On March 9, 2012, The Texas Supreme Court ruled in In Re Frank Kent Motor Co., (Tex. 2012) that a jury waiver signed by an at-will employee was valid. This case arose when a a 28 year employee of Frank Kent Motor Co. was asked to sign a jury waiver in 2008. The employee at first refused but then, under threat of termination, signed the agreement to waive a jury trial. About one year later the employee was fired and he filed an age discrimination suit. The employer filed a motion to strike the jury demand arguing that the jury waiver required it. The district court and court of appeals refused to enforce the waiver. The employee argued that the waiver was unconscionable because it was not voluntarily secured since it was executed under threat of the termination of a 28 year employment relationship. The Supreme Court granted the writ of mandamus ordering the trial court to enforce the jury waiver. The Court reasoned that because an employer has the legal right to terminate an at-will employee, a threat to exercise that right cannot amount to coercion that would invalidate a jury waiver agreement. This case is certainly sad news for the right to a jury trial and may encourage other employers to exert their overwhelming bargaining power to deny employees their Constitutional right to a jury trial. To say that the jury waiver was not secured by coercion is to turn a blind eye to the reality of the employer/employee relationship. To call a threat to terminate a 28 year employee because he refuses to give up a Constitutional right acceptable behavior for an employer is just flat unjust. Obviously, the trial court and the Court of Appeals believed it was unjust. This holding is worrisome for employees in that it is a slippery slope of what is next related to the freedom of an employer in an at-will employment relationship. Could this Supreme Court rule that there are no damages suffered for loss of future pay when an at-will employee is illegally fired for filing a worker’s compensation claim or because the employee refuses to submit to sexual harassment since the employer could have fired them “at-will” anyway? Let’s hope not.
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