DA allegedly terminated for refusing to withhold exculpatory evidence cannot bring Sabine Pilot cause of action

 

Hillman v Nueces County, et al., 17-0588 (Tex. March 15, 2019)

This is an employment related suit where the Texas Supreme Court held the County was immune from a suit brought by a former assistant district attorney

Hillman, a former assistant district attorney, filed suit alleging that the County wrongfully terminated his employment because he allegedly refused his supervisor’s order to withhold exculpatory evidence from a criminal defendant charged with intoxicated assault. Specifically, a witness statement noting the Defendant was not intoxicated at the time of the assault. Hillman was terminated for failing to follow instructions, presumably related to the disclosure. Hillman sued.  The trial court dismissed the case and the court of appeals affirmed. Hillman filed the petition for review.

Hillman essentially brings a Sabine Pilot cause of action, which allows suit against an employer for terminating an employee who refused to perform an illegal act. However, historically, sovereign/governmental immunity is not waived for a Sabine Pilot cause of action. The Court declined to abrogate or clarify the lack of waiver. Alternatively, Hillman asserted immunity was waived under the Michael Morton Act (2017 legislative changes to Tex. Code Crim. Proc. § 39.14(h) on criminal discovery and disclosure). However, the Act does not address governmental immunity. It serves obvious purposes separate and apart from any wrongful-termination issues. Finally, Hillman requested the Court abrogate the immunity doctrine. The Court held that having existed for more than six hundred years, the governmental-immunity doctrine is “an established principle of jurisprudence in all civilized nations.” Although courts defer to the legislature to waive immunity, the judicial branch retains the authority and responsibility to determine whether immunity exists in the first place, and to define its scope. To hold that governmental immunity does not apply to Sabine Pilot claims, the Court would have to trespass across the boundary between defining immunity’s scope (a judicial task) and waiving it (a legislative task).  It declined to do so.

The concurring opinion agreed with the majority opinion, but Justice Guzman wrote separately to emphasize, to the Legislature, more is required if the purposes behind the Michael Morton Act are to have a full impact. But she agreed such additional actions must come from the Legislature.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Boyd.  Concurring opinion (found here) by Justice Guzman, joined by Justices Lehrmann and Devine.