After years of courtroom battles with Buc-ee’s, a Texas appeals court finally told Kelly Rieves what she has maintained all along.
Her money is her money.
A year after a trial court ordered that Rieves pay her former employer, the popular Texas convenience store chain, close to $100,000 for breaching an employee contract, the Texas 14th Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ordering that Buc-ee’s take nothing on its claims against Rieves and that it pay for her legal fees as well.
“Essentially this was an indentured servitude contract to Buc-ee's and the court has said that’s not the way we’re going to do things in Texas,” said Bruce Johnson, Rieves’s attorney.
The case dates back to
Rieves started and received a salary of $55,000 a year, but that money came with an atypical contract.
Her pay would be divided into two categories, regular pay and “retention pay.” Retention pay, which made up about a third of her salary, could be recouped by Buc-ee’s should Rieves leave before the end of her 48-month deal.
When Rieves decided to leave her job three years later, more than a year before the contract expired, she tried to persuade her employer to void the contract, but Buc-ee’s refused. Rieves left anyway and waited on the company’s response.
In July 2013, it came. Buc-ee’s slapped her with a lawsuit for $67,720.29 – accounting for every cent of her retention pay. Rieves responded with her own lawsuit and after she lost in trial court, a judge ordered Rieves to pay
As Johnson explained, these contracts allow Buc-ee’s to maintain its freedom to terminate employees, "but to keep an employee from exercising that same freedom, they have instituted these types of contracts.”
“Kelly just had the courage to challenge them on it,” Johnson added.
On Thursday, the appeals court reversed the decision based on Kelly’s rights as an “at-will employee” in Texas, which guarantee both the employee and the employer the right to leave or be terminated at any point in time (with some exceptions for things like discrimination).
“Because the Additional Compensation and Retention Pay provisions impose a severe economic penalty on Rieves if she exercises her right as an at-will employee to quit her employment with Buc-ee’s, we conclude they are unlawful,” the court’s judgment read.
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Buc-ee’s has two options if it wishes to appeal the court’s decision. It can ask the entire 14th Court of Appeals to hear the case, rather than just a three-judge panel, or ask the Texas Supreme Court to reverse the decision. Neither of those options is guaranteed, as justices have discretion over what appeals they hear. Presently, the court of appeals ordered the Rieves case to return to the trial level to determine the total amount of payment for Kelly’s legal fees.
The sum of money has hovered over Rieves’s head for the past five years. She never paid Buc-ee’s, but she did have to think about the possibility of it before every big purchase. She was in her late 20s when she left the company, and she's had to delay decisions like buying a house.
“It’s an unresolved, huge chunk of money that is always in the back of my mind,” she said. “I think more than anything it’s just feeling a little relief. It’s a milestone to think that it’s over.”
Jeff Nadalo, the general counsel for Buc-ee’s, told the Houston Press that the company does not comment on pending litigation.