Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Friday, July 11, 2008

Retaliation, Whistleblowing and Preemption - The Texas Supreme Court Chooses

Although the specific result is that the employee loses, today's Texas Supreme Court's opinion in City of Waco v. Lopez (Tx 7.11.08) (pdf) has something for both sides of the docket. The factual pattern is straight forward. Lopez, a city employee filed an internal grievance complaining a transfer was because of his age and race. He was moved back to his original position, but fired a few month later, allegedly for another offense.

Instead of pursuing a retaliation claim under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, Lopez chose to sue based on the general Whistleblower Act (§554.001 et seq.) (It is not clear from the case, but my guess is Lopez may have missed the shorter deadline for filing a charge under the TCHRA.)

The city moved to dismiss, claiming the TCHRA preempted his claim under the Whistleblower Act. Justice Wainwright writing for a unanimous court agreed, finding the more specific statute (the TCHRA) trumped the more general statute (the Whistleblower act). Since Lopez had not filed a charge under the TCHRA, which is a jurisdictional requirement, his claim had to be dismissed.

Although not good for Lopez, the opinion at least puts the Texas Supreme Court on record clearly in support of the "opposition" clause of the TCHRA and for extending its coverage to an internal grievance. Justice Wainwright even mentions in a footnote that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a similar (although not exact) claim in Crawford v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville (Docket 06-1595).

For those who are not familiar with "opposition" and "participation" clauses as those terms are used in the context of statutory retaliation provisions, Lopez provides a good explanation.

The Court also gives some amplification on the local laws provision of §21.151 and the election of remedies provision, §21.211 that are, to be charitable, somewhat confusing:

Section 21.151 is specifically limited to local laws, and Section 21.211 limits the ability to pursue multiple grievances in multiple forums over the same alleged conduct. In the realm of employment discrimination litigation—where federal, state, and local governments individually declare their opposition to unlawful discrimination—Section 21.211 merely means a plaintiff cannot file an administrative complaint with the CHRA after having already (1) filed a lawsuit under a federal or local anti-discrimination measure covering the same conduct or (2) begun administrative proceedings with the EEOC or local enforcement entities based on the same conduct.

I can see the Court's 2nd proviso on what §21.211 means leading to some interesting issues related to the timing of the filing of TCHRA claims if they are not jointly filed with an EEOC charge.

While the Court makes clear that it is only deciding the interaction between the TCHRA and the general public whistleblower statute, the discussion of the importance of requiring compliance with the detailed procedures of the TCHRA bodes well for any other employer that has the option to argue for preemption of some other statute where there is an overlap.

One style note, in his opinion Justice Wainwright uses the acronym (CHRA) [Commision on Human Rights Act]. I have always used the longer (TCHRA) [Texas Commission on Human Rights Act). In a quick check of prior Supreme Court usage, before today's opinion it appears to have been TCHRA 8, CHRA 4.


Interesting post. I was just reading an article in The Washington Post about a lawsuit which is questioning the constitutionality of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires publicly traded organizations to establish a process to manage whistleblower complaints. According to the Post, it seems likely that the Public company Accounting Oversight Board, who created the act, will lose their case. This could have an interesting affect on federal whistleblowing regulations and technologies, so it should be an interesting story to keep your eye on.
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