Texas Disciplinary Procedures Even Apply To At-Will Employees

Marc Staff was a deputy sheriff for the Colorado County, Texas Sheriff’s Department. The Department began an investigation. The inquiry began when Colorado County Attorney Ken Sparks contacted the Sheriff’s Department, provided the video recording of a traffic stop that Staff had conducted, and expressed his concern that Staff’s behavior during the stop was inappropriate.

Sparks never wrote and signed a complaint regarding his concerns over Staff’s behavior. The only documentation that Staff received concerning the allegations was the Performance Deficiency Notice, completed and signed by Lieutenant Troy Neisner, which described Sparks’ contact with the Sheriff’s Department and the ensuing investigation. The Performance Deficiency Notice concluded: “Effective Immediately: Your employment with Colorado County Sheriff’s Department is terminated and your services are no longer needed.”

Staff sued Sheriff R.H. “Curly” Wied, claiming that Texas statutes not only require that complaints against peace officers be in writing and signed by the person making the complaint, but also mandate that a copy of the complaint be provided to the officer. The Sheriff opposed the lawsuit, taking the position that procedural rights granted public safety officers by the statutes did not apply to at-will employees such as Staff.

The Texas Court of Appeals sided with Staff, and sent the case back to the trial court for the assessment of damages and other relief. The Court acknowledged that “the general rule in Texas is that, absent a specific agreement to the contrary, employment may be terminated by the employer or the employee at will, for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.” The Court also recognized that deputy sheriffs such as Staff were at-will employees.

However, the Court found, “either the State or the employer may implement policies and procedures for resolving complaints and grievances without altering the employee’s status as an at-will employee. The disciplinary statutes do not limit the authority of the Colorado County Sheriff to discharge an employee; instead, the statutes merely require that, when a complaint of misconduct forms the basis of the decision to terminate employment, the employee must receive a signed written copy of that complaint before discipline may be imposed.

“Thus, the fact that a County is an at-will employer does not preclude application of the statutes where a County employee has been terminated because a complaint has been made against him or following an investigation, as opposed to being terminated at will for no cause.

“Finally, Sheriff Wied argues that the Performance Deficiency Notice was merely a ‘recommendation’ by Lieutenant Neisner and that the disciplinary action did not occur until Sheriff Wied denied Staff’s administrative appeal of the termination decision. We note, however, that the Performance Deficiency Notice itself, while informing Staff of his right to appeal the decision to Sheriff Wied, states that the termination of Staff’s employment is ‘effective immediately.’ This constitutes a disciplinary action that occurred before Staff received a signed, written complaint of the allegations against him.”

Staff v. Colorado County, Texas, 2015 WL 4930546 (Tex. App. 2015).