Credibility = Fact Issue, Again

After recent opinions finding that credibility determinations led to fact issues in cases about whether a barge hit a bridge and a prison fight, the Fifth Circuit again so held in Vaughan v. Carlock Nissan of Tupelo, No. 12-60568 (Feb. 4, 2014, unpublished). Vaughan alleged that a car dealership unlawfully terminated her after she reported several irregularities there to Nissan.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the dealership as to Mississippi’s “illegal act” exception to at-will employment, but reversed as to her tortious interference claim against the supervisor who terminated her.  That claim requires proof of bad faith, which Vaughan sought to establish by showing that she was not fired until making a complaint that specifically named the supervisor.  The supervisor admitted that, at the time of termination, he knew Vaughan had complained to Nissan but said “he did not know the contents of the complaint.”  The Fifth Circuit found that credibility issues about his claimed justifications for the firing, coupled with the ambiguity of his statement that Vaughn had “no right to report these things to Nissan,” and the timing of the termination, created a fact issue that made summary judgment unwarranted.

SOX retaliation and national boundaries

Villanueva worked for a Colombian affiliate of a publicly-traded entity subject to Sarbanes-Oxley.  He alleged that he was terminated after reporting a scheme by his employer to understate revenue to Colombian tax authorities.  Villanueva v. U.S. Department of Labor, No. 12-60122 (Feb. 12, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the DOL’s rejection of his claim for whistleblower protection under SOX, concluding: “Villanueva did not provide inforotmation regarding conduct that he reasonably believed violated one of the six provisions of U.S. law enumerated in § 806; rather, he provided information regarding conduct that he reasonably believed violated Colombian law.”  (Footnote 1 notes that the Court did not reach the broader issue whether section 806 applies extraterritorially.)  Law 360 has reported on the case and collected opinion from both sides of the employment bar.


NLRB reversed; can arbitrate collective claims

In D.R. Horton Inc. v. NLRB, the Fifth Circuit reviewed an NLRB decision that invalidated an arbitration agreement as to collective or class claims related to employment.  No. 12-60031 (Dec. 3, 2013).  The court deftly sidestepped a difficult constitutional issue, presently before the Supreme Court, about President Obama’s “recess appointments” to the NLRB.  On the merits, the Court reversed the NLRB.  The Board relied upon Section 7 of the NLRA, which guarantees the right “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”  The Court found that this statute did not create a right to pursue collective or class claims in court that trumped the language and policy goals of the Federal Arbitration Act.  A recent Texas Lawbook article discusses the significance of this opinion for employers.

Construction worker was independent contractor, not employee

Mid-Continent Casualty v. Davis presented an insurance coverage dispute about a wrongful death claim by a construction worker.  No. 11-10142 (June 8, 2012).  Coverage turned on whether the worker was an employee or an independent contractor.   Applying the five-factor test from Limestone Products Distribution v. McNamara, 71 S.W.3d 308 (Tex. 2002), the Court affirmed a finding that the worker was an independent contractor.  Key facts were that the worker provided his own tools and supplies, largely controlled his own schedule and tasks, and was provided a 1099 rather than a W-2.  Op. at 13-14.