Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

At-will employment in Texas -- absent an employment contract -- means that employer does not need good cause to dismiss employee

    
EMPLOYMENT AT WILL DOCTRINE HOLDS SWAY IN TEXAS

Texas follows the rule of at-will employment, under which employment for an indefinite term may be terminated at will and without cause. Schroeder v. Tex. Iron Works, Inc., 813 S.W.2d 483, 489 (Tex. 1991). A Texas employer may fire an employee at will for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all. Montgomery County Hosp. Dist. v. Brown, 965 S.W.2d 501, 502 (Tex. 1998).
 
Under Texas law, we presume that [TERMINATED EMPLOYEE-PLAINTIFF] remained an at-will employee throughout her employment with [EMPLOYER-DEFENDANT]. See Fed. Express Corp. v. Dutschmann, 846 S.W.2d 282, 283 (Tex. 1993). [TERMINATED EMPLOYEE / WRONGFUL TERMINATION PLAINTIFF] must prove that [EMPLOYER-DEFENDANT] expressly, clearly, and specifically agreed to modify her at-will status. See Brown, 965 S.W.2d at 503; see also Durckel v. St. Joseph Hosp., 78 S.W.3d 576, 581 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2002, no pet.).

To modify the at-will employment relationship, an employer must unequivocally manifest a definite intent to be bound not to terminate an employee except under clearly specified circumstances. Midland Judicial Dist. Cmty. Supervision & Corr. Dep’t v. Jones, 92 S.W.3d 486, 487 (Tex. 2002) (per curiam).

An employment contract for a term may still be at will if the agreement allows termination for any reason. C.S.C.S., Inc. v. Carter, 129 S.W.3d 584, 591 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2003, no pet.); Curtis v. Ziff Energy Group, Ltd., 12 S.W.3d 114, 118 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1999, no pet.). An employee’s subjective understanding—that her employment may only be terminated for cause or that her employment is for a term—does not create a contract. Ed Rachal Found. v. D’Unger, 207 S.W.3d 330, 332 (Tex. 2006) (per curiam) (rejecting an at-will employee’s personal understanding that his contract was for a renewable one-year term); Matagorda County Hosp. Dist. v. Burwell, 189 S.W.3d 738, 740 (Tex. 2006) (per curiam) (rejecting an at-will employee’s understanding based on an employment handbook that she could only be terminated for cause). In the usual case, the contract alone will be deemed to express the intention of the parties because it is the objective, not subjective, intent that controls. Burwell, 189 S.W.3d at 740.
  
The elements of a breach of contract claim are: (1) the existence of a valid contract; (2) performance, or tendered performance, by the claimant; (3) breach of the contract by the defendant; and (4) damages to the plaintiff resulting from that breach. Abraxas Petroleum Corp. v. Hornburg, 20 S.W.3d 741, 758 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2000, no pet.). 

SOURCE: WACO COURT OF APPEALS - 10-11-00257-CV – 12/7/11


Harmonizing all of the provisions of the tuition agreement so that none are rendered superfluous, we cannot say that the agreement unequivocally manifested a definite intent on behalf of [EMPLOYER-DEFENDANT] to modify or alter the at-will employment relationship between it and [TERMINATED EMPLOYEE-PLAINTIFF] in a meaningful or special way. See Jones, 92 S.W.3d at 487; see also El Expreso, Inc. v. Zendejas, 193 S.W.3d 590, 594 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.) (“[The] agreement to modify the at-will employment relationship must be ‘(1) expressed, rather than implied, and (2) clear and specific.’”) (quoting Miksch v. Exxon Corp., 979 S.W.2d 700, 703 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, pet. denied)); Durckel, 78 S.W.3d at 582 (“General statements about working conditions, disciplinary procedures, or termination rights are not sufficient to change the at-will employment relationship; rather the employer must expressly, clearly, and specifically agree to modify the employee’s at-will status.”). As such, we conclude that [TERMINATED EMPLOYEE-PLAINTIFF] has not met her burden in submitting a record with more than a scintilla of evidence proving that the presumed at-will relationship was altered. See Durckel, 78 S.W.3d at 581 (citing Hussong v. Schwan’s Sales Enters., 896 S.W.2d 320, 323 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1995, no writ)) (stating that it is the employee’s burden to prove that the presumed at-will employment relationship was altered). We further conclude that the trial court did not err in granting Methodist’s no-evidence motion for partial summary judgment as to [TERMINATED EMPLOYEE-PLAINTIFF]’s wrongful-termination claim because she was an at-will employee as a matter of law. See Brown, 965 S.W.2d at 502-05; see also Durckel, 78 S.W.3d at 583.

SOURCE: WACO COURT OF APPEALS - 10-11-00257-CV – 12/7/11