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University of Texas - MD Anderson Cancer Center v. Porter

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

November 2, 2017

THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS - MD ANDERSON CANCER CENTER, Appellant
v.
APRIL PORTER, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 295th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2016-68806

          Panel consists of Justices Jamison, Busby, and Donovan.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          John Donovan Justice.

         This appeal arises from the trial court's denial of a motion to dismiss filed by appellant The University of Texas - MD Anderson Cancer Center pursuant to Rule 91a of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. Tex.R.Civ.P. 91a. On appeal, appellant contends the trial court erred because appellee April Porter failed to invoke the trial court's jurisdiction by filing her suit within the applicable two-year statute of limitations. See Tex. Lab. Code § 21.256. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse and render a judgment of dismissal.

         Background

         Appellee filed suit against appellant for race and gender discrimination and for retaliation. Appellant filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 91a on the basis that its immunity was not waived because appellee failed to file suit within the two-year statute of limitations and the trial court therefore lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case. See Tex. Lab. Code § 21.256. Following a hearing, the trial court denied appellant's motion. Appellant then brought this interlocutory appeal. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 51.014(a)(8); see also Texas Dep't of Crim. Justice v. Simons, 140 S.W.3d 38, 349 (Tex. 2004) ("The reference to a 'plea to the jurisdiction' [in section 51.014(a)(8)] is not to a particular procedural vehicle but to the substance of the issue raised. Thus, an interlocutory appeal may be taken from a refusal to dismiss for want of jurisdiction whether the jurisdictional argument is presented by plea to the jurisdiction or some other vehicle . . ."); City of Austin v. Liberty Mut. Ins., 431 S.W.3d 817, 821 (Tex. App.-Austin 2014, no pet.).

         Standard of Review

         We review a trial court's ruling on a Rule 91a motion to dismiss de novo. Wooley v. Schaffer, 447 S.W.3d 71, 76 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. denied). Rule 91a allows a party to move to dismiss a cause of action on the ground that it has no basis in law or in fact. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 91a. To decide whether a pleading has a basis in law, we determine whether the evidence at trial would enable reasonable people to reach the verdict under review. Wooley, 447 S.W.3d at 76 (citing Tex.R.Civ.P. 91a). To decide whether a pleading has a basis in fact, we determine whether a "reasonable person could believe the facts pleaded." Tex.R.Civ.P. 91a. Our determinations of whether a cause of action has any basis in law and in fact is based on the allegations of the live petition and any attachments thereto. Id. Rule 91a states:

A motion to dismiss must identify each cause of action to which it is addressed and must state specifically the reasons the cause of action has no basis in law, no basis in fact, or both.

         We view Rule 91a motions to dismiss as analogous to pleas to the jurisdiction, because both require the court to determine whether the pleader has alleged facts demonstrating jurisdiction. Wooley, 447 S.W.3d at 75. To determine if the pleader has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction over a claim, we construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff, look to the pleader's intent, and accept as true the factual allegations in the pleadings. Id.

         Applicable Law

         The University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center is a governmental unit generally immune from tort liability. See Hampton v. Univ. of Texas-M.D. Anderson Cancer Ctr., 6 S.W.3d 627, 628 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.). The timely filing of a lawsuit under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act ("TCHRA") is a statutory prerequisite to filing suit and as such is jurisdictional when the defendant is a governmental entity. See Prairie View A & M Univ. v. Chatha, 381 S.W.3d 500, 514 (Tex. 2012) (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 311.034). This is so because the TCHRA's waiver of sovereign immunity is limited and a claimant can bring suit under the TCHRA against a governmental entity only after a claimant strictly satisfies the procedural requirements outlined in the TCHRA. Prairie View A & M Univ., 381 S.W.3d at 513-14 (quoting Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 253 S.W.3d 653, 660 (Tex. 2008), "[T]he Legislature . . . has consented to suits brought under the TCHRA, provided the procedures outlined in the statute have been met."). Otherwise, the suit is jurisdictionally barred. Id.

         The time frame within which an action for employment discrimination must be brought is set forth in section 21.256 of the Texas Labor Code. Tex. Lab. Code § 21.256. It provides that "[a] civil action may not be brought under this subchapter later than the second anniversary of the date the complaint relating to the action is filed." Id. Courts have held that compliance with this specific deadline is a statutory prerequisite to suit and therefore a jurisdictional requirement in a suit against a governmental entity. Goss v. City of Houston, 391 S.W.3d 168, 172 (Tex. App.- Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, no pet.).

         Rule 91a motions to dismiss are analogous to pleas to the jurisdiction, requiring a court to determine whether the pleader has alleged facts demonstrating jurisdiction. Wooley, 447 S.W.3d at 75 (citing See Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004)). "In that context, we construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff, look to the pleader's intent, and accept as true the factual allegations in the pleadings to determine if the pleader ...


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