Buc-ee’s Loses Texas Retention Agreement Case

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A year after a trial court ordered that a former employee pay Buc-ee’s close to $100,000 in alleged damages and attorneys fees for breaching an employee “Retention Agreement”, a Texas court of appeals reversed that decision, ordering that Buc-ee’s take nothing on its claims against its former employee and also ordered that it pay for her legal fees as well. (Read my previous coverage of this case here.)

The employee in question, Kelly Rieves, was hired by the store as an assistant manager in Cypress, Texas for total compensation of about $55,000. She was hired as an at-will employee, meaning that the company could fire her for any reason at any time. But Buc-ee’s required her to sign an employment contract that is uncommon in the convenience store industry. It's called a "retention agreement".  

The contract Rieves signed divided her pay into two categories, regular pay and “retention pay." The amount allocated to "retention pay" accounted for approximately one-third of her total compensation. The contract allowed the store to recoup the retention pay should she fail to remain employed for a full 48-month term. The contract also required Rieves to give six months' notice before leaving. This is despite the fact that the company maintained the right to terminate Rieves prior to the end of the period. (The contract may or may not have contained notice provisions in favor of the employee that I am not privy to but it would not be required to have such provisions under Texas law.)

Three years later, Rieves decided to leave her job a year or so before her contract expired. We don't know her reasons but we do know she tried to work it out with the company first but her boss refused to let her out from under the contract. So she quit.

In response, Buc-ee’s sued her for the full amount of the retention pay she earned during her three years with the company -- an amount over $67,000.00. The trial court found against Rieves and awarded the company nearly $100,000.00 in damages and attorney’s fees.

Last week the court of appeals took that verdict back, ordering that Buc-ee’s take nothing on its claims against Rieves and that it pay for her legal fees as well. The court reasoned that the requirement that Rieves pay back such a large sum of money should she leave the company acted as a restraint of free trade and violated Texas’ employment-at-will doctrine. As a result, it could only be valid if it met the requirements of an actual noncompete agreement, which in Texas is controlled by statute. Because this agreement did not meet those requirements, it was not enforceable. 

Download a copy of the opinion.

 Buc-ee’s will now have to decide whether to appeal the matter further.

Jury Awards $1.1 Million to Transgender Professor in Discrimination Case

The Case

Rachel Tudor, a transgender professor whose tenure and promotion was denied at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was awarded $1.1 million by a federal jury on Monday in a landmark Title VII case.

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Tudor was hired by the university in 2004 as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English department and presented as male at the time. She began transitioning in 2007, becoming the university's first openly transgender professor.

According to the lawsuit, after notifying the university that she would be presenting as a woman at work for the 2007-2008 academic year, Tudor received a phone call from an unnamed human resources staffer who told her the school's vice president for academic affairs, Douglas McMillan, had inquired about firing her because her identity as a transgender woman offended his religious beliefs.

The lawsuit also states the director of the university's counseling center, Jane McMillan, Douglas McMillan's sister, told Tudor to take safety precautions, because some people were openly hostile to transgender people. She also reiterated to Tudor that her brother considered transgender people to be a "grave offense to his [religious] sensibilities."

In October 2009, Tudor applied for tenure and a promotion to an associate professor position. Her application was denied, while the application of a similarly qualified male coworker was approved, the lawsuit claims. After Tudor asked for an explanation as to why her application was rejected, according to the suit, Douglas McMillan and another dean refused to provide her with one. Tudor then filed a federal discrimination complaint in 2010.

In March 2015, the Justice Department, then under the Obama administration, sued the university, with former Attorney General Eric Holder declaring that federal prohibitions against sex discrimination include protections based on gender identity.

On Monday, an eight-person jury voted in favor of Tudor on three counts: that she was "denied tenure in 2009-10 because of her gender," that she was denied "the opportunity to apply for tenure in the 2010-11 cycle ... because of her gender" and that the university retaliated against her after she complained about workplace discrimination. The jury then awarded her $1.165 million in damages.

Why Is This Case Important

This case is important because it is one of the first times that a federal court has explicitly found that a plaintiff whose gender identity is transgender is a protected class under federal anti-discrimination laws. In the past, many courts have held that gender identities are not protected in and of themselves. Plaintiffs could only seek protection of federal anti-discrimination laws by arguing they were covered under traditional sexual discrimination statutes because they were mistreated due to application of a sexual stereotype. This argument has worked with varying degrees of success across the country but it is more convoluted and difficult to apply than it should be. 

The issue will certainly have to be decided by the US Supreme Court eventually but this court decision is a good start.

Ready to take the next step?

Need to learn more about sexual harassment or discrimination? If you or someone you care about is dealing with these issues, please visit our website to learn more

The Saturday File - Person of the Year 2017: #MeToo

A weekly update on employment law developments and related news stories from The McKinney Law Firm.

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The Top Story

Time Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers
Discussions of sexual harassment in polite company tend to rely on euphemisms: harassment becomes "inappropriate behavior," assault becomes "misconduct," rape becomes "abuse." We're accustomed to hearing those softened words, which downplay the pain of the experience. 

It wasn't so long ago that the boss chasing his secretary around the desk was a comic trope, a staple from vaudeville to prime-time sitcoms. There wasn't even a name for sexual harassment until just over 40 years ago; the term was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University after an employee there, Carmita Wood, filed for unemployment benefits after she had resigned because a supervisor touched her. The university denied her claim, arguing that she left the job for "personal reasons."

In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency tasked with enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace, issued guidelines declaring sexual harassment a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It was a victory, but with caveats: even after sexual harassment became explicitly illegal, it remained difficult to lodge a complaint that stuck—in part because acts of harassment are often difficult to define. What separates an illegal act of sexual harassment from a merely annoying interaction between a boss and his subordinate? When does a boss stop just being a jerk and become a criminal? Because the Civil Rights Act offered no solid legal definition, interpretation has evolved slowly, shaped by judges and the EEOC over the past 37 years.

And then...2017 and #MeToo happened. Read Time Magazine's Cover Article Here

News From Around The Web

#MeToo - Reporting Sexual Harassment In Today's Workplace

#MeToo

#MeToo

While headlines focus on famous men who lead prominent organizations, the majority of sexual harassment happens in ordinary office buildings by ordinary managers or workers who are insecure about their status in life, feel a need to rattle or dominate others to make themselves feel better, or see their colleague as a potential sexual gratifier. They don't love their victims. In fact, they may want to hurt them through embarrassment, discomfort and humiliation.

Most harassers are men, although women also have been reported. The targets are usually women. However, men filed approximately 17 percent of the sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016. 

Most employees try to ignore the behavior, at least at first, waiting to see if it will go away. Some clearly ask the harasser to stop. Others try to play along or laugh it off, unwittingly sending mixed signals of encouragement to the harasser.

The correct response, of course, is to report harassing behavior to a supervisor or human resources. A responsible employer will listen to the description of the events and then speak to the instigator. However, reporting sexual harassment is a difficult thing to do. Employees who are being harassed at work often feel alone and powerless. Will the report do any good? Will HR stand up for me? Will I be retaliated against? Will I lose my job?  

 

We have put together an article discussing some important tips to consider when you need to oppose or report sexual harassment in the workplace. If you or someone you know is facing this issue, the information in this article could help.

Weinstein Case Highlights Difficulty Employees Face When Reporting Workplace Harassment Claims

Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein

NPR had an excellent story yesterday about the problems that employees face in the workplace when they report sexual harassment:

"Former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's ouster from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct have prompted others on social media to open up about workplace harassment complaints that have gone unheeded.
Most employers in most industries have written policies on and procedures for reporting incidents of sexual harassment, and human resources officials are required to investigate those claims.
And while recent decades have seen a cultural shift and more education to help minimize sexual harassment, HR consultant Sharon Sellers says there is still a big gap between what should happen, and what actually does. One concern is that many people don't feel safe reporting claims.
"The employer should take every complaint seriously, and this is one area I see where it falls down," Sellers says."

Most employees don't want a lawsuit; they just want to be allowed to do their job without being sexually harassed. Companies do their employees (and their bottom line) a disservice by not building a strong HR department that has the resources and independence within the company to investigate harassment claims and, when necessary, speak truth to power within the company.

Read the rest of NPR's article here.