Retaliation for Refusing to Do Something Illegal

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  • Did your employer order you to do something that is against the law?
  • Did you refuse to do it?
  • Were you fired for refusing?

If the answer to all three questions is “yes,” you may have a certain type of wrongful termination claim that us Austin employment lawyers and Dallas employment lawyers refer to as a “Sabine Pilot” case. That phrase comes from a 1985 court case, Sabine Pilot Service, Inc. v. Hauck, where the Texas Supreme Court (based in Austin) stated that an employer who fires an employee solely because the employee refused to perform an illegal act has committed a wrongful termination.

Texas is an at-will employment state. Most people think that means an employer can fire you “for any reason.” That’s not exactly correct. An employer can fire you for any reason “that’s not illegal.

Most wrongful/illegal termination laws are created the state legislature or the U.S. Congress. The “Sabine Pilot” wrongful termination law was created by the Texas Supreme Court on the basis of public policy – that it is in the public’s interest to prevent employees from being compelled to perform illegal acts to keep their jobs. And you can see why that’s a problem – the employee is called on to either risk violating the law (and potential criminal liability) or suddenly lose their job and income. While the Texas Supreme Court generally relies on the Texas legislature to create such laws, this was a scenario that the Texas Supreme Court determined under no circumstances could logically be allowed to continue.

So if you answered “yes” to those three questions above, you may have a case, and you should contact our Austin employment attorney office or Dallas employment attorney office immediately to discuss it further. To some degree, it’s that simple. But in law – when employers are fighting with their big law firm defense attorneys to avoid responsibility for a wrongful termination – it’s never “that simple.”

Let’s get deeper into
what this wrongful termination law is about.

In the Sabine Pilot case, a supervisor with Sabine Pilot Services, Inc. ordered Michael Hauck, one of Sabine Pilot’s deck hands, to pump accumulated water from the lowest compartment of the boat (the bilge) into the water around the boat, which was considered by law to be illegal dumping. In other words, he is being ordered to commit an illegal act as part of his job. He consulted with the U.S. Coast Guard and confirmed that it was illegal. After he refused to do it, the company fired him.

In deciding the case in favor of the employee, the Texas Supreme Court said that this situation is an exception to the at-will employment policy that otherwise applies in Texas. However, the exception is narrow: It only covers situations where the employee’s refusal to engage in the illegal act is the sole reason for the termination. As you can imagine, employers typically fight these cases by trying to demonstrate that the employee was fired for other reasons as well. (Not a problem – this law firm is skilled at demonstrating when an employer is attempting to fabricate new reasons for a termination, after the fact, to try to cover up their mistake.)

Another example case showing the Sabine Pilot law in action happened in the Dallas / Fort Worth area in 2013. That case is Young v. Nortex Foundation Designs, Inc. In that case, the employee, Adam Young, was a drafter for Nortex, designing foundation construction plans based on architectural plans provided to him by his company. These architectural plans are typically copyrighted. However, in one instance, Nortex gave him plans to use that had a black stamp, and that stated:

“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”.

The copyrighted plans also stated that violating this copyright law could lead to fines up to $100,000. Mr. Young was obviously concerned about this. When he told the HR rep that he was uncomfortable working with these plans in violation of this copyright law, the HR spoke to the company president, who stated that he didn’t care about the concerns. When Mr. Young still essentially refused to work with those plans, he was terminated.

During the case, it came out that Nortex also had a “red-stamped” copy of the plans. However, this copy was never presented to Mr. Young, so it didn’t matter, legally speaking. He was only presented with the copyrighted plans and the instruction to violate the law by using that black-stamped copy of the plans. The court agreed with his case, and supported the $300,000 jury verdict awarded to him, stating that the Sabine Pilot law was meant to cover this very type of scenario.

In another recent Sabine Pilot case from Austin, a truck driver refused to drive a truck with illegal safety violations. That case is Safeshred, Inc. v. Martinezfrom 2012. On one trip, he was given a citation by a DPS trooper because the straps securing (or supposedly securing) the cargo were worn and cut. In fact, the DPS trooper told them that he could not take that truck on the road in that condition. Despite the ticket, his supervisor at the company ordered him to continue driving the truck, anyway. After a few more trips, Mr. Martinez refused to drive the truck again considering the lack of load security. He was effectively terminated as a result.

The trial jury in an Austin court awarded Mr. Martinez $7,569.18 in lost wages, $10,000 in mental anguish damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the Court of Appeals stripped away the mental anguish damages, holding that there wasn’t enough evidence to support Texas’s relatively high standard for supporting a money award for mental anguish. On further appeal, the Texas Supreme Court agreed that an employer could get hit with punitive damages in a Sabine Pilot case. However, the Texas Supreme Court stripped away the punitive damages as well, saying that the evidence did not show that Safeshred acted with “malice or reckless indifference” when it terminated Mr. Martinez. Therefore, while punitive damages can be recovered, the evidence didn’t support them here – at least according to the Texas Supreme Court. Mr. Martinez’s original jury award that was over $200,000 was whittled down to less than $10,000 through two appeals. It is always best if you have a case like this, to get in touch with an experienced, Texas board-certified employee rights attorney like Kerry O’Brien. Preparing and pressing forward on your case to get the best result takes confidence, skill and substantial trial experience.

Regardless of whether you are looking for an Austin employment attorney, a Dallas employment attorney or an employment attorney in another part of Texas, you can call the O’Brien Law Firm, toll-free, at (844) 627-4364 (844-OBRIEN4), or set up a FREE phone consultation or fill out the form below so that we can get to know you and your situation. Your information is confidential and the form submission goes directly to attorney Kerry O’Brien for his review. 

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