Ex-HR Rep Says Houston Fired Her Over COVID-19 Concerns

By Michelle Casady
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Law360 (October 14, 2020, 4:41 PM EDT) -- A former human resources staffer for the city of Houston sued her ex-employer on Tuesday, alleging she was fired for "going public" with concerns at a city council meeting in early April that staff were still being told to work from the office during the coronavirus pandemic.

Monica Garcia, a former senior human resources generalist who worked in the city's employee relations division, alleges she was fired in violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act because she expressed concerns at an April 7 council meeting that the city's telecommuting policy was being applied inconsistently between departments, "exposing inequity."

"City of Houston fired Monica Garcia within 90 days after she reported violations of law to the Houston City Council and to Councilmember [Abbie] Kamin," the suit alleges. "As a result, a legal presumption arises that city of Houston terminated Monica Garcia because of that report to the Houston City Council and Councilmember Kamin."

According to the lawsuit, on March 29 Garcia emailed Kamin to point out a city telecommuting policy that could curtail the spread of the virus was not being implemented across the board. She wrote that city employees were told "everyone is expected to show up to work, even if telecommuting is a viable alternative for those who are high-risk for contracting the virus, or even for employees who have been exposed to the virus, or are experiencing symptoms."

She also noted in that email that she believed her "employment may be in jeopardy," according to the suit.

"However, I believe that there are people at risk of getting sick — or making others sick — and there are things that could be done to limit that risk," she wrote.

Then on April 7, Garcia addressed the City Council and expressed the same concerns that the telecommuting policy was being applied inconsistently. Garcia alleges her presentation drew a few questions from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner who, according to the lawsuit, was "visibly upset" by what Garcia had said.

The next day, Garcia followed up with Kamin, again expressing she believed she would be "terminated for going public."

On June 19, Turner launched a voluntary furlough program to help address the $169 million budget shortfall the city was facing because of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the lawsuit, Garcia reached out to those facilitating the program on June 14, indicated she was interested in taking a furlough and asked for additional information.

But instead of being provided additional information, Garcia alleges she was terminated on July 15 and was told her furlough request had been denied because she failed to indicate how long she would be out and when she could return to work.

"As indicated in her July 14, 2020, correspondence, this statement is false because Garcia had not yet submitted a furlough request," Garcia alleges. "The city's stated reasons for Garcia's termination were, therefore, not a legitimate business decision but were pretextual."

Messages left with the city of Houston attorney and with counsel for Garcia were not immediately returned Wednesday.

Garcia is represented by R. Scott Poerschke Jr. of The Poerschke Law Firm PC.

Counsel information for the city wasn't immediately available Wednesday.

The case is Monica Garcia v. The City of Houston, case number 2020-65304, in the 165th District Court of Harris County, Texas.

--Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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