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Texas Health and Human Services Commission v. Doe

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

April 20, 2017

Texas Health and Human Services Commission; Department of State Health Services;HHSC Executive Commissioner Charles Smith; DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt, M.D.; and DSHS Hearing Officer Elaine Snow, Appellants
v.
Jane Doe, Appellee

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 53RD JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-GN-16-002113, HONORABLE JAMES E. MORGAN, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Field and Bourland

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Scott K. Field, Justice.

         After the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) issued a decision denying Jane Doe's request for a certified Texas birth certificate, Doe filed a petition in the trial court seeking judicial review of the agency's order. The appellants (collectively, the HHSC Defendants) filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. The HHSC Defendants appeal this interlocutory order. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 51.014(a)(8). In three appellate issues, the HHSC Defendants contend that the trial court erred in denying the plea because the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA) does not waive sovereign immunity for Doe's claims, the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) does not provide for judicial review of DSHS's decision, and Doe did not plead valid ultra vires claims. Because we conclude that neither the UDJA nor the APA conferred jurisdiction over Doe's claims and that Doe failed to plead valid ultra vires claims, we will reverse the trial court's order denying the HHSC Defendants' plea to the jurisdiction and render judgment granting the plea and dismissing Doe's suit.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed on appeal. In 1994, the state registrar received a Texas Certificate of Birth for Doe. The certificate showed Rosalinda Esquivel as the midwife who delivered Doe. In 1995, Esquivel pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawfully procuring evidence of citizenship. See 18 U.S.C. § 1425 ("Procurement of citizenship or naturalization unlawfully"). Esquivel executed a sworn affidavit in which she admitted to unlawfully obtaining Texas birth certificates for about 500 individuals, including Doe. This affidavit included Doe's name, date of birth, alleged place of birth, and the names of Doe's parents. In the affidavit, Esquivel admitted that she did not attend Doe's birth. A Mexican birth certificate for Doe was also found. This Mexican birth certificate showed the same date of birth as the Texas certificate but stated that Doe was born in Mexico. Because Esquivel's affidavit and the Mexican birth certificate contradicted the information on Doe's Texas birth certificate, the state registrar placed an addendum on Doe's Texas birth certificate. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 191.033(a) ("The state registrar may attach to the original record an addendum that sets out any information received by the state registrar that may contradict the information in a birth . . . record required to be maintained in the vital statistics unit.").

         In 2014, Doe applied for a certified copy of her birth certificate. Pursuant to section 191.057 of the Health and Safety Code, the state registrar refused to issue the birth certificate because of the addendum on Doe's record. Section 191.057 provides,

If the vital statistics unit or any local registration official receives an application for a certified copy of a birth . . . record to which an addendum has been attached under Section 191.033, the application shall be sent immediately to the state registrar. After examining the application, the original record, and the addendum, the state registrar may refuse to issue a certified copy of the record or part of the record to the applicant.

Id. § 191.057(b). The state registrar informed Doe of the refusal and afforded Doe the opportunity for a hearing. See id. § 191.057(c).

         Doe requested a hearing, which was held before DSHS hearing examiner Elaine Snow. Following the hearing, Snow signed an order concluding that the addendum on Doe's record should not be removed and that the birth certificate should not be issued because the information that led to the addendum had not been rebutted. The order also stated that it was a "final decision" of DSHS, and it included findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         Doe filed a petition in the trial court seeking a "De Novo Appeal" of DSHS's decision. In her petition, Doe sought declaratory relief under the UDJA. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 37.004(a). Specifically, Doe asked the court to interpret 25 Texas Administrative Code section 181.21(b), which provides that "[t]he criteria for refusal to issue a certified copy of a record is based on information the State Registrar receives that contradicts the information shown in the record" and lists several examples of such information. See 25 Tex. Admin. Code § 181.21(b). Doe alleged that 25 Texas Administrative Code section 181.21(b) is unconstitutional as applied to her. Doe further complained that 25 Texas Administrative Code section 181.21(b) fails "to identify a legal standard and burden of proof for determining the 'false' nature of any contradictory information received by the State." Doe also sought a temporary injunction enjoining the HHSC Defendants from "continuing to place an attachment to her birth certificate" and "depriving her of obtaining a certified copy of her birth certificate" until further order of the court and asked that the court later issue a permanent injunction.

         The HHSC Defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied, and this appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "Sovereign immunity from suit defeats a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction and thus is properly asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction." Texas Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004). "We construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the [plaintiff] and look to the pleader['s] intent." Id. at 226. "If the pleadings do not contain sufficient facts to affirmatively demonstrate the trial court[']s jurisdiction but do not affirmatively demonstrate incurable defects in jurisdiction, the issue is one of pleading sufficiency and the [plaintiff] should be afforded the opportunity to amend." Id. at 226-27. However, "[i]f the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of jurisdiction, then a plea to the jurisdiction may be granted without allowing the [plaintiff] an opportunity to amend." Id. at 227. Because subject-matter ...


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