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Jackson v. Port Arthur Independent School District

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

April 20, 2017

CYNTHIA JACKSON, Appellant
v.
PORT ARTHUR INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT AND JOHNNY E. BROWN, Appellees

          Submitted on April 25, 2016

         On Appeal from the 172nd District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. E-194, 159

          Before Kreger, Horton, and Johnson, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HOLLIS HORTON Justice

         Cynthia Jackson appeals the trial court's order granting a plea to the jurisdiction filed by the Port Arthur Independent School District (the District), and a plea to the jurisdiction filed by the District's superintendent, Johnny E. Brown. In one appellate issue, Jackson argues the trial court erred in granting the pleas because a plea to the jurisdiction is not the proper procedural vehicle to challenge whether Jackson's pleadings contain sufficient facts to allege facially valid claims. Jackson argues that her pleadings are sufficient to allege facially valid constitutional claims, and that the trial court improperly declined to exercise jurisdiction over her claims that Brown and the District violated her constitutional rights. We conclude the trial court properly granted the defendants' pleas, and we affirm the trial court's ruling dismissing Jackson's claims for lack of jurisdiction.

         Background

         In her suit, Jackson complains that Brown and the District violated her rights to free speech and interfered with her property rights by reassigning her from her position as the principal at Booker T. Washington Elementary School to a job as an assistant principal at Memorial High School. When Brown reassigned Jackson to Memorial High School, she was working for the District based on a contract through which the District agreed to employ Jackson for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years. In the first portion of the periods covered by the contract, Brown assigned Jackson to Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

         In March 2013, Brown reassigned Jackson to Memorial High School, and he reclassified her to be the high school's assistant principal. Shortly after Brown moved Jackson to her new position, Jackson sued Brown and the District, and she asked that the court reinstate her to her former position.

         Brown and the District responded to the suit by filing pleas to the jurisdiction. Approximately two years after they first appeared in the suit, Brown and the District supplemented their pleas. The supplemental pleadings that Brown and the District filed provided the trial court with more detail regarding their claims that their rights to official and governmental immunity prevented the court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over Jackson's claims. In their supplemental pleadings, Brown and the District argued that Jackson had failed to allege sufficient facts in her pleadings to demonstrate that she had any facially valid constitutional claims against them. Additionally, Brown and the District argued that Jackson's allegations about being reassigned were insufficient to demonstrate that the trial court possessed jurisdiction over Jackson's claims given Jackson's contract with the District, which allowed Jackson to be transferred to other jobs in the District.

         In Jackson's First Amended Original Petition, her live pleading for the purposes of the hearing the trial court conducted on the defendants' pleas, Jackson alleges that Brown demoted her based on criticisms that she made known to Brown and other administrators in the District about the matters at the elementary school involving issues of staffing, scheduling, learning plans, and services that were available to students enrolled in Booker T. Washington Elementary School.[1]Jackson's amended petition also asserts several constitutional claims against Brown and the District, but all of her claims are based on her transfer to a new position at Memorial High School. For example, Jackson claims that Brown and the District retaliated against her for speaking out about matters involving the elementary school where she worked in violation of her rights to free speech, that Brown and the District deprived her of a property interest in her position at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in violation of article I, section 19 of the Texas Constitution, and that Brown and the District failed to provide Jackson with any procedural or substantive rights to due process before deciding to demote her. Jackson alleged that receiving a demotion for speaking out about issues at the school where she was the principal violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and that Brown's and the District's conduct was actionable under title 42, section 1983 of the United States Code. See 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 (LEXIS through Pub. L. No. 115-18) (providing that "[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, or any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress").

         The trial court conducted two hearings on the defendants' pleas to the jurisdiction. Following the second hearing, the trial court granted the pleas. In its order, the trial court found that Jackson did not have a constitutionally protected property right in her contract to be the principal of Booker T. Washington Elementary School, and that Jackson had "failed to plead a facially valid constitutional claim under the Texas Constitution or the Federal Constitution." Jackson filed a timely notice of appeal from the order dismissing her claims.

         Standard of Review

         By filing a plea to the jurisdiction, the District and Brown challenged the trial court's power to exercise subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in Jackson's pleadings. A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea, and it is typically used in an effort to defeat a plaintiff's cause of action without regard to whether the plaintiff's claims have any merit. See Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). Whether a trial court possesses subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim is a question of law that is reviewed on appeal using a de novo standard. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004).

         When, as is the case here, a plea to the jurisdiction presents a challenge to the sufficiency of the plaintiff's pleadings, we are required to determine whether the plaintiff's pleadings allege "facts that affirmatively demonstrate the court's jurisdiction to hear the cause." Id. To do so, we construe the pleadings in the plaintiff's favor and look to the plaintiff's intent. Id. If the court determines that the plaintiff's pleadings are deficient but also determines that the deficiency in the pleadings can be cured, the plaintiff "deserves 'a reasonable opportunity to amend' unless the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of jurisdiction." Tex. A & M Univ. Sys. v. Koseoglu,233 S.W.3d 835, 839 (Tex. 2007) (quoting Harris Cty. v. Sykes,136 S.W.3d 635, 639 (Tex. 2004)); Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226-27; Cty. of Cameron v. Brown,80 S.W.3d 549, 555 ...


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