Secretary in HR department clocked in while out on medical leave, coworker alleges
In a recent case, an employee alleged that the HR director failed to clock out for a week, edited past timekeeping entries without a supervisor’s approval, and tried to clean the timekeeping system amidst an investigation.
The plaintiff in this case was a longtime employee of the Crystal City Independent School District (CCISD). As a business manager in its finance department, she managed the financial and business affairs, including accounting and payroll.
As “timekeeping manager,” the plaintiff could access timekeeping software to review when employees clocked in and out and could edit those entries. She periodically ran payroll reports to audit timekeeping entries at the request of her supervisor, the CCISD’s former superintendent.
The plaintiff allegedly discovered an error when she ran a September 2020 report surveying all employees accruing overtime hours during the pay period. The HR director was allegedly clocked in for a week straight and had timekeeping entries that were edited without the superintendent’s approval.
The plaintiff alleged that the HR director’s inaccurate timekeeping was a problem even though she was a salaried employee who was ineligible for overtime because she could trade in unused leave days at the end of the school year through the CCISD’s incentive allotment program or could accumulate additional paid time off.
The plaintiff then conducted a routine review of timekeeping entries. She observed that a secretary in the HR department was clocked in while out on medical leave. Afterward, she noticed that she lost her access to the timekeeping software.
The HR director informed the employees that she was planning to clean the timekeeping system, which made the plaintiff suspect that the HR director was trying to cover up the timekeeping inaccuracies and unapproved edits.
The plaintiff filed a complaint with the Complaints, Investigations and Enforcement Division of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). She alleged that she and her supervisor uncovered possibly falsified time records from the HR director and her staff, that the HR director was trying to schedule a clean-up session amidst the investigation, and that she feared retaliation because the HR director was married to a board member.
The plaintiff sued the CCISD for retaliation under the Texas Whistleblower Act. She argued that she honestly believed in good faith that the HR director and the secretary had fraudulent timekeeping practices and that she was reporting a violation of law that the TEA was properly authorized to enforce, to regulate, or to investigate.
The CCISD asked the court to dismiss the case because it was immune from lawsuits as a governmental unit. The trial court disagreed, which prompted the CCISD to appeal. It argued that the plaintiff was not a whistleblower protected by the Whistleblower Act.
No Whistleblower Act violation
In the case of Crystal City Independent School District v. Magdalena Flores, the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals at El Paso reversed the judgment of the trial court and dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
The plaintiff failed to allege a violation under the Texas Whistleblower Act and thus could not prove a waiver of the CCISD’s governmental immunity, the appellate court said.
First, the appellate court ruled that the plaintiff did not make a good-faith report of a violation of law when she complained to the TEA about the HR director’s alleged timekeeping practices, including her staying clocked-in outside her working hours and her engaging in a “cover up.”
The plaintiff had training and experience as an administrator and had years of experience in finance and payroll, including in the timekeeping software and the internal timekeeping procedures, the appellate court noted. A reasonably prudent person with similar training and experience and in similar circumstances could not have believed that the HR director’s actions violated the law, the appellate court concluded.
Lastly, the appellate court held that the plaintiff failed to present evidence that the timekeeping correction process was more than an internal procedure or policy and failed to identify a violation of law in her report.