Derek Howard, an Austin labor attorney who specialized in wrongful termination cases and once helped a track coach sue the University of Texas all while supporting his wife Donna’s rise in Texas politics, died Saturday. He was 72.
Howard suffered a cardiac arrest in May 2019 that caused a brain injury and left him with severe mobility and cognitive issues. It was a grueling road of rehabilitation, but Howard was finally able to go home in December.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told the American-Statesman in May that the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for Derek to get outpatient treatment. Donna Howard’s chief of staff confirmed Derek’s passing.
“It’s with heavy hearts that Rep. Donna Howard and her family confirm the passing of their beloved husband, father and grandfather Derek Howard this morning,” a statement from Howard’s office said. “At this time, they respectfully ask for privacy and space to be with each other.
“Rep. Howard and her family appreciate the love and support so many have expressed, and information on any memorials and life celebration will be forthcoming at a later date.”
Labor law is challenging for plaintiffs’ attorneys. But Derek Howard was a willing protagonist. In most of the cases Howard took on, he represented people going up against big corporations, monoliths that usually just wanted people to go away.
Like the time in 2005 when Howard represented three Walgreens employees. The drugstore chain terminated workers after inappropriate photographs were copied from the photo lab and got loose. Walgreens labeled the workers as “instigators” even though Howard warned the company after a worker quit over the practice and contacted him.
Also that year, Howard represented four Williamson County sheriff deputies and a former deputy who claimed their terminations violated the Texas Whistleblower Act.
In 2006, Howard represented an Austin police officer who was a Christian and refused to use a Taser stun gun against an elderly man. Police claimed the officer was unfit for duty because of his religious beliefs and was terminated for performance, an allegation Howard railed against.
Most of these types of cases were settled with little fanfare. One case in particular drew intense local and even casual national interest, though.
In January 2013, track coach Bev Kearney, who led the UT women’s track team to six national championships, announced she was resigning after being place on paid leave for two months. UT officials said they put Kearney on leave after discovering she had a “consensual intimate relationship” with an athlete in 2002.
Howard told the Statesman that Kearney was subject to a “double standard and has received far harsher punishment than that being given to her male counter parts who have engaged in similar conduct.”
“It is a shame,” Howard said in 2013, “that this remarkably talented female African-American coach, who has devoted her life to helping others, is being bullied and scapegoated by the University of Texas.”
The wrongful termination case dragged on for years and eventually reached the Texas Supreme Court. In August 2018, UT agreed to pay $600,000 to settle with Kearney, although the case had been handed off to another lead attorney by then.
While Howard was busy fighting in court, his wife Donna became a pivotal player in politics. The two were married in 1980 but have been together since 1976.
Donna Howard was elected to the Texas House in 2006. A former critical care nurse, Howard is a longtime member of the House Appropriations and Higher Education committees and is a leader on school finance and women’s health issues.