News and Press | The Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan - Part 2

Texas employment lawsuit claims company made employees work off the clock

An employee at a Texas call center has filed a lawsuit claiming that she and other employees were not paid for work that they were required to do off the clock.

Elissa Shetzer filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas against her employer, Harte-Hanks Response Management/Austin LP, which manages the call center in Texarkana, Texas. Shetzer claims that employees were not paid for time spent on tasks such as logging in to call systems and performing administrative work at the end of their shifts.

The lawsuit alleges that it took approximately 15 minutes to log into the computer system before the start of a shift, which was required in order to be able to take calls. In addition, the suit claims that employees had to spend about 10 minutes after each shift logging off and shutting down computer programs.

According to the lawsuit, if employees were on a call when their shift ended, they were paid only until the end of the phone call, even if there was additional administrative work related to the call that still needed to be completed before they could leave work. In addition, the suit alleges that workers often had to take a final customer call after their phones had automatically clocked them out.

Shetzer claims violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and is seeking class-action status for her lawsuit. The suit seeks monetary damages, liquidated damages, interests and costs from the defendants.

Texas Supreme Court hears gas royalties case

The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit by property owners against Chesapeake Energy, claiming that the energy giant improperly withheld millions of dollars in natural gas royalty payments.

Chesapeake is appealing a 2014 ruling by a San Antonio appeals court that upheld a decision by a state district court awarding at least $1 million to a Fort Worth family. The Hyder family argued that its lease with Chesapeake was heavily negotiated and specifically tailored to be “cost-free,” but Chesapeake has altered its interpretation of its obligations, attempting to deduct post-production costs.

The case is being closely watched by the oil and gas industry in Texas. The National Association of Royalty Owners-Texas and the Texas Land and Mineral Owners Association are backing the Hyders, saying that this case is one of many in which Chesapeake has sought to improperly deduct costs from royalty payments.

Observers say that the impact of the case will depend on whether the high court addresses its previous ruling in Heritage Resources v. NationsBank, which permitted the deduction of post-production costs even when contracts appear to disallow it. The Hyder lease included a provision stating that the findings in the Heritage case do not apply. The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio agreed that the contract provision served to modify the general rule set forth in the Heritage case.

Texas Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Oil & Gas Royalty Owners on Post-Production Costs

On June 12, the Texas Supreme Court upheld rulings by two lower courts that post-production costs had been improperly withheld by Chesapeake Energy Corp. from royalty payments for production of natural gas in the Barnett Shale.

The state high court’s 5-4 decision in Chesapeake Exploration, LLC v. Hyder clarifies when post-production costs may be exempted from overriding royalty interests. The court stated that generally, an overriding royalty on production of gas and oil is not burdened by production costs, but must carry a share of post-production costs, unless there is an agreement that states otherwise. The court stated that the only question to be decided in the lawsuit was whether there was an agreement allocating post-production costs, and the court concluded that there was.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with San Antonio’s Fourth Court of Appeals, which in turn had sided with a court in Tarrant County, Texas, which awarded the Hyder family about $1 million.

In the Hyder case, the state high court revisited its 1996 ruling in Heritage Resources Inc. v. NationsBank. Before Hyder, the default rule had been that royalty interests were subject to post-production costs, which may include taxes and expenses for transportation and treatment. While case law recognized that post-production costs could be allocated by agreement, the court’s ruling in Heritage Resources made it difficult in practice. The “default rule” that post-production costs may be charged to royalty owners has now been significantly weakened.

Texas Supreme Court rules in tortious intereference case that “reasonable certainty” requirement for lost profits applies to claims for “lost market value”

In a recent business litigation case, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed that lost profits may only be recovered when the amount can be proven with reasonable certainty, even when the damages sought are for the “market value” of an investment, as determined by lost profits.

In Phillips v. Carlton Energy Group, LLC, Carlton sued entrepreneur Gene Phillips and other entities, alleging tortious interference with the company’s attempt to invest in an unproven methane exploration project in Bulgaria. Carlton sought the lost “market value” of its interest in the venture, and an expert witness testified that the fair market value of the investment ranged from $12.54 million to $11.305 billion, under three different models of damages. The jury found for Carlton and awarded actual damages of $66.5 million and exemplary damages of $8.5 million.

The First District Court of Appeals in Houston upheld the jury’s award on appeal. However, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously reversed the damages award, ruling that there was no evidence that the amount was based on objective facts from which the amount of lost profits could be determined. The court stated that while the requirement of “reasonable certainty” clearly applies when the damages sought are the lost profits themselves, it had not previously made clear that the standard also applies when lost profits are used instead to ascertain the market value of property. However, the court ruled that the reasonable certainty standard “clearly must” apply in such a case as well.

Nineteen-year employee of Texas firm files lawsuit over alleged FMLA violation

A Texas worker filed a lawsuit against his employer alleging violations of employment law dating to 2014.

Bradford Thompson brought a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, against Total Petrochemicals and Refining USA Inc. The lawsuit, filed on May 6, claimed violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 2014 and 2015.

The lawsuit alleged that Thompson has been employed by Total Petrochemicals for more than 19 years and required extensive medical leave in 2014 due to two separate instances of surgery and hospitalization. Thompson claimed that his need for FMLA leave was clearly communicated to his employer. He first suffered a ruptured appendix and later had complications following cataract surgery.

According to his lawsuit, Thompson did not exceed his allotted FMLA leave. After returning to work in March 2015, Thompson claimed that he was put on notice for unsatisfactory work performance and was given a negative work assessment, most of which he was not allowed to see.

Thompson claims that after he argued that he was being criticized on a pretext and that his employer was retaliating against him, he was denied a raise. Thompson claims loss of wages and benefits, emotional distress and damage to future employment prospects. The lawsuit seeks declaratory relief, back and front pay, other damages and attorney’s fees and costs.

In federal case, insurance company sues Texas hospital for tortious interference

In late February, Aetna Life Insurance Company filed a lawsuit against North Cypress Medical Center, claiming tortious interference.

Aetna claims that North Cypress designed an out-of-network strategy that charged unnecessarily high fees to Aetna, and that it improperly offered ownership interests in the hospital in exchange for patient referrals.

The lawsuit argues that the action by North Cypress constitutes tortious interference (intentional, damaging interference in a business relationship) with in-network agreements between Aetna and the hospital’s physician-owners. The company further argues that the hospital’s actions violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and the Participating Facility Agreement between the hospital and MultiPlan, Inc., an affiliate of Aetna.

According to the lawsuit, North Cypress has also violated Texas statutes regarding unapproved billing practices, unprofessional conduct and inappropriate payment for referrals.

Allegedly, North Cypress’ out-of-network strategy included charging grossly excessive fees, providing illegal kickbacks to doctors for referrals, waiving the financial responsibility of Aetna members, upcoding and improperly using non-specific billing codes, and simply overcharging. According to the suit, these practices resulted in Aetna being overcharged by up to $120 million.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division.

Texas woman sues Central United Life, claiming age and race discrimination

A Texas woman has filed a lawsuit against her former employer, claiming that she was denied promotions based on her race and age, then fired after she filed grievances.

Linda J. Donnie is suing Central United Life, claiming employment discrimination. Donnie filed the lawsuit in the Houston Division of the Southern District of Texas on October 27.

The lawsuit claims that Donnie was hired as associate manager of the underwriting department of Central United Life. She had 14 years of prior experience. According to the complaint, positions under Donnie were eliminated, leaving her solely responsible for the department. The complaint alleges that after a younger white woman was hired as chief operations officer, Donnie, an African-American, began to have her decisions questioned and overriden. Donnie claims that she was presented in a bad light to the corporation and to customers.

The lawsuit states that after Donnie filed a grievance, she was required to participate in an “improvement plan” and experienced a hostile work environment. She was ultimately dismissed for stated grounds based on an underwriting decision she had made a year earlier. The lawsuit claims age discrimination, racial discrimination, retaliation and harassment. Donnie is seeking damages, front and back pay, reinstatement and an injunction against further discrimination.

Texas Federal jury finds Apache did not breach contract with W&T Offshore

A Texas federal jury found that Apache Corp. did not breach its contract with W&T Offshore Inc., a Houston-based oil and gas producer, in a dispute that began in 2011.

The jury verdict was accepted by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, while allowing W&T to file any post-verdict motions.

Apache Corp., an independent oil and gas exploration and production company, has operations in Canada and Egypt, in addition to the United States. W&T Offshore has operations in approximately 66 offshore fields in the Gulf of Mexico. W&T also has onshore operations in the Permian Basin of West Texas, but a substantial majority of the company’s operations are offshore.

W&T filed the lawsuit against Apache, also based in Houston, in 2011, claiming that the energy company breached a processing contract and recorded inaccurate figures regarding how much processed oil was owed to W&T.

Apache has now filed a countersuit claiming $31.5 million in damages. Apache representatives stated that W&T breached the joint operating agreement by failing to pay its assigned share of 49 percent of costs associated with plugging and abandoning three Gulf of Mexico offshore wells.

An Apache spokesman said that W&T refused to comply with “clear contractual obligations,” leading Apache to file the countersuit.

More Texas Workers Are Filing Wage-and-Hour Lawsuits

Lawsuits filed by Texas workers claiming wage-and-hour violations have increased by 42 percent over the past three years and have tripled in the past ten years. According to research by Androvett Legal Media, Texas workers filed at least 922 federal lawsuits in 2014 — compared to 632 cases in 2012 and 280 lawsuits in 2004. In 2013, workers filed 1,128 such cases.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor opened new offices in Austin and Temple in 2014 to handle an increased number of complaints the agency is receiving, as well as the increased litigation.

Lawsuits and complaints have been filed over a variety of issues. In one example, employers have required workers to show up to work at a particular time, but did not start the pay clock until later. Other cases involve employers who have refused to pay when employees work overtime without obtaining pre-approval.

Many of the lawsuits are filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the 1938 law that created the 40-hour workweek and established overtime pay and the minimum wage.

Legal experts say that a number of factors have contributed to the increase in litigation, including that workers have become more knowledgeable about the law. There has also been growth in small businesses that may not be aware of the law’s requirements. In addition, the statute provides for legal fees, making it relatively easy for workers to obtain legal representation than for other types of cases.

In December 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case involving workers’ pay. In a unanimous decision, the court held that a temp agency did not have to pay Amazon warehouse workers for the time they spent in a security screening checkpoint as they exited their workplace.

Secretary sues school district for discrimination and harassment

A Texas woman has filed a lawsuit against the school district that formerly employed her as a secretary at a public school. She alleges that she suffered discrimination and harassment during the time that she was employed there.

Tesha Faith Garganta filed the lawsuit against the Spring Independent School District on February 6 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. Five staff members were also named as defendants: Jeremy Hubbard, dean of instruction; Dean McKeithen, human resources director; Julie Allen, Title IX coordinator; Lenny Hardoin, principal; and Ralph H. Draper, superintendent.

The lawsuit alleges that on November 5, 2013, while Garganta was employed at Edwin M. Wells Middle School as a secretary and bookkeeper, she asked Hubbard to show her where supplies were kept in a room. The complaint alleges that Hubbard followed her into the room, closed the door and made remarks of a sexual nature. The lawsuit also alleges that further incidents took place in December 2013.

According to the complaint, Garganta’s work performance and health were affected by the discrimination and harassment, and no corrective action was taken by the school district. Garganta is seeking damages for lost wages, physical and emotional distress, impairment of earning capacity, medical expenses, punitive damages and attorney’s fees and costs.

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