Texas Supreme Court Ruling Narrows Scope of Anti-Retaliation Law

The Supreme Court of Texas this year decided that some state employees cannot file retaliation claims if they were fired after filing for workers’ compensation.

Employees of Texas political subdivisions, or government groups that are confined by a specific geographic area like a water district, are exempt from retaliation laws set up to protect workers from being fired after filing a claim or complaint against the employer.

The court ruled in Travis Central Appraisal District v. Diane Lee Norman that Texas state law clearly leaves these political subdivisions exempt from the anti-retaliation law in the case of workers’ compensation.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature revised the Workers’ Compensation Act and broadly gave sovereign immunity to political subdivisions, according to the Insurance Journal. On this change, the judge in the case, Justice David Medina, reversed the court of appeals ruling. Because the reversal was based only on a law that focused on workers’ compensation cases, political subdivisions still are vulnerable to retaliation claims that stemmed from other filings like whistleblower suits.

The case helped to draw a sharper line between sovereign immunity and governmental immunity. Sovereign immunity protects the state and its boards and agencies, while governmental immunity protects specific political subdivisions like cities, counties and school districts.

The Travis Central Appraisal District originally held that the worker could not file a retaliation lawsuit until she had exhausted her other options administratively under TCAD regulations. The trial court rejected TCAD’s plea in part because Norman was a probationary employee to whom the grievance process may have been unavailable.

The appeals court heard the same argument from TCAD, but also considered the district’s claim that the political subdivision had immunity from her claim despite previous rulings to the contrary (City of LaPorte v. Barfield). The appeals court also rejected TCAD’s claim.

The Texas Supreme Court found that it was legislative changes to the state’s workers’ compensation act that gave immunity to the TCAD. The state’s Political Subdivisions Law requires that such entities pay workers’ compensation benefits to employees. An anti-retaliation rule was eventually adopted as part of the law.

Texas has an Anti-Retaliation Law that would have helped Norman, but Medina points out that the state has “tinkered” with the Political Subdivisions Law several times since the Barfield case, which the trial and appeals court use to decide Norman’s suit.

The Political Subdivisions Law changes include a broad statement that prevents sovereign immunity from being waived.

The Supreme Court dismissed the case and suggested that the state legislature revise the Political Subdivisions Law to be more specific in its wording.

A qualified employment attorney can help a company react to workers’ compensation claims within the law.
Seth Wilburn writes for the Gomez Law Group, a Dallas employment lawyer and Dallas business lawyer. To learn more, visit Gomezlawyers.com.

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