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Hillman v. Nueces County

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

June 8, 2017

ERIC D. HILLMAN, Appellant,
v.
NUECES COUNTY, TEXAS; MARK SKURKA; AND NUECES COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Appellees.

         On appeal from the 105th District Court of Nueces County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Rodriguez and Hinojosa.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROGELIO VALDEZ Chief Justice.

         Appellant 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.

         I. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

         The 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).

         Local 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 unambiguous language.").

         II. Discussion

         By his 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.[1]687 S.W.2d 733, 734 (Tex. 1985). The State responds that we have already determined that governmental immunity is not waived under Sabine Pilot.

         In 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 735.

         In 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 ...

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