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Know the one key limit on at-will employment

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in Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

Because Texas is an “at-will” state, employers are generally free to fire employees for any reason or no reason. Of course, firing employees under circumstances that would be illegal under any specific employment law won’t fly.

But other than that, there is only one other discharge reason that puts employees outside at-will employment: Employers can’t fire employees for refusing to perform an illegal act.

Recent case: Louis Martinez worked as a commercial truck driver, transporting heavy loads across the state’s highways. From almost his first day on the job, it was clear that Martinez was safety-oriented and took state and federal transportation regulations seriously. He began pointing out large and small problems with the trucks he was assigned and often said he did not want to drive vehicles with inspection and load-safety problems.

On one trip, Martinez was stopped by a state trooper, who cited the truck for all the reasons Martinez had already pointed out to his supervisors. This time, the company fixed the problems promptly. But then it assigned Martinez to a truck he deemed unsafe because the load wasn’t soundly secured.

Martinez drove a short distance and then pulled over after he thought the load had shifted. He refused to go farther. The company fired him, saying he abandoned his job by refusing to drive. (When another driver took over the trip, the load did shift and some cargo fell off, damaging a car.)

Martinez sued, alleging wrongful discharge.

After the judge explained to the jury that employers can’t fire employees for refusing to commit an illegal act, the jury sided with Martinez. He was awarded lost wages plus $200,000, largely because the employer’s refusal to listen to Martinez created unsafe conditions on Texas highways. (Safeshred v. Martinez, No. 03-08-00626, Court of Appeals of Texas, 3rd District, 2010)

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