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Hill v. Texas Workforce Commission

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

January 4, 2018

KEITH M. HILL, Appellant

         On Appeal from the 10th District Court Galveston County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 16-CV-0418

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost and Justices Boyce and Jewell.



         In this unemployment-benefits dispute, the trial court dismissed on jurisdictional grounds a lawsuit filed by appellant Keith M. Hill. A former Clear Creek Independent School District ("CCISD") employee, Hill challenged the Texas Workforce Commission's denial of unemployment benefits. Hill asserts on appeal the trial court erred in granting the plea to the jurisdiction filed by the Texas Workforce Commission ("TWC") and CCISD. In two issues, Hill contends that (1) TWC's alleged delay in mailing its final decision denying him benefits extended the time for him to seek judicial review, rendering his petition timely filed or, alternatively, (2) the filing date of his petition "is subject to equitable tolling" because of the "inconsistent" positions taken by TWC.

         Because we conclude that Hill's petition was not timely filed and equitable tolling did not confer subject matter jurisdiction on the trial court, we affirm the trial court's dismissal order.


         Hill filed a claim for unemployment benefits with TWC after he resigned from CCISD.[1] After investigating his claim, TWC determined that Hill was disqualified from receiving benefits. TWC affirmed this decision through its administrative process. TWC mailed its final decision to Hill on March 7, 2016. TWC stamped the front of the decision with the mailing date and included a document detailing the relevant deadlines applicable to judicial review, should Hill desire to challenge the decision. Hill received the final decision on March 11, 2016.

         Hill filed suit seeking judicial review of TWC's final decision on April 8, 2016. Hill served TWC via certified mail. Although the citation arrived at TWC, TWC personnel failed to route the petition to the proper TWC representatives for defense of the suit. Thus, neither TWC nor CCISD filed a responsive pleading to Hill's suit, and Hill moved for default judgment against them, which the trial court granted. When TWC discovered the default judgment, it filed a motion for new trial in October 2016.[2] In October 2016, the trial court vacated the default judgment and granted a new trial.[3]

         TWC filed a plea to the jurisdiction. As grounds for its plea, TWC argued that Hill failed to timely file his petition by the statutory filing deadline of April 4, 2016, and thus the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction due to sovereign immunity.[4] Hill filed a response, asserting that TWC's "entire system of receiving and sending mail" had been called into question based on TWC's motion for new trial, in which TWC asserted that its staff failed to route Hill's petition to the proper agency personnel. Hill also urged that TWC was estopped from challenging his petition's timeliness because TWC had "consented to suit by not responding in a timely manner and allowing the suit to default."

         TWC replied to Hill's response, providing an affidavit from TWC program supervisor Mary Hernandez. Hernandez averred that she directly supervises and monitors the staff who prepare TWC decisions for mailing. She stated that "it is the normal procedure for the mailroom to mail the decision on the same day as the date stamped on the decision." Hernandez declared that, if a decision is not mailed on that date, the mailroom notifies her of any mailing delays, and that she had not been notified of any mail delays for decisions issued in March 2016.

         The trial court heard the plea to the jurisdiction by submission in December 2016. The trial court granted the plea and dismissed Hill's case for want of jurisdiction. This appeal timely followed.

         Standard of Review and Governing Law

         When jurisdictional facts are not in dispute, we review de novo the legal question whether the trial court has subject matter jurisdiction. Tex. Workforce Comm'n v. Smith, No. 14-11-00003-CV, 2011 WL 4507077, at *1 (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.] Sept. 29, 2011, no pet.) (mem. op.) (citing Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004)). A district court lacks jurisdiction to review a TWC decision when the plaintiff fails to file a petition during the legislatively mandated timeframe. See id. at *2 (citing Heart Hosp. IV, L.P. v. King, 116 S.W.3d 831, 835 (Tex. App.-Austin 2003, pet. denied) and Kelley v. Tex. Workforce Comm'n, No. 01-05-001109-CV, 2006 WL 3804444, at *2 (Tex. App.- Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 28, 2006, pet. denied) (mem. op.)); see also Tex. Gov't Code § 311.034 ("Statutory prerequisites to suit, including the provision of notice, are jurisdictional requirements in all suits against a governmental entity."); Prairie View A & M Univ. v. Chatha, 381 S.W.3d 500, 511 (Tex. 2012) (same).

         A party seeking judicial review of a TWC decision must file suit not later than fourteen days after the TWC decision becomes final. Tex. Lab. Code § 212.201(a). Absent exceptions not applicable in this case, a TWC decision becomes final fourteen days after the date the decision is mailed to the claimant. Tex. Lab. Code § 212.153 (stating that, unless TWC reopens the appeal or a party to the appeal files a written motion for rehearing, a ...

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