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.

Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.

Buc-ee's Sues Former Employee for... A Lot!

Story in the HoustonPress reports a former employee of the popular Buc-ee's convenience store chain is being sued for more than $60,000.00 for allegedly violating what is called a retention agreement. 

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". 

What is 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.

Are Retention Agreements Legal?

In a word, yes. If drafted properly, retention agreements can be enforced against employees in Texas. However, it is highly unusual to see such an agreement used with anyone other than high-level company executives. 

In the case of Ms. Rieves, a trial court ruled in favor of the company last fall. And it gets worse. The Court also ruled that, in addition to the original sum she owed under the contract, she was also responsible for the company’s legal fees plus interest on the retention pay since she left Buc-ee’s. 

The total the company is now seeking from Rieves approaches $100,000. The matter is currently on appeal. 

The Moral of the Story.

Don't sign an employment contract without having an attorney review it for you. Don't sign an arbitration agreement without having an attorney review it for you. Just don't! 

As a lawyer who primarily represents employees, I spend a fair amount of my time trying to help workers get out of contracts that they never should have signed in the first place. It is an uphill battle. 

The time to negotiate or get changes to employment-related contracts is BEFORE you sign them. Companies do not necessarily have your best interests at heart. You need to understand the implications of what you are signing BEFORE you sign it. A couple hundred dollars spent on lawyer contract review may seem like a lot when you are excited about starting a new job, but compared to the economic havoc that can be caused by signing a contract you don't understand, it's peanuts. 

Get the information you need to protect yourself and your family. It may be the best money you ever spend.

 

More: Read the entire story from the HoustonPress here.