What Does At-Will Employment Mean in Texas?
In general, the vast majority of employees in Texas are at-will employees. At-will employment means that either the employer or employee may end the employment relationship, with or without cause, at any time. As I tell my employee clients: at-will employment means that an employer can fire you for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. So while most people believe there is legal recourse for "wrongful termination," in Texas there is only legal recourse if the situation falls within an exception to at-will employment. So, unfortunately, just because an employee is wrongfully terminated, that does not necessarily mean she has a case. In such a situation, an employee should contact a Texas lawyer that specializes in employment law to find out if the situation falls within one of the many protective laws that are exceptions to at-will employment.
Employment Contracts Are Exceptions to At-Will Employment in Texas
One of the exceptions to at-will employment occurs when an employee has an employment contract with his or her employer. In my experience, very few employees in Texas have contracts with their employers. In general, highly-paid and high-level executives and professionals are the types of employees most likely to have an employment contract. While an employment contract may limit the nature of the at-will employment relationship, they do not always. Many contracts, however, provide that an employee may only be eliminated for cause or must be provided some sort of notice before termination. These contracts provide limitations on when and how an employee can be fired, and if they are not followed, an employee may have a right to bring a lawsuit to enforce the contract. While most employment contracts are written, in some cases oral contracts can also exist.
Discrimination is Usually an Exception to At-Will Employment in Texas
When an employment contract is not present, the exceptions to at-will employment are provided by various state and federal laws which prevent employers from terminating the employment relationship for specific reasons. One major set of laws providing exceptions to at-will employment in Texas are the discrimination provisions of the Texas Labor Code and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, age, color, race, national origin, pregnancy, religion, and disability. Put simply, an employer cannot terminate or otherwise discriminate against an employee on these bases. While other forms of discrimination exist--such as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or discrimination in favor of friends or family--in Texas, not all discrimination is illegal. Whether discrimination of a certain type is legal or illegal will depend on the current federal and state laws (and how the courts interpret them), which change regularly.
Other Exceptions to At-Will Employment in Texas
As stated above, there are a number of federal laws and state laws that provide exceptions to at-will employment in Texas and provide certain rights for employees. Examples include laws that protect against retaliation for whistleblowing, retaliation for union activity, retaliation for filing workers' compensation claims, retaliation for refusing to commit an illegal act, and retaliation for asserting certain legal rights. An employee who is terminated or discriminated against should contact a lawyer to determine if their rights have been violated, even in a situation of at-will employment.