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Chicas v. Texas Mutual Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

May 16, 2017

BERTILA CHICAS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS BENEFICIARY OF SANTIAGO CHICAS, DECEASED, Appellant
v.
TEXAS MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 157th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2015-62754

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Brown and Lloyd.

          OPINION

          SHERRY RADACK, CHIEF JUSTICE

         The trial court granted Texas Mutual Insurance Company's plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed Bertila Chicas's suit for judicial review because it was not filed within 45 days of a final decision by the Division of Workers' Compensation ["DWC"].[1] In so ruling, the trial court necessarily concluded that the 45-day time limit for filing a suit for judicial review is a jurisdictional, statutory prerequisite. Because we disagree, we reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Santiago Chicas was cleaning the rain gutters at the home of his employer's president when he fell from a ladder and died. His widow, Bertila, filed a claim for death benefits and, when Texas Mutual disputed the claim, she initiated a proceeding before the DWC to resolve the issue. She also filed a wrongful death action in Harris County Probate Court Number 2.

         After several hearings, the DWC found that Santiago was not in the course and scope of his employment at the time of his accident and denied Bertila's claim for benefits. Bertila filed a request for a review by the appeals panel, which ultimately rejected her claim and issued a notice that the hearing officer's decision was final on January 5, 2015. In accordance with Texas Labor Code Section 410.252(a), the notice provided:

If you are not satisfied with this decision and desire to have the dispute resolved in court, then you must file a lawsuit in the appropriate district court not later than the 45th day after the date on which the Division of the Workers' Compensation mailed the parties the decision of the Appeals Panel . . . .

         On February 4, 2015-within the 45-day time limit for initiating a suit for judicial review-Bertila amended her petition in the probate court to assert also her claim for judicial review of the DWC's decision. Five months later, Texas Mutual filed a plea to the jurisdiction in the probate court, which the probate court granted on October 15, 2015.[2]

         On October 27, 2015-twelve days after the probate court dismissed her judicial review claims-Bertila refiled those claims in Harris County District Court. Texas Mutual filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that the 45-day deadline for judicial review was jurisdictional. Bertila responds that the 45-day deadline is not jurisdictional, and because it is not jurisdictional, the tolling statute found in section 16.064 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code[3] applies and makes her filing in district court timely.

         The trial court granted Texas Mutual's plea to the jurisdiction, dismissed Bertila's judicial review claims, and this appeal followed.

         PROPRIETY OF DISMISSAL FOR WANT OF JURISDICTION

         Texas Mutual contends that the 45-day deadline for seeking judicial review set forth in section 410.252(a) is jurisdictional. The trial court agreed and granted Texas Mutual's plea to the jurisdiction. In her sole issue on appeal, Bertila contends "[t]he trial court erred in dismissing [her] judicial review claims because the 45-day deadline was tolled while the claims were pending in probate court." Texas Mutual responds that, because the 45-day deadline is jurisdictional, it cannot be tolled by section 16.064 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code.

         Bertila's present suit was admittedly filed more than 45 days after the DWC's decision became final; but, if the 45-day deadline is not jurisdictional and was tolled while her judicial review claims were pending in probate court, then her suit for judicial review would be timely. Thus, the issue presented to this Court is whether the 45-day deadline for filing claims for judicial review of a final DWC decision is a jurisdictional, statutory prerequisite to asserting those claims in district court.

         Standard of Review

         A plea to the jurisdiction challenges the trial court's authority to determine the subject matter of the action. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 553-54 (Tex. 2000). The existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). We do not look to the merits of the plaintiff's case, but consider only the pleadings and the evidence pertinent to the jurisdictional inquiry. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 554; City of Houston v. Northwood Mun. Util. Dist. No. 1, 73 S.W.3d 304, 308 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2001, pet. denied). In reviewing a jurisdictional ruling, we construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff, look to the pleader's intent, and accept factual allegations as true. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226. We indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant's favor. Id. at 228.

         Is section 410.252(a)'s 45-day deadline for seeking judicial review jurisdictional?

         A. Kazi and In re USAA

         Prior to 2000, cases routinely held that the deadline for seeking judicial review was both mandatory and jurisdictional because it was a statutory prerequisite to filing suit. E.g., Tex. Workers' Comp. Comm'n v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 952 S.W.2d 949, 952 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi 1997, pet. denied) (citing Morales v. Emp'rs Cas. Co., 897 S.W.2d 866, 868 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1995, writ denied)); Boone v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 968 S.W.2d 468, 470 (Tex. ...


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