For four years, Kelly Rieves has lived with an anvil above her head.
She left her job as an assistant manager at Buc-ee’s on good terms to pursue a different opportunity in 2012. Rieves had worked at the popular Texas convenience store chain since 2009, and enjoyed her time there.
But close to a year after leaving, Buc-ee’s mailed Rieves a letter that sent her head spinning: The company sought $67,000 from Rieves for breaching her employment contract, and would take her to court to get it.
Though Rieves has long since moved to a new job, her dispute with Buc-ee’s remains unresolved. And the sum she may ultimately be forced to pay increases each day.
“It’s just kind of a weight,” Rieves said during an interview at her lawyer’s Montrose office, “at times a silent stresser.”
Rieves was frustrated with long and unpredictable hours in the restaurant industry, and a friend recommended Buc-ee’s to her in 2009. The friend said Buc-ee's had a reputation as a good employer that offered higher-than-average pay. (The National Review gave glowing praise to the company just last month.)
Rieves was hired that year as an assistant manager at the store in Cypress, for total compensation of about $55,000. But Buc-ee’s required her to sign a contract uncommon in the convenience store industry.
The pact Rieves signed divided her pay into two categories, regular pay and “retention pay,” about a third of her total compensation. The contract, as well as a similar contract Rieves signed a year later, allowed Buc-ee’s to recoup the retention pay should she fail to stick around for the 48-month term of the deal. The contract also required Rieves to give six months' notice before leaving, which she said effectively extended the term to 54 months.
Fast-forward three years. Rieves decided to leave her job in early 2012, more than a year before her contract expired. She said she tried to persuade her bosses to void the contract, but they gave her three options: stay at Buc-ee’s, take out a loan from the company or get her new employer to pay the sum.
Rieves concluded each option was unreasonable, and left in July 2012, unsure of what Buc-ee’s would do.
Months passed with no word from the company, and Kelly settled into her new job. Then, in 2013, Buc-ee’s sued Rieves for every cent of the retention pay she earned during her nearly three years there: $67,720.29.
Rieves returned the favor with a suit of her own. Her lawyer, Bruce Johnson, argues Rieves’s contract is unenforceable because the retention pay clause violates Texas law. State statutes, Johnson contends, bar employers from restricting the rights of at-will employees to leave their jobs without penalty.
“My feeling is this type of employment structure is not designed to do anything other than keep the employee from leaving Buc-ee’s,” Johnson said. “To structure your payments this way is not fair to the employee, because Buc-ee’s isn’t giving up anything.”
Jeff Nadalo, general counsel for Buc-ee’s, declined to talk about Rieves’s case, but defended the company’s practice of categorizing some compensation as refundable retention pay.
“Obviously the goal is to retain employees,” Nadalo said.
Nadalo said Buc-ee’s' use of employment contracts has been successful for the company, which he said has a high employee retention rate.
So far, courts have agreed with Buc-ee’s point of view. Last fall, a trial court ruled in favor of the company, but the ruling was far from the worst news Rieves received that day. In addition to the original sum, the judge ruled Rieves was responsible for the company’s legal fees plus interest on the retention pay since she left Buc-ee’s.
The grand total now approaches $100,000.
Rieves appealed to the Texas Court of Appeals, where the case has yet to be heard. In the meantime, Rieves fears for her future. Paying Buc-ee’s in full would ruin her financially, she says. Johnson, her lawyer, agrees.
“It’s more than she makes in a year of her salary, so it would result in her not having any income,” he said of the enormous sum.
For now, Rieves tries to put the case out of her mind, even as she feels powerless over her fate. If she had read the contract more carefully, Rieves said she would have balked at working for Buc-ee's.
Asked why she believed Buc-ee’s would spend four years in court chasing after a single former employee, Rieves recalled conversations she had with her bosses as she tried to negotiate a clean break from the company.
“The way I understood the wording is they had to be fair,” Rieves said. “If somebody left, and they had a contract, they had to call them on it.”