One more difference between employment in the public sector vs. employment in the private sector

Texas is an “at will” employment state.  The general rule is that employees are hired “at will” which means they can be fired at any time without good cause.  Of course we have both federal and state laws that prohibit terminating employment on the basis of certain protected characteristics, like race, sex, religion, age, disability.  But other than that, most employees in Texas serve at the pleasure of their employers.  Teachers with contracts are a notable exception to the general rule.

Another exception was created by the Texas Supreme Court in the case of Sabine Pilot, Inc. v. Hauck, 687 S.W.2d 733 (Tex. 1985).  In the Sabine Pilot case our Supreme Court held that the employer may not fire an employee for refusing to perform an illegal act.

But a recent decision from Beaumont ISD demonstrates that the Sabine Pilot case does not mean the same thing in the public sector as it does in the private sector.  An at-will employee of a school district does not have the same protection as his or her counterpart in the private sector.  In the Beaumont case, Mr. George Thomas, Jr. asserted that the district fired him for refusing to perform an illegal act.  He alleged that the district was keeping false records regarding student attendance. He alleged that he refused to go along with this, and for this he got canned.

Is this a valid claim under the Sabine Pilot case? We will never know. The district filed a “Plea to the Jurisdiction” asserting that the court should dismiss the case from the get-go because the court had no jurisdiction.  BISD pointed out that it enjoyed governmental immunity—immunity from suit, not just from liability—and this claim was barred by that immunity.

The state district court did not agree with that, but the Court of Appeals did.  Citing six earlier cases, the court held that Sabine Pilot did not waive BISD’s governmental immunity.  Indeed, governmental immunity can only be waived by the legislature—not a court.  Thus in practical terms, the Sabine Pilot case means that a private employer cannot fire someone for refusing to perform an illegal act.  As for a governmental employer….no liability for doing the same thing.

The case of Beaumont ISD v. Thomas was decided by the Court of Appeals in Beaumont on January 28, 2016.