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State Office of Risk Management v. Martinez

Supreme Court of Texas

December 15, 2017

State Office of Risk Management, Petitioner and Cross-Respondent
Edna A. Martinez, Respondent and Cross-Petitioner

          Argued October 12, 2017

         On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas

          Justice Brown delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Green, Justice Johnson, Justice Willett, Justice Guzman, Justice Lehrmann, and Justice Devine joined.

          Justice Boyd did not participate in the decision.

          Jeffrey V. Brown Justice

         This workers' compensation case requires us to consider the meaning of "issue" as Title 5 of the Labor Code uses that word. The court of appeals conflated Labor Code "issues" with appellate "issues" and consequently defined the word too narrowly. On that point, we reverse and remand to the court of appeals for further proceedings.

         In her cross-petition, Edna Martinez asserts that the factual findings a hearing officer relied on in coming to a decision actually establish the decision's opposite. She also argues that error preservation requires a plaintiff to appeal adverse findings from an ultimately favorable administrative ruling. The court of appeals disagreed with her on both. So do we. On these points, we affirm.



         The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS)[1] employed Edna Martinez as a caseworker. On Saturday, June 9, 2001, Martinez was working from home at her kitchen table in preparation for the next week's hearings when she got up, slipped in her kitchen, and fell. She broke her shoulder and hit her head in the fall.[2]

         Martinez submitted a workers' compensation claim to the State Office of Risk Management (SORM), the claim administrator for state-agency employees. SORM denied her claim on the grounds that she was not injured in the course and scope of her employment, was not engaged in the furtherance of her employer's business at the time of the injury, and did not establish a causal connection between her injuries and her employment.

         Martinez requested a benefit review conference, a mediation process by which an employee may dispute coverage denials. The Texas Workers' Compensation Commission conducted the conference.[3] At the conference, SORM argued that Martinez's injuries were not compensable because Martinez did not obtain permission to work at home-a violation of a DFPS policy "requiring advance approval for overtime." Martinez responded that caseworkers like her often worked from home without prior approval. The benefit review officer's report listed two "disputed issue[s]" that remained unresolved when the conference concluded: "Did [Martinez] sustain a compensable injury on June 9, 2001?" and "Did [Martinez] sustain disability as the result of the June 9, 2001, claimed injury, and if so, for what period(s)?"

         The parties proceeded to a contested case hearing. SORM reasserted its argument that Martinez violated agency policy by working from home without prior approval. This argument did not persuade the hearing officer, who ruled that Martinez was "furthering the business and affairs" of her employer when the fall occurred. But the officer also found that Martinez's injury "did not involve any instrumentality of the [e]mployer." As a result, the officer concluded, Martinez's injury "did not arise out of nor [occur] in the course and scope of her employment" and thus Martinez "did not sustain a compensable injury."

         Martinez then appealed to the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission's Appeals Panel. The panel reversed the hearing officer's decision and rendered a decision that Martinez "sustained a compensable injury." Citing Garcia v. Texas Indemnity Insurance Co., 209 S.W.2d 333 (Tex. 1948), the panel stated that "[Martinez's] injuries arose out of her employment because the employment had a causal connection with her injuries." The appeals panel also noted that evidence existed to support the hearing officer's finding that Martinez "had authority to work from home"-the DFPS's alleged overtime policy notwithstanding.

         SORM appealed to the district court, arguing that the panel's decision was "contrary to the law and facts." Both parties moved for summary judgment. In its motion, SORM did not reassert the ground it had argued throughout the administrative phase-that Martinez violated agency policy by working from home and that therefore her injury was not compensable. Instead, as a new ground for precluding compensability, SORM argued that Martinez violated a statute by working from home. The trial court denied Martinez's motions for summary judgment and granted SORM's motion.

         Martinez appealed the trial court's ruling that she did not suffer a compensable injury. The court of appeals held that SORM moved for summary judgment in the trial court on a ground never presented in the administrative review process-that Martinez violated a statute by working from home. __S.W.3d__, __ (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2016). The Labor Code limits the trial court's review of an appeals panel's decision to "issues decided by the appeals panel and on which judicial review is sought." Tex. Lab. Code § 410.302(b). Because SORM never presented the statutory-violation ground to the appeals panel, the court of appeals reasoned that the panel necessarily could not have "decided" that "issue." See id. Since SORM's motion for summary judgment asserted only the statutory-violation ground, the court of appeals held that the Labor Code barred the trial court from exercising jurisdiction over SORM's motion. See __S.W.3d at . Thus, the court of appeals' decision depended on characterizing SORM's statutory-violation ground as an "issue" within the Workers' Compensation Act. See id.

         Martinez also appealed the trial court's denial of her summary-judgment motion. Martinez had moved on the ground that SORM waived judicial review of the compensability of her injuries by failing to bring before the appeals panel all of the factual findings that the hearing officer made during the contested case hearing. The court of appeals noted that "using the hearing officer's findings to argue the hearing officer determined that Martinez sustained a compensable injury is contrary to the hearing officer's finding that [her injury] 'did not arise out of nor [occur] in the course and scope of her employment' and its conclusion that Martinez 'did not sustain a compensable injury.'" Id. The court of appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment for SORM, affirmed the denial of Martinez's motion for summary judgment, and remanded to the trial court. See id. at__ .

         SORM and Martinez both filed petitions for review in this Court. We take each in turn.


         SORM's Appeal

         SORM asks us to determine whether its statutory-violation ground is an issue that precluded jurisdiction as opposed to an argument related to an issue over which the trial court had proper jurisdiction. This requires us to consider the meaning of "issue" as the Labor Code uses it. "Statutory construction is a legal question we review de novo." City of Rockwall v. Hughes, 246 S.W.3d 621, 625 (Tex. 2008). "In construing statutes, we ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's intent as expressed by the language of the statute." Id. (citing State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 284 (Tex. 2006)). We must use any definitions the legislature prescribes. See Tex. Gov't Code § 311.011(b). Otherwise, we construe the statute's words according to their plain meaning. See Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. City of Sunset Valley, 146 S.W.3d 637, 642 (Tex. 2004); see also Tex. Dep't of Protective & Regulatory Servs. v. Mega Child Care, Inc., 145 S.W.3d 170, 177 (Tex. 2004) (noting that when statutory text is unambiguous, courts must adopt the interpretation that the statute's plain language supports unless doing so would lead to absurd results).

         A. The Labor Code

         We begin with the Labor Code's text. When a statute provides a definition, we must apply it. Tex. Gov't Code § 311.011(b). Although Chapter 410 uses the noun "issue" more than forty times, it never provides an explicit definition. See Tex. Lab. Code §§ 410.001-410.308. But the Labor Code does state that the trial court renders "judgment on an issue described by Section 410.301(a)." Id. § 410.304(b). However, section 410.301(a) does not use the word "issue" in its body. Instead, that section discusses "a final decision of the appeals panel regarding compensability or eligibility for or the amount of income or death benefits." Id. Because there is no explicit definition, we must assume the Legislature intended the phrase "a final decision of the appeals panel regarding ...

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