In Waffle House v. Cathie Williams, the Texas Supreme Court on June 11, 2010, rejected the idea that a plaintiff who prevailed on a sexual harassment claim under §21.0015 of the Texas Labor Code could instead opt to recover damages under a more generous common law scheme. The Court held that plaintiff could only recover under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA).
The pertinent facts of the case are as follows: Cathie Williams was a Waffle House waitress who alleged that she was subjected to offensive sexual comments and actions from a co-worker, Eddie Davis.
Williams quit her job in February 2002, and claimed it was a constructive discharge.
After exhausting administrative remedies by filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Texas Commission on Human Rights, Williams filed suit against Davis and Waffle House in April of 2003. Claims against Davis were eventually dropped, and Williams proceeded to trial on a sexual harassment claim under a hostile-work-environment theory and common law claims of negligent supervision and retention against Waffle House. Since Texas does not recognize a common law tort of sexual harassment, but does require that a common law claim be coupled with a separate, legally compensable tort, Williams also alleged assault.
The jury decided in her favor, and awarded her past and future compensatory damages in the amount of $425,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $3.46 million. Because TCHRA damages are capped at $300,000, Willams elected to recover under her common law claims so that she could receive the higher amount. The trial court entered a judgment on the jury’s award on compensatory damages, but reduced the punitive damages to $425,000.
Waffle House appealed the decision and the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth affirmed the trial court’s ruling. Waffle House then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
The Texas Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the Second Court of Appeals. The Court held that since Williams’ common law claim was not “unrelated to” or “independent of” her statutory claim of sexual harassment, (i.e. that both are based on the same course of conduct) then the TCHRA was her exclusive remedy because it provided a more “specific and tailored” remedy.
The Court referenced an exclusivity provision under the TCHRA when it stated that it was the Legislature’s intent that the TCHRA be the exclusive remedy in cases like these. The Court further supported its ruling by stating that “permitting a common-law claim for negligent supervision and retention would allow plaintiffs to pick and choose among irreconcilable and inconsistent regimes….” Such a result would allow plaintiffs to skirt the detailed substantive and procedural provisions of TCHRA to recover under a scheme where they would be entitled to more money.
This decision is a win for employers because it eliminates a common tactic among plaintiffs to file a common-law claim, in conjunction with a sexual harassment claim, in order to maximize a potential damage award. As for plaintiffs, this decision allows them to recover under common-law doctrines only if the improper conduct is totally independent of the statutory claim.