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Texas Court of Appeals Upholds Dismissal of OSHA-Related Retaliatory Discharge Claim as Discovery Sanction

By Key Harrington Barnes, PC

October 8, 2018

When a former employee files a retaliatory discharge complaint against a Dallas area employer, the employer has the right to engage in a “discovery” process designed to learn more about the plaintiff’s allegations. Information obtained during discovery helps the defendant prepare for trial and, sometimes, aids in the facilitation of a settlement between the parties. If you have questions about a situation at your place of work that led to termination, reach out to a Dallas employment law attorney.

Because discovery is an important part of the legal process, a party’s failure to meaningfully participate in the discovery process is highly disfavored by the courts and can result in serious consequences.

Facts of the Case

In an appellate case recently under consideration by the Court of Appeals for the Second Appellate District of Texas at Fort Worth, the plaintiff was a man who sued the defendant (his former employer) for wrongful termination. According to the plaintiff’s allegations, he was fired in retaliation for reporting Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations against the defendant.

After the plaintiff walked out of a discovery deposition before it was completed and failed to appear at two other depositions to which he had been subpoenaed, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims, with prejudice, as a discovery sanction. In so moving, the defendant relied upon Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 215.2(b)(5), 215.3. The 48th District Court for Tarrant County, Texas, granted the defendant’s motion. The court then denied the plaintiff’s post-judgment motion requesting that his claims be reinstated on the basis that the defendant had relied upon fabricated evidence in its motion.

Outcome of the Issues

Noting that the dismissal of a plaintiff’s claim is sometimes referred to as a “death-penalty sanction,” the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge complaint against the defendant as an acceptable consequence for the plaintiff’s abuse of the discovery process. In so holding, the court observed that courts of appeal review trial courts’ discovery sanctions on an abuse-of-discretion standard. An “abuse of discretion” occurs only if there is not evidence of a substantive and probative character to support the lower tribunal’s decision. So long as there is a direct relationship between the discovery abuse and the sanction, and the sanction is not excessive under the circumstances, the trial court’s ruling should not be disturbed.

Here, the plaintiff left his deposition when it was still in progress, blatantly refusing to answer questions about an alleged settlement concerning the OSHA matter, and then he failed to appear for subsequent depositions despite receiving notification to appear. Lesser sanctions previously imposed by the trial court had not remedied the situation. Thus, the appellate court found that the death-penalty sanction of dismissal was within the trial court’s discretion.

Legal Advice for Your Situation

Maintaining a high quality, dedicated workforce is crucial to the success of a business, but employee relations can be a huge challenge in today’s litigious society. If your business needs legal advice from a Dallas employee relations attorney concerning a possible retaliatory discharge claim or related legal matter, call Key Harrington Barnes at 214-615-7925 to schedule a consultation.

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