HOUSTON – On Aug. 23, the 1st District Court of Appeals issued an order on a compound appeal to reverse part of a trial court's ruling in a lawsuit brought against a Texas law firm by two former employees who claimed they were owed for unpaid wages.
Judge Jennifer Caughey wrote the court order affirming the 334th District Court of Harris County's dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims for breach of contract and reversing the trial court decision not to dismiss the law firm’s claims that the plaintiffs committed fraud and violations of the Theft Liability Act.
Judge Michael C. Massengale concurred and Judge Terry Jennings concurred and dissented in part, disagreeing with the decision to reverse the theft and fraud claims ruling, stating that the Texas Citizens Participation Act that both plaintiffs state their claims protect “does not apply to any of the claims at issue.”
Terri Porter-Garcia and Allison E. Martin both resigned from the Travis Law Firm in September 2015. They both filed claims with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) for unpaid wages. The TWC found that the firm owed both plaintiffs and awarded Porter-Garcia $439.32 and Martin $682.66 in unpaid wages.
The law firm filed suits against both plaintiffs for review of the TWC claims as well as claims for breach of contract, fraud and theft. The firm claims that it had an oral agreement to pay the plaintiffs for days they missed work, and that the women would make up the work at a later date, which they did not.
The trial court denied Porter-Garcia and Martin’s motions to dismiss the law firm’s claims, and both plaintiffs appealed.
Porter-Garcia and Martin claim that the law firm countersued them in retaliation for their TWC claims, stating that the firm’s claims for breach of contract, fraud, and violations of the Texas Theft Liability Act “constitute a strategic lawsuit against public participation” and violate the TCPA because Porter-Garcia and Martin’s wage claims “w[ere] an exercise of [their] right to petition.”
Caughey agreed with the trial court ruling to deny the motions to dismiss the firm’s breach of contract claims, finding that the firm’s testimony provided “clear and specific evidence, for these purposes, of a prima facie case of the existence of a contract… that both parties consented to the terms of the agreements with the mutual intent to be bound by the agreements’ terms.”
Caughey reversed the trial court denial of Porter-Garcia and Martin’s motions to dismiss the firm’s claims of fraud and theft, stating, “The law firm’s evidence is silent about whether Porter-Garcia and Martin knew, at the time, that their alleged promises to make up missed work time were false.”
In his dissent, Jennings disagreed with the remand, stating, “there is no constitutional right to file a claim against a private employer for unpaid wages with the Texas Workforce Commission. “
Jennings further stated that the legislature should revise the Texas Citizen Participation Act (TCPA) section to include “qualifying language” that would ensure that the purpose of the TCPA, to protect constitutional rights, is not abused by a defendant asserting that they were exercising their right to petition in any lawsuit “in which a governmental official or agency was ever involved” to add “unnecessary delay and expense to a plaintiff’s lawsuit, no matter how meritorious.”
The case has been remanded back to trial court for reconsideration of the fraud and theft claims under the TCPA.
Court of Appeals for the 1st District of Texas case numbers 01-17-00203-CV, 01-17-00206-CV