It is not uncommon that an employer asks an employee to commit an illegal or an unethical act in the course of business. Fortunately, Texas law and legal precedent protects employees that find themselves in this predicament.
Terminating the Working Relationship in Texas
The state of Texas is considered an employment-at-will state. In an at-will state, like Texas, both the employer and employee may terminate the relationship at any time. The employer and employee may do this with or without warning or cause, unless the contract that created the relationship expressly states otherwise.
The Sabine Pilot Doctrine
Although Texas is an employment-at-will state, and employers and employees may terminate the working relationship at any time, there lies one exception to the rule – the Sabine Pilot Doctrine.
The Sabine Pilot Doctrine arose from a Texas Supreme Court case, Sabine Pilot Serv. v. Hauck (Tex. 1985). In the Sabine Pilot case, the Supreme Court’s decision stated that an at-will employee may sue the employer if the employee is fired for refusing to commit an illegal or unethical act. This doctrine prohibits employers from terminating employees for the sole reason of refusing to perform an illegal or unethical act.
Justice Kilgarlin states in his decision,
We now hold that public policy, as expressed in the laws of this state and the United States which carry criminal penalties, requires a very narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine announced in East Line & R.R.R. Co. v. Scott. That narrow exception covers only the discharge of an employee for the sole reason that the employee refused to perform and illegal act. We further hold that in the trial of such a case it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his discharge was for no reason other than his refusal to perform an illegal act. (Sabine Pilot Serv.)
It is monumentally important to note that the exception carved out of the Sabine Pilot Doctrine only applies if the sole reason for an employee being discharged is the refusal of committing an illegal or unethical act. This statement also shifts the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove that the discharge is for no other reason but refusal to commit the illegal act. One must also note that the illegal act in which the employee refuses to commit must also be punishable by criminal penalties.
What Remedies are Available for Refusing to Commit Illegal or Unethical Acts?
If an employee sues an employer under the Sabine Pilot cause of action and proves to be successful, that employee may be entitled to the following remedies:
- Past and future lost wages and benefits
- Damages for Mental Anguish
- Putative damages
- Reasonable attorney’s fees
- Court costs
The court may also order that the employee be reinstated to the same position or one of equal status. Texas precedent shows that an employee will likely not be successful or have available remedies under a Sabine Pilot cause of action against another employee.