Like most states, Texas is an “at-will” employment state. This means that for most types of jobs, an employee can quit a job at any time for any reason, and an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason, so long as no exception applies. Understanding these exceptions is important, both to employers and employees.
Theoretically, an employer could terminate an employee because they didn’t like the employee’s shoes, or because the employer just woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. But, if the employer decided to fire the employee based on one of the exceptions, then employer has violated the law, and the worker can hold the employer liable for wrongful termination. Remedies for wrongful termination can include reinstatement in their old job, back pay, punitive damages and more.
There are several exceptions to the rule of at-will termination. Perhaps the best known involve unlawful discrimination. Under state and federal laws, employers cannot fire employees because of their race, color, religion, national status and several other protected categories.
Related to these anti-discrimination provisions is another exception: It is against the law for an employer to terminate an employee in retaliation after the employee has asserted their right to be free from unlawful discrimination, or to take part in unlawful discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission refers to this as “protected activity.”
For example, imagine employer Alec instructs mid-level manager Barry to fire employee Caroline. Barry asks Alec why, and Alec says he wants to fire Caroline because she is Jewish, and he doesn’t want any Jews working for him. Barry knows that Alec is asking him to take part in unlawful discrimination on the basis of religion, and he refuses. Alec gets angry at Barry and fires him the next day.
In this example, Alec has retaliated against Barry for Barry’s protected activity. Barry can now make a claim of wrongful termination. This is in addition to any claim Caroline might have, if Alec carries through with his plan to fire her.
Perhaps the trickiest part of this type of retaliation or discrimination claim involves proving that there was a prohibited motive for the employer’s action. Workers who are considering making such a claim can speak with an experienced employment law attorney to learn more.