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In re City of Beaumont

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

November 9, 2017

IN RE CITY OF BEAUMONT, TEXAS

          Submitted on August 21, 2017

         Original Proceeding 60th District Court of Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. A-192, 887

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PER CURIAM

         This original proceeding concerns the trial court's role in reviewing the decision made by an independent hearing examiner in an employment dispute between the City of Beaumont and one of its firefighters. At the firefighter's request, the trial court entered an order allowing the firefighter to change the election that he made first, which was to litigate the City's decision before an independent hearing examiner, and to re-litigate the dispute in another forum, before the City's Civil Service Commission. In this mandamus proceeding, the City argues the trial court abused its discretion and failed to follow the law by rendering an order allowing the firefighter "the opportunity to render or change his election." After carefully reviewing the evidence before the trial court when it rendered the order that is challenged in this original proceeding, we conclude that the firefighter waived any claim that he might have had to seek a change in forums. We conditionally grant the City's petition, and we direct the trial court to vacate its July 2017 order.

         Background

         James Mathews worked as a firefighter for the City of Beaumont until 2008 when he was indefinitely suspended from his duties by the Department's Fire Chief. When firefighters or police officers are involuntary suspended from their duties, they have the right to appeal such decisions to either the Civil Service Commission or to an independent third-party hearing examiner. See Tex. Loc. Gov't Code Ann. §§ 143.053(a), (b), 143.057(a) (West 2008). Shortly after Mathews was suspended in October 2008 from his duties with the City, he elected[1] to litigate the City's decision before an independent hearing examiner. In 2011, we overturned the first hearing examiner's decision after the City appealed from the trial court's ruling confirming the first hearing examiner's decision. See City of Beaumont v. Mathews, 09-10-00198-CV, 2011 WL 3847338, at *2 (Tex. App.-Beaumont Aug. 31, 2011, no pet.).[2] After we remanded that case to the district court for further proceedings, the attorney representing Mathews filed a motion asking the parties to appear before the American Arbitration Association.

         In August 2012, following an evidentiary hearing before the second hearing examiner, the second independent hearing examiner dismissed the challenge Mathews presented in his appeal of the City's decision suspending him from his duties. Shortly thereafter, Mathews sued the City in district court, challenging the validity of the second decision on several grounds. The record of the proceedings from the trial court does not show the trial court ever conducted an evidentiary hearing on the merits of the complaints Mathews raised in district court challenging the second hearing examiner's decision. In July 2017, nearly five years after Mathews appealed the second hearing examiner's decision to the district court, Mathews asked the trial court to allow him to litigate the Fire Chief's decision in a new forum before the Civil Service Commission.

         The trial court rendered the order that is at issue in this proceeding without reducing any of its findings or conclusions to writing. And, the parties did not ask the trial court to provide them with any written findings. In Mathews' motion to abate, which is the motion he filed asking the trial court to allow him to start over in another forum, Mathews explained why he thought he should be allowed to re- litigate the Fire Chief's decision before the Civil Service Commission. According to Mathews' motion, when the City suspended him in 2008, the City failed to fully inform him of his right to appeal the City's decision to the Civil Service Commission or to fully inform him of the limitations that the Legislature placed on courts to review the merits of decisions made in cases decided by independent hearing examiners.[3] In its response to Mathews' motion, the City pointed out that Mathews was asking the court to allow him to change the election that he made approximately nine years earlier, and after having litigated the matter and obtained decisions from two hearing examiners. The City claimed that "[b]y failing to ask to change his election . . . before July 28, 2017 and waiting until he lost on the merits, Mathews waived any complaint or right to switch his election." Nevertheless, the trial court apparently concluded that Mathews retained the right to change the forum in which he wanted to litigate the City's decision suspending him based on alleged defects in the notice the City provided to Mathews in 2008, which explained the reasons the City suspended Mathews and advised Mathews that he could appeal the decision under the collective bargaining agreement the City has with the firefighters.

         The City advances the same arguments in its petition for mandamus that it advanced in district court in opposing Mathews' motion to abate. In its petition, the City argues that the trial court incorrectly applied the law by allowing Mathews another opportunity to change the election that he first made in 2008 when he elected to challenge the firefighter's decision in a hearing before an independent hearing examiner. The City also argues that a regular appeal following a final decision before the Civil Service Commission would be insufficient to remedy the trial court's alleged error.

         Analysis

         Abuse of Discretion

         In his response to the City's petition, Mathews argues the trial court properly granted his motion and gave him the right to change his election so that he could proceed before the Civil Service Commission. According to Mathews, the City's notice failed to notify him that he could appeal to the Civil Service Commission, and the notice failed to sufficiently inform him that only a limited right of review existed in the courts to review decisions made by independent hearing examiners.

         We need not actually decide whether the City's notice was deficient to decide the proceeding before us. The City's argument relies on actions taken by Mathews and his attorneys in 2011, by which time Mathews was aware that he could have argued that he should have been given an opportunity to change the election he made in 2008 so that he could pursue an appeal to the Civil Service Commission. There is some evidence that Mathews was fully aware of his options to appeal even before he elected, in 2008, to appeal to an independent hearing examiner. For example, we note that Mathews responded to the Fire Chief's decision of October 8 in writing, notifying the City that he was acting in accordance with the provisions of sections "143.010, 143.053, 143.056, and 143.057" in requesting a hearing before an independent third-party hearing examiner. Section 143.057(a) provides that a firefighter may appeal to an independent third-party hearing examiner "instead of to the commission." Tex. Loc. Gov't Code Ann. § 143.057(a). Section 143.057(c) provides that a firefighter appealing "to an independent hearing examiner waives all right to appeal to a district court except as provided by Subjection [j]." Id. § 143.057(c) (West 2008). Subsection (j) provides that the district court may hear an appeal of a hearing examiner's award "only on the grounds that the arbitration panel was without jurisdiction or exceeded its jurisdiction or that the order was procured by fraud, collusion, or other unlawful means." Id. ยง 143.057(j) (West 2008). Thus, although the City's ...


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