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Texas Department of Criminal Justice v. Cisneros

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

March 1, 2018

TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, Appellant
v.
NEFTALI CISNEROS, Appellee

          Submitted on November 22, 2017

         On Appeal from the 88th District Court Tyler County, Texas Trial Cause No. 23, 261

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHARLES KREGER Justice

         This interlocutory appeal arises from the trial court's denial of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's ("TDCJ") plea to the jurisdiction. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8) (West Supp. 2017) (allowing an appeal from an interlocutory order denying a plea to the jurisdiction by a governmental unit). Because timely formal notice of the claim was not provided, and TDCJ had no actual notice, the trial court erred in denying TDCJ's plea. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order denying TDCJ's plea to the jurisdiction and render judgment dismissing appellee Neftali Cisneros's claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

         Background

         Neftali Cisneros, an offender incarcerated at the Gib Lewis Unit within TDCJ, filed suit against TDCJ after he was seriously injured in an accident involving a commercial woodworking saw in the furniture factory within the unit. Cisneros alleges that as he approached the saw, it was turned off and the power was disconnected. Another offender assisting Cisneros turned on the saw while Cisneros used an air hose to clean it. Cisneros came into contact with the saw blades, severing his right hand and fingers. Cisneros sued TDCJ for negligence.

         In two issues on appeal, TDCJ first alleges that the trial court erred in denying TDCJ's plea to the jurisdiction because Cisneros did not give TDCJ timely formal notice of his claim and TDCJ did not have actual notice of Cisneros's claim before suit was filed, and second, TDCJ contends Cisneros failed to plead a cause of action for which sovereign immunity is waived under the Texas Tort Claims Act ("TTCA"). TDCJ asserts that the absence of timely notice is an incurable jurisdictional defect. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 311.034 (West 2013) ("Statutory prerequisites to a suit, including the provision of notice, are jurisdictional requirements in all suits against a governmental entity.").

         Standard of Review

         "A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea that seeks dismissal of a case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction." Harris Cty. v. Sykes, 136 S.W.3d 635, 638 (Tex. 2004); see City of Dallas v. Carbajal, 324 S.W.3d 537, 538 (Tex. 2010) (per curiam). "Subject matter jurisdiction is essential to the authority of a court to decide a case." Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 443 (Tex. 1993). "If a governmental unit has immunity from a pending claim, a trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction as to that claim." Univ. of Tex. Health Sci. Ctr. at Houston v. McQueen, 431 S.W.3d 750, 756 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.). Because the existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, we review a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction de novo. See Houston Belt & Terminal Ry. Co. v. City of Houston, 487 S.W.3d 154, 160 (Tex. 2016).

         In a plea to the jurisdiction, a defendant may challenge either the plaintiff's pleadings or the existence of jurisdictional facts. Tex. Dep't of Parks and Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). In this case, TDCJ challenged the existence of jurisdictional facts. Therefore, this court considers relevant evidence submitted by the parties when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issues raised, as the trial court is required to do. See id. at 227. If the evidence creates a fact question regarding the jurisdictional issue, then the plea to the jurisdiction must be denied, and the fact issue will be resolved by the fact finder. Id. at 227-28. But, if the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, then the court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law. Id. at 228. In ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction, a court does not consider the merits of the parties' claims. Id. at 226-28; Cty. of Cameron v. Brown, 80 S.W.3d 549, 555 (Tex. 2002).

         The standard of review for a plea to the jurisdiction based on evidence "generally mirrors that of a summary judgment under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 166a(c)." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228; see also Thornton v. Ne. Harris Cty. MUD 1, 447 S.W.3d 23, 32 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. denied). Under this standard, we take as true all evidence favoring the nonmovant and draw all reasonable inferences and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant's favor. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228. "[A]fter the state asserts and supports with evidence that the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, we simply require the plaintiff[ ], when the facts underlying the merits and subject matter jurisdiction are intertwined, to show that there is a disputed material fact regarding the jurisdictional issue." Id.; see also City of Galveston v. Murphy, 533 S.W.3d 355, 359 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2015, pet. denied) (stating that if the movant presents conclusive proof that the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, then the nonmovant must present evidence sufficient to raise a material issue of fact regarding jurisdiction, or the plea will be sustained). Thus, because the trial court ruled on TDCJ's plea to the jurisdiction, we are compelled to review such ruling from the record before the trial court at the time of its ruling.

         The Texas Tort Claim Act's Notice Requirements

         Absent a waiver, governmental entities, like TDCJ, are generally immune from suits for damages. See Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. at Dallas v. Estate of Arancibia, 324 S.W.3d 544, 546 (Tex. 2010). The Texas Tort Claims Act waives governmental immunity for negligent acts in certain circumstances. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. ยง 101.021 (West 2011). To take advantage of this waiver and overcome the shield of governmental immunity, a claimant must notify a governmental unit of the negligent act not later than six months after the incident. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code ...


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