Ignoring a Non-Compete or Retention Agreement Can Cost You Serious Money.

Story in the HoustonPress reports a former employee of the popular Buc-ee's convenience store chain is being sued for more than $60,000.00 for allegedly violating what is called a retention agreement. 

The employee in question, Kelly Rieves, was hired by the store as an assistant manager in Cypress, Texas for total compensation of about $55,000. She was hired as an at-will employee, meaning that the company could fire her for any reason at any time. But Buc-ee’s required her to sign an employment contract that is uncommon in the convenience store industry. It's called a "retention agreement". 

What is a "Retention Agreement"?

The contract Rieves signed divided her pay into two categories, regular pay and “retention pay." The amount allocated to "retention pay" accounted for approximately one-third of her total compensation. The contract allowed the store to recoup the retention pay should she fail to remain employed for a full 48-month term. The contract also required Rieves to give six months' notice before leaving. This is despite the fact that the company maintained the right to terminate Rieves prior to the end of the period. (The contract may or may not have contained notice provisions in favor of the employee that I am not privy to but it would not be required to have such provisions under Texas law.)

Three years later, Rieves decided to leave her job a year or so before her contract expired. We don't know her reasons but we do know she tried to work it out with the company first but her boss refused to let her out from under the contract. So she quit. 

In response, Buc-ee’s sued her for the full amount of the retention pay she earned during her three years with the company -- an amount over $67,000.00.

Are Retention Agreements Legal?

In a word, yes. If drafted properly, retention agreements can be enforced against employees in Texas. However, it is highly unusual to see such an agreement used with anyone other than high-level company executives. 

In the case of Ms. Rieves, a trial court ruled in favor of the company last fall. And it gets worse. The Court also ruled that, in addition to the original sum she owed under the contract, she was also responsible for the company’s legal fees plus interest on the retention pay since she left Buc-ee’s. 

The total the company is now seeking from Rieves approaches $100,000. The matter is currently on appeal. 

The Moral of the Story.

Don't sign an employment contract without having an attorney review it for you. Don't sign an arbitration agreement without having an attorney review it for you. Just don't! 

As a lawyer who primarily represents employees, I spend a fair amount of my time trying to help workers get out of contracts that they never should have signed in the first place. It is an uphill battle. 

The time to negotiate or get changes to employment-related contracts is BEFORE you sign them. Companies do not necessarily have your best interests at heart. You need to understand the implications of what you are signing BEFORE you sign it. A couple hundred dollars spent on lawyer contract review may seem like a lot when you are excited about starting a new job, but compared to the economic havoc that can be caused by signing a contract you don't understand, it's peanuts. 

Get the information you need to protect yourself and your family. It may be the best money you ever spend.

 

Can You Trust Your Company's HR Department?

A fellow blogger has a post out this week titled "Who Do You Report Harassment To If the Harasser Is the CEO?".  It is a thoughtful article and it makes the excellent point that HR for every company needs to bake into their policies a method by which an employee can internally report sexual harassment being committed by the CEO or owner of a company without risk of retaliation. I think that is an excellent goal to strive for and I hope that all HR departments set that as a goal.  There is only one problem with the premise of the article. 

The effort will almost certainly fail. 

Michael Corleone: "C'mon Frankie... my father did business with HR, he respected HR."
Frank Pentangeli: "Your father did business with HR, he respected HR... but he never trusted HR!"

 

 

HR is, in my opinion, possibly the most challenging role for any manager to do and do well. It is arguably designed to fail. The problem is obvious: HR serves two masters. On the one hand, HR is designed to serve as a helpful ombudsman to employees. To assist employees who are being mistreated. To conduct thorough investigations and correct inappropriate behavior against employees. On the other hand, HR is required to defend management against accusations of unlawful employment practices. HR is usually directly involved in the termination decisions that lead to EEOC filings. HR is then in charge of or at least heavily involved in drafting the company's defensive statement of position filings, arguing that the company is blameless. Thus, the very department that an employee is supposed to trust with his or her career and feel comfortable making a complaint to is the same department that will be spearheading the fight against the employee when it all goes south. 

What this means in most companies is that, no, you cannot trust HR to help you. While many HR officers have their hearts in the right place when they start working in the field, they can't help but know who is responsible for signing their paychecks. Hint: it's not the employee bringing a complaint against a member of management.  

So, should you bring complaints to HR? Yes, you should. In fact, in many cases you are legally required to do so or you risk waiving any claims you may have against the company for the discrimination or harassment you are reporting. Just don't assume that HR's only role is to help you. Because it isn't. While HR may be trying to assist you they are also assessing corporate risk, documenting your complaint in a way that will assist the company in defending against your complaint, and looking for ways to satisfy the demands of management. 

Here are a couple of quick tips: 

  1. Make all reports in writing. When push comes to shove down the road, HR is liable to either not "remember" you made a complaint or to remember it substantially differently than you do. Putting your report in writing is the only way to prove you made a complaint, when you made it, and to whom the complaint was made.  
  2. You know that written report from number 1, above?  KEEP A COPY. A written complaint does you know good if you send the only copy to HR. It might...you know...get lost. 
  3. Consider going outside the organization to the EEOC. If your complaint involves EEO-based (age, sex, race, religion disability, color) discrimination or harassment then consider making a complaint to the EEOC sooner rather than later. There will be little question that a report to the EEOC is protected activity under the law. This gives you a somewhat higher level of protection from retaliation than if you merely report internally. 
  4.  Consult with an employment lawyer. If you are in a situation in which you feel you need to make a complaint against management then, make no mistake, you job IS at risk. Start looking for a qualified employment attorney who represents employees. Be warned, in many parts of the country there aren't that many who lawyers who specialize in representing employees. So start looking before you need one. And don't expect such a lawyer to visit with you for free. This is not a simple car accident case and you aren't looking for a PI lawyer who can take your case on a contingent fee basis. Employment law is very specialized and contingency fees are generally not available for consulting services. If you find a qualified lawyer to advise you, however, it is money well spent. 

Bottom line: Yes, you should report harassment or discrimination internally to your company's HR department. But that doesn't mean you should blindly trust the HR department. Understand that they serve two masters and protect yourself accordingly.  

Tip Pool Violations and Other Forms of Wage Theft Common in the Restaurant Industry

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that wage lawsuits against restaurants have proliferated in troubling and damaging numbers:

“…The number of wage-violation lawsuits has been on the rise for more than a decade, driven by a successful worker-organization movement, increased attention by plaintiffs’ attorneys and complicated labor laws that leave some employers confused, according to legal analysts and industry leaders.

Nationwide, these lawsuits have doubled in the last 10 years in federal courts. In Texas, the number of overtime lawsuits and settlements continues to increase as well. The US Department of Labor recently reported that its wage and hour division found violations in 95 percent of its investigations of Austin-area restaurants between Oct. 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. 

So why do the vast majority of restaurant employers continue to violate wage laws despite news reports of DOL investigations and lawsuits? 

Read more about overtime claims by restaurant workers.

EEOC Begins a Rollout of New Online Charge-Handling System

ACT Digital Pilot Program Allows Online Interaction With Employers


Last week the EEOC announced that 11 of its 53 offices will begin a pilot program called ACT Digital to digitally transmit documents between the EEOC and employers regarding discrimination charges. This is the first step in the EEOC's move toward an online charge system that will streamline the submission of documents, notices and communications in the EEOC's charge system. This system applies to private and public employers, unions and employment agencies.

The EEOC receives about 90,000 charges per year, making its charge system the agency's most common interaction with the public. The EEOC's ACT Digital initiative aims to improve customer service, ease the administrative burden on staff, and reduce the use of paper submissions and files.

The first phase of ACT Digital allows employers against whom a charge has been filed to communicate with the EEOC through a secure portal to download the charge, review and respond to an invitation to mediate, submit a position statement, and provide and verify their contact information. The newly designed EEOC notice of a charge will provide a password-protected log in for the employer to access the system in the pilot offices. Employers will also have the option of opting out of the pilot program and receiving and submitting all documents and communications in paper form.

EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang commended ACT Digital as an innovative first step in streamlining the agency's charge system.

"The EEOC's pilot of a digital charge system is an important step forward that will benefit the public and our staff," Chair Yang noted. "This will improve our responsiveness to the public, efficiently utilize our resources, and protect the security of documents in our online system. We encourage employers to provide candid feedback and suggestions during the pilots so we can make adjustments to strengthen the system."

The pilot begins May 6, 2015 in the following EEOC offices: Charlotte, Greensboro, Greenville, Norfolk, Raleigh, Richmond and San Francisco. The EEOC offices in Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis and Phoenix will also begin their pilots by the end of May 2015.

Follow-Up Links


File a Charge With the EEOC Immediately Or Risk Losing Your Case

Some prospective clients are surprised to learn that most of wrongful termination or sexual harassment matters than an employment lawyer handles cannot be taken straight to court. This is, unfortunately, true.

Most cases having to do with discrimination or wrongful termination relating to an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, etc) must go through a required administrative process before a lawsuit can be filed. Even more confusing is the fact that you may have more than one administrative agency to choose from when deciding where to file. Does it matter where you file? Sometimes yes. This administrative process and the choices that must be made early on in your case is one of the best reasons to consider hiring a lawyer earlier rather than later. More on why that is later. Short of that, here are some answers to some of the more basic questions regarding administrative filings:

What Types Of Cases Must Be Filed Administratively?

If your case involves potential claims for discrimination or termination based on an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, religion, etc) then you probably need to file administratively. Claims for sexual harassment or retaliation for making a complaint or participating in an investigation of an EEO-related matter also must be filed administratively.

When Do I Need to File? Short Answer: IMMEDIATELY.

No really. The limitation periods for these types of claims vary depending on numerous factors but they are all short. In many states you will lose your right to pursue an action if you don’t file a Charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the event or occurrence you are complaining about. If you are a federal worker the deadline can be as little as 45 days. These are hard, fixed deadlines. There is no extending them because you had a good reason for delay. In many states, you only have 180 days to file a charge with the EEOC or lose your right to sue FOREVER, no matter how blatant the discrimination.

Where Do I Need to File

The default place to file your discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation Charge is with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They have offices in most metropolitan areas. Learn more here: http://eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm. You can also file a Charge by contacting them by phone at (800) 669–4000 (be prepared to wait an hour or more). However, depending on where you live, it might be better to file with a state or city agency that has a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC. Contact an employment lawyer near you to help you decide what is the best course of action in your area.

What Is the Process?

Filing a Charge is relatively easy once you arrive at the agency’s offices. You fill out a short form and then meet with an investigator who will complete the Charge documents for your signature. Each field office has its own procedures for appointments or walk-ins so check the website or call ahead for best results. It is always helpful if you bring with you to the meeting any information or papers that will help the investigator understand your case. For example, if you were fired because of your performance, you might bring with you the letter or notice telling you that you were fired and your performance evaluations. You might also bring with you the names of people who know about what happened and information about how to contact them.

Important: Keep in mind that the EEOC (and similar state agencies) can only investigate issues having to do with terminations and/or discrimination relating to EEO issues or retaliation for having made a complaint regarding EEO issues. They don’t investigate overtime or other pay issues and cannot help you if your termination is just because “my boss was mean.” Your issue must be EEO-related.

What Happens Next?

Once you have filed a Charge you may be invited to mediation. This is a topic for another article but the short version is that mediation is a voluntary process where the two sides of the dispute (you and your employer) sit down with an EEOC mediator for free to see if you can work out your differences and reach a pre-suit settlement. It is an excellent free service that the EEOC provides and I highly recommend it for most cases. Keep in mind, however, that you will benefit from having a lawyer with you at a mediation unless your case is so small that you wish to settle it for very little money (typically less than $15,000.00. If your case is worth more than this baseline amount, having a good lawyer will typically enhance the value of your case by more than you will end up paying your lawyer in fees up front or in a contingent fee on the back end.

How Do I Find A Good Lawyer?

This can be a difficult task but it is worth your time to find the right lawyer for your case. Geography plays a big role here. In some parts of the country there will be many qualified lawyers to choose from. In other areas there will be few. To get started, review my article on How to Hire an Employment Lawyer.

Docking Pay From Salaried, Exempt Employees Is Illegal...And Very Common

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal law the controls the terms under which employees must be paid overtime. All employees fall into one of two categories "Exempt" or "Non-Exempt". If an employee is non-exempt, when they reach more than 40 hours in a given work week, they have to be paid at time and a half for any additional hours. If they are non-exempt), they aren't eligible for overtime. Most people think of non-exempt employees as "hourly" and exempt employees as "salaried".

Pro-Tip: Just because your employer pays you as salaried does not necessarily mean that you should be considered exempt and not entitled to overtime. Exempt employees are typically involved in management or high-level administration of the business. There are other exceptions as well but a good rule of thumb is this: if you are more like a rank and file line worker or clerical worker, you should probably be getting overtime. If you aren't you need to find a good employment lawyer.

As a general rule exempt employees are paid a salary and don't have to be paid overtime no matter how many hours they work. But there are other rules that come that exempt status. One important one that employers often ignore is the rule against docking pay.

Exempt employees who are late or who need to leave work early - for doctor's appointment, child care, whatever - cannot have their pay docked for missing a couple of hours of work. If an exempt, salaried employee shows up for work, even if it's just for 15 minutes, he or she must be paid for the entire day. That's the rule.

The employer can discipline, fire, or demote the employee. But it cannot dock the employee's pay.  Importantly, the employer is allowed to dock vacation time and force the employee to use that to cover the hours missed. But the employees pay may never be docked.

So what happens if the employer breaks this rule and docks pay? Well then the employer has just lost the FLSA "exemption" as to that employee. This means the employee is owed overtime for all hours over 4o worked in the last two years plus all overtime worked in the future. This can add up to a substantial amount.

So, long story short is this: If you are paid by salary and your employer docks your pay for being late or missing a few hours of work here or there, you should contact an employment lawyer right away. Your employer is taking advantage of you and breaking the law. You may be owed a substantial amount of overtime pay.

Same-Sex Spouses Enjoy FMLA Protection In All But Four States - And Yep, Texas is One of the Four

There has been a good deal of reporting over the last month or so about the Department of Labor's recently-implemented final FMLA rule that expanded the definition of “spouse” under the FMLA to include employees in legal same-sex marriages. Both employee-side and employer-side groups praised the new rule because it brought uniformity to FMLA regulations.

Although this rule took effect on March 27, 2015, a federal district court ruling in Texas left the status of the new rule in limbo.

After the DOL issued its final rule, Attorneys General in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska filed suit in a federal district court in Texas asking the court to strike down the DOL’s final rule. The court granted an injunction and halted the DOL’s enforcement of its final rule. Given this ruling, it was uncertain what the DOL would do. The agency has since announced that it will not enforce the rule in the four states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska.

In a court filing, the DOL said: “[W]hile the preliminary injunction remains in effect, the [DOL does] not intend to take any action to enforce the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) . . . against the states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, or Nebraska, or officers, agencies, or employees of those states acting in their official capacity, in a manner that employs the definition of the term “spouse” contained in the February 25, 2015, final rule . . . .”

However, the DOL confirmed it will enforce the rule in the remaining 46 states.