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Coe v. Sienna Financial Services, LLC

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

August 13, 2019

ASHLEY COE, Appellant
v.
SIENNA FINANCIAL SERVICES, LLC, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 127th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2017-18655

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Hassan, and Poissant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MEAGAN HASSAN JUSTICE

         After Sienna Financial Services, LLC, fired Ashley Coe, she sued the company for wrongful termination under the Sabine Pilot exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.[1] A jury returned a verdict for Coe and awarded damages; the trial court granted Sienna Financial's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and Coe timely appealed. We affirm.

         Background

         Our recitation of the factual background is constrained by the appellate record before us. We draw the following from the limited record.

         In September 2016, Coe saw an advertisement on Craigslist for "tax-preparer school" and decided to attend. After finishing the ten-week course, she applied for a job at Sienna Financial (owned by Kutina Harmon and Craig Bryant), and was hired to prepare tax returns in December 2016. Coe signed an at-will employment contract with Sienna Financial. She was assigned a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) which identified her to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and was required on every tax return she prepared. Between the time she was hired in December 2016 and the end of January 2017, business was slow and Coe mostly answered the phone; during that time, she prepared fewer than ten tax returns. According to Coe, she never received any complaints from Harmon or Bryant about her work performance during that time.

         In the early evening on February 1, 2017, a customer came to Sienna Financial, introduced himself as the dentist next-door, handed Coe a large envelope, and asked her to "get this all worked up for" him so he could return the following day with his wife to "sign everything." Coe asked him to sign a release before he left. Coe recalled she and Bryant had the following exchange after the customer left:

Craig [Bryant] came from the back and he was, like, why did you let him leave?
And I said, well, he said he wanted to come back tomorrow with his wife to sign everything and that he had to get back to work. And he just wanted to drop it off so it could be worked up.
And he's, like, no, no, no. You should have never let him walk out the door.
I was, like, okay. I was, like, but he wanted his wife here to go over everything.
And then Craig told me, he was, like, no, he didn't need his wife here.
I was, like, she has to be here to sign.
He goes, no, he can sign for his wife. And me and the other lady that was in the office kind of looked at each other and ...

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