The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that employees who want to sue for most kinds of employment discrimination under Texas state law must use the provisions of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (CHRA).
Specifically, they can’t sue under the Texas Whistleblower Act in an effort to sidestep the CHRA’s rather complex procedures or miss its short filing deadlines.
Recent case: Robert Lopez worked for the city of Waco as chief plumbing inspector until he was transferred to a job in the plumbing code enforcement division. The city said it was because of his poor attitude, but Lopez suspected age and race discrimination. When he filed a grievance with the city’s EEO officer, he was transferred back to his original job.
But Lopez was terminated a few months later after he allegedly drove a city vehicle from Waco to Austin without permission.
A little over a month later, Lopez sued Waco under the Whistleblower Act, claiming that he had been fired in retaliation for filing the EEO grievance.
The Whistleblower Act protects public employees from retaliation for reporting violations of the law. It doesn’t require employees to jump through hoops to get to court. Employees are protected if they, in good faith, report suspected violations to “an appropriate law enforcement authority.”
Lopez argued that when he went to the EEO office, he was reporting a violation of the law to an appropriate law enforcement authority and therefore was a protected whistle-blower.
The city tried to get Lopez’s case dismissed on the grounds that the CHRA, not the Whistleblower Act, applies when employees claim they have been discriminated against by their employers because of race, color, disability, religion, sex, national origin or age. Because Lopez claimed that the city had retaliated against him because of his age and race, the city said he should have used the CHRA as his exclusive remedy.
Lopez had missed his filing deadline under the CHRA. The law requires employees to file CHRA complaints with the Commission on Human Rights within 180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice took place, and then file a lawsuit within 60 days of receiving a right-to-sue letter from the commission.
The Texas Supreme Court sided with the city of Waco—and against Lopez. It reasoned that the Texas Legislature enacted the CHRA as a way to stamp out employment discrimination.
The law has an extensive process created to help employees and employers resolve employment discrimination cases. The procedures are designed to favor conciliation over litigation.
If public employees who believe they have been discriminated against could simply skip the process and go directly to court with a claim that they are blowing the whistle on their employers’ discriminatory practices, the Legislature’s efforts would be in vain. Employees must use the CHRA. (City of Waco v. Lopez, No. 06-0089, Supreme Court of Texas, 2008)
Final notes: Texas employees who also have federal employment discrimination claims can still sue under federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act, the ADA, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and others.
The Texas Supreme Court specified that its decision that “federal and local governments are free to enact their own laws to address workplace discrimination and retaliation, and claimants are free to seek relief under parallel federal or local laws.” In addition, some local ordinances cover more forms of discrimination than federal or state laws do.
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