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Compton v. Port Arthur Independent School District

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

July 20, 2017


          Submitted on July 5, 2016

         On Appeal from the 136th Judicial District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. D-193, 803

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Kreger and Horton, JJ.


          CHARLES KREGER, Justice

         Appellant Joann Compton appeals the trial court's orders dismissing her claims against the Port Arthur Independent School District (the District); the District's superintendent, Johnny E. Brown; and Compton's supervisor, Emily King. By four appellate issues, Compton argues that: (1) the trial court erred in granting the District's plea to the jurisdiction for failure to state a viable claim, (2) the injunction sought by Compton was not moot, (3) Brown and King were not entitled to immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act, and (4) the District Court's award of attorney's fees to Brown and King was improper. We overrule Compton's issues and affirm the trial court's orders dismissing her claims and awarding attorney's fees.

         I. Background

         In this suit, Compton complains that the Defendants violated her right to free speech. Compton began working as a Speech Language Pathologist for the District in August, 2009. In that capacity, she provided speech therapy to students at three campuses within the school district. At some point during her first year of employment with the District, Compton complained to her supervisors, King and Sharon Boutte[1], that student reports she printed from one school were being routed to a printer that was located in a public hallway at another school and that she believed such open access to the reports to be a problem with regard to federal student privacy rights. Compton alleges that after she made this complaint and attempted to have the printer set-up corrected through the District's IT department, King created a hostile work environment by giving Compton an "exhausting and rigorous schedule of meetings" in late Fall 2010, and then initiating an investigation against Compton based on "false accusations of Medicaid fraud."

         The fraud investigation concerned Compton's documentation of services delivered to students. One of Compton's duties as a speech therapist was to accurately record and report the services she provided to each student so that the District could be reimbursed by Medicaid. Due to discrepancies in Compton's documentation regarding the dates and times of services rendered to particular students, the District was never able to submit any of Compton's paperwork to the federal government for reimbursement. In October 2010, the District commenced an investigation into the documentation anomalies, and Compton was placed on administrative leave while the investigation was pending. Following the investigation, Compton requested, and was granted, a reassignment as a content mastery teacher.[2]

         After being granted her reassignment to the teaching position, Compton filed this suit seeking a declaratory judgment that her constitutional right of free speech had been violated and an injunction against future violations, as well as costs and attorney's fees. Brown, King, Boutte, and the District all responded to the suit by filing a plea to the jurisdiction with their original answer, followed by a separate Plea to the Jurisdiction, or, Alternatively, Motion to Dismiss, alleging that the trial court did not have jurisdiction over the subject matter. Specifically, Brown, King, and Boutte sought dismissal based on the professional immunity provided in section 22.0511 of the Texas Education Code, as well as under the election of remedies doctrine of the Texas Tort Claims Act ("TTCA"). See Tex. Educ. Code Ann. § 22.0511(a) (West 2012); Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.106 (West 2011). The District sought dismissal based on governmental immunity, asserting that Compton's claims did not fall within any waiver of that immunity. The District subsequently supplemented its plea to assert that Compton's claims were moot in light of her having transferred at her own request. The District then supplemented its plea a second time to expand on its claim that official and governmental immunity deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction over Compton's claims because Compton had failed to allege sufficient facts in her pleadings to demonstrate that she had any facially valid constitutional claims against the District or its employees.

         The trial court conducted a non-evidentiary hearing on the defendants' various jurisdictional challenges. Following the hearing, on April 23, 2015, the trial court entered an order dismissing Compton's claims against Brown, Boutte, and King, and dismissed those individual defendants with prejudice. The court's order did not specify the grounds upon which the dismissal was granted, although it did acknowledge the matter considered was both a Plea to the Jurisdiction and Motion to Dismiss filed pursuant to section 22.051 of the Texas Education Code and section 101.106 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code. Shortly thereafter, on April 29, 2015, the trial court entered a second order, this one granting the District's plea to the jurisdiction. In its order dismissing Compton's claims against the District, the court found that Compton "failed to state a viable claim under the free expression clause which protects public employees engaging in free speech of public concern." Compton filed a Motion for New Trial as to both orders, and Brown, Boutte, and King filed an application for attorney's fees pursuant to section 22.0511 of the Texas Education Code. The trial court held a hearing on Compton's motion and the individual defendants' application. Following the hearing, the trial court issued a letter to all counsel setting forth its findings and opinions on the issues presented and advising of its intended rulings. In its letter, dated June 24, 2015, the court elaborated on its specific findings that Compton's speech was not protected because it was made pursuant to official duties and because it was made in a private context between employer and employee; therefore, Compton had failed to plead a proper constitutional violation, rendering the granting of the District's plea to the jurisdiction appropriate. The court further found that dismissal for lack of jurisdiction was appropriate because Compton's requested and granted transfer without any allegation of subsequent retaliation either deprived the case of a justiciable issue or rendered the issue moot.[3]

         The letter also addressed the application of the individual defendants for attorney's fees, finding that all actions taken by Brown, Boutte, and King were "in fact, within the scope of and/or incident to their duties, " which entitled them to recovery of their collective attorney's fees.

         Finally, with regard to the dismissal of the individual defendants, the court noted that section 22.0511 of the Texas Educational Code provided the individuals immunity from liability, but "does not, however, provide immunity from suit, and therefore, is not a proper basis for a Plea to the Jurisdiction." The letter indicates that the order dismissing the individual defendants "should be vacated"; however, no order was ever entered vacating the dismissal order. To the contrary, on July 1, 2015, the trial court explicitly "affirm[ed] its [o]rders dismissing Plaintiff's claims against [the District and the individual defendants] with prejudice" in a written order denying Compton's motion for new trial. That order also awarded attorney's fees to Brown and King, jointly and severally. Compton filed a timely notice of appeal from the orders dismissing her claims.

         II. Analysis

         Compton's first two issues on appeal challenge the trial court's dismissal of her claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction; her third issue challenges the dismissal of Brown and King, arguing that those individuals were not entitled to professional immunity. Compton's fourth issue challenges the court's award of attorney's fees to Brown and King.

         A. Dismissal of Compton's Claims Against the District

         In filing its pleas to the jurisdiction, the District challenged the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in Compton's pleadings, asserting that the District was protected from suit by governmental immunity. The doctrine of governmental immunity from suit operates like sovereign immunity to defeat a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction over a claim against a political subdivision, like a school district, unless the state has expressly consented to suit. Harris County v. Sykes, 136 S.W.3d 635, 638 (Tex. 2004). As such, governmental immunity may be properly raised in a plea to the jurisdiction. Id. Whether a trial court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim is a question of law, which we review on appeal de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). The plaintiff bears the burden of pleading sufficient facts to affirmatively show that the trial court has jurisdiction to hear the cause. Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 446 (Tex. 1993). When, as is the case here, a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the sufficiency of the plaintiff's pleadings to establish a waiver of governmental immunity, and thereby establish jurisdiction, we must determine whether the plaintiff has pled a facially valid constitutional claim. See Klumb v. Houston Mun. Emps. Pension Sys., 458 S.W.3d 1, 13 (Tex. 2015) (citing City of El Paso v. Heinrich, 284 S.W.3d 366, 372 (Tex. 2009)); City of Houston v. Johnson, 353 S.W.3d 499, 504 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2011, pet. denied). In doing so, we construe the pleadings liberally in the plaintiff's favor and look to her intent. M ...

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