County established former employee terminated for reasons other than whistleblower activity

Nina Lopez v. Tarrant County, Texas, 02-13-00194-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, August 25, 2015)

This is a Whistleblower Claim where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of summary judgment for the employer County.

Lopez was an executive secretary for the County Administrator, Maenius.  She alleges that in 2010 the Agenda Coordinator assaulted her. After two investigations (one by the sheriff and one by HR), both determined there was insufficient information to support the allegation. Maenius was not actively involved in the investigations.   Afterward, Lopez confronted Maenius accusing him of providing her personal information to reporters. Several County employees witnessed the confrontation and testified Lopez was hostile and insubordinate. Lopez admitted to the confrontation but disputed its severity. The court went through a great deal of factual information regarding it and several other confrontations. After she was terminated she filed suit alleging retaliation for reporting the assault. The County filed a combined plea to the jurisdiction and summary judgment motion. Lopez filed a motion to recuse the assigned judge, which was denied. The court then denied the plea but granted the summary judgment. Lopez appealed.

The court first noted that for a recusal, the burden on the movant is only satisfied when the movant provides facts demonstrating the presence of bias or partiality “of such a nature and extent as to deny the movant due process of law.” Lopez’ argument was that any judge paid a salary by the County should be recused. Lopez’s argument does not go beyond conclusory statements, conjecture, or mere assertions of bias. Tarrant County argued Maenius, who had the sole authority to fire Lopez, terminated her employment for “conduct unbecoming” of her position as Maenius’s Executive Secretary, i.e. insubordination which had nothing to do with her allegations of assault. Lopez admitted she acted inappropriately and the fact she felt her discipline should have been less drastic is not evidence of retaliatory intent. As a result, the County established its entitlement to the affirmative defense and summary judgment was proper.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Chief Justice Livingston, Justice Gardner and Justice Meier.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Meier.