to commit a crime was the sole cause for his termination. However the Victoria federal court pointed out that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 provided that a party to a lawsuit may state as many separate claims or defenses as the party has regardless of inconsistency. In this regard the court stated further that while Laurence would only be able to succeed on one of his inconsistent theories of liability, his Sabine Pilot claim was not invalidated by the assertion of any inconsistent claims brought within the same pleading. Accordingly, the court denied the motion to dismiss as to the Sabine Pilot claim.

Again, as decisions from a Houston Court of Appeals reflect, 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).

Whether wrongful termination occurs in Cuero, Houston, Victoria or elsewhere in Texas, employees terminated from their employment because of their refusal to commit an illegal act or crime may have a potential wrongful termination case and may consult an attorney to determine if the facts and circumstances of the employment termination support pursuit of a wrongful termination lawsuit.