When an employee leave policy can lead to litigation in Texas

Texas employers know they cannot terminate or take adverse action against an employee for a reason prohibited by Texas law. For example, employers cannot terminate an employee if that employee is within their rights under state and federal leave protection laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Litigation often arises in gray areas of the law

Unfortunately, it is not always clear when an employee can be terminated for reasons unrelated to their protected class without risking a lawsuit. For example, if an employee remains ill, injured or otherwise unable to work, how quickly can an employer terminate that worker's employment after the period in which they are protected by law? If there are related issues, such as if that employee is a member of a protected class, then an employer may risk facing litigation even if the employee is not terminated until after completing their full FMLA leave.

The Supreme Court, on the last day of 2015, may have helped employers clarify when they can legally terminate employment based on a neutral leave policy.

Texas Supreme Court overturns jury verdict on retaliation

The state's highest court recently overturned a jury verdict by holding that an employer terminated a worker's employment on the basis of a reasonable and neutral leave policy, not in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim.

The case, Kingsaire, Inc. v. Jorge Melendez, arose when an injured tradesman filed for workers' compensation benefits. After his injury, he went on FMLA leave. The tradesman was not medically fit to return to work after his FMLA leave expired. Per company policy, he was terminated.

Melendez sued, claiming several violations of Texas employment law, including retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. The case went to trial, and the jury ultimately awarded him lost earnings, employee benefits, vacation pay damages and attorney's fees.

The employer appealed, and the case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. On December 31, 2015, the state's highest court overturned the jury verdict, finding that the former employee had submitted no evidence that he was terminated for any other reason than a universally applied, neutral leave policy.

So when can an employer terminate an employee on a neutral leave policy?

As the court noted in its opinion, an employee must show that the employer's action "would not have occurred when it did absent the employee's protected conduct." In other words, the terminated employee must show that except for his or her protected actions, he or she would not have been terminated.

Questions on company leave policy?

Litigation regarding employment matters is a large concern of businesses throughout Texas. Preventing legal disputes should be a focus of every employer. If you have questions regarding your employment contracts, employee handbook or employee rights, contact Key Harrington Barnes, LLC, to discuss your situation and legal options.