Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg
ERIC D. HILLMAN, Appellant,
NUECES COUNTY, TEXAS; MARK SKURKA; AND NUECES COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Appellees.
appeal from the 105th District Court of Nueces County, Texas.
Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Rodriguez and Hinojosa.
ROGELIO VALDEZ Chief Justice.
Eric D. Hillman appeals from the trial court's grant of a
plea to the jurisdiction filed by appellees Nueces County,
Mark Skurka, and Nueces County District Attorney's Office
(collectively the County). By one issue, Hillman contends
that immunity from his suit for wrongful termination has been
waived by the County. We affirm.
Standard of Review and Applicable Law
purpose of a plea to the jurisdiction is to "defeat a
cause of action without regard to whether the claims asserted
have merit." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue,
34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). A challenge to the trial
court's 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
will, when necessary, consider relevant evidence submitted by
the parties to resolve the jurisdictional dispute.
Id. at 227 (citing Bland Indep. Sch.
Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 555). However, we will consider only
the evidence relevant to the jurisdictional question.
Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 555.
"[I]f the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to
raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issues, the trial
court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of
law." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228.
A trial court's review of a plea to the jurisdiction
challenging the existence of jurisdictional facts mirrors
that of a traditional motion for summary judgment. The
governmental unit is required to meet the summary judgment
standard of proof for its assertion that the trial court
lacks jurisdiction. Once the governmental unit meets its
burden, the plaintiff is then required to show that there is
a disputed material fact regarding the jurisdictional issue.
If the evidence creates a fact question regarding
jurisdiction, the trial court must deny the plea to the
jurisdiction and leave its resolution to the fact finder.
But, if the evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact
question on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court rules
on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law.
Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 314
S.W.3d 548, 553‒554 (Tex. App.- Corpus Christi 2010),
reversed in part on other grounds, 372 S.W.3d 629,
645 (Tex. 2012) (internal citations omitted).
governmental entities have absolute immunity from suit unless
immunity has been expressly waived by the Legislature.
Kirby Lake Dev., Ltd. v. Clear Lake City Water
Auth., 320 S.W.3d 829, 836 (Tex. 2010); Tex.
Parks & Wildlife Dep't v. Sawyer Trust, 354
S.W.3d 384, 388 (Tex. 2011). Immunity deprives a trial court
of subject matter jurisdiction. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d
at 224. Governmental immunity from suit may be waived only by
"clear and unambiguous" statutory language.
Id. at 332-33; see Tex. Gov't Code Ann.
§ 311.034 (West, Westlaw through 2015 R.S.) ("In
order to preserve the legislature's interest in managing
state fiscal matters through the appropriations process, a
statute shall not be construed as a waiver of sovereign
immunity unless the waiver is effected by clear and
sole issue, citing Sabine Pilot v. Hauck, Hillman
first argues that sovereign immunity has been waived and that
the trial court erred in granting the plea to the
jurisdiction as to his claim for wrongful termination for
refusal to perform an illegal act.687 S.W.2d 733, 734 (Tex.
1985). The State responds that we have already determined
that governmental immunity is not waived under Sabine
Sabine Pilot, a non-governmental employer asked an
employee to commit an illegal act. 687 S.W.2d at 734. The
employee refused, and the employer fired the employee.
Id. The employee sued for wrongful termination.
Id. The employer relied on the employment-at-will
doctrine, which applies in Texas and allows an employer to
fire an employee for any reason or no reason. Id.
However, the Texas Supreme Court carved out an exception to
the employment-at-will doctrine establishing that an employee
has a viable cause of action against the employer in Texas if
the employee is discharged for the sole reason that the
employee refused to perform an illegal act. Id. at
Ochoa v. City of Palmview, a government employee
sued his employer arguing that immunity had been waived under
Sabine Pilot. Ochoa, No. 13-14-00021-CV,
2014 WL 7404594, at *7 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi June 19,
2014, no pet.) (mem. op.). This Court rejected that argument.
See id. (citing Nueces County. v. Thornton,
No. 13-03- 011-CV, 2004 WL 396608, at *5 (Tex. App.-Corpus
Christi Mar. 4, 2004, no pet.) (mem. op.)). We explained that
[t]he general rule in Texas is that absent a specific
agreement to the contrary, employment may be terminated by
either the employer or the employee at will, for good cause,
bad cause, or no cause at all. In Sabine Pilot Service,
Inc. v. Hauck, the Texas Supreme Court recognized a
"narrow exception" to the employment-at-will
doctrine covering "only the discharge of an employee for
the sole reason that the employee refused to perform an
illegal act." However, Sabine Pilot involved
only non-governmental employees, and Texas courts have
declined to extend the Sabine Pilot exception to
governmental employees. Instead, courts ...