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Texas Health and Human Services Commission v. Cruz

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

May 24, 2018

TEXAS HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES COMMISSION, Appellant,
v.
DAVID DE LA CRUZ, Appellee.

          On appeal from the County Court at Law No. 6 of Hidalgo County, Texas.

          Before Justices Rodriguez, Contreras, and Hinojosa

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LETICIA HINOJOSA JUSTICE

         Appellee David De La Cruz sued appellant the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), alleging employment discrimination on the basis of gender. See Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 21.051(1) (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.). HHSC appeals the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction. By one issue, HHSC argues that the trial court was deprived of subject matter jurisdiction because De La Cruz failed to timely file his discrimination complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). We affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         De La Cruz worked for HHSC from 2008 through his termination on April 23, 2014. De La Cruz filed an "Employment Discrimination Complaint Form" (Complaint Form) with the TWC 176 days later, on October 16, 2014, alleging that his termination was motivated by gender. The Complaint Form contained the following question: "If we draft your charge and send it to you at your email address, will you print, sign, and return the form that same day?" De La Cruz indicated "Yes" by checking the appropriate box. De La Cruz later filed a "Charge of Discrimination" (Charge Form) with the TWC on October 27, 2014. The Charge Form, which was filed 187 days following De La Cruz's termination, contained the same discrimination allegations as the earlier Complaint Form. However, unlike the Complaint Form, it contained a section in which De La Cruz "declare[d] under penalty of perjury" that the allegations in the Charge Form were "true and correct."

         The TWC issued a dismissal and notice of right to sue letter on December 30, 2014. De La Cruz filed the present cause of action on February 25, 2015. HHSC filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that De La Cruz's failure to file a sworn complaint within 180 days of his termination deprived the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court denied HHSC's plea to the jurisdiction.[1] This interlocutory appeal followed. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8) (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea; its purpose is "to defeat a cause of action without regard to whether the claims asserted have merit." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). The plea challenges the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction over a pleaded cause of action. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). Subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law; therefore, when the determinative facts are undisputed, we review the trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction de novo. Id. "Sovereign immunity deprives a trial court of jurisdiction over lawsuits in which the state or certain governmental units have been sued, unless the state consents to suit. As a result, immunity is properly asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction." Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 636 (Tex. 2012).

         When a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, a trial court's review "mirrors that of a traditional summary judgment motion." Id. at 635. The trial court must take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, indulging every reasonable inference and resolving any doubts in the nonmovant's favor. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228. The defendant carries the initial burden to meet the summary judgment proof standard for its assertion that the trial court lacks jurisdiction. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d at 635. If it meets its burden, the plaintiff is then required to show that a disputed material fact exists regarding the jurisdictional issue. Id. If there is a fact question regarding the jurisdictional issue, the trial court must deny the plea to the jurisdiction. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227-28. However, if the evidence is undisputed or if the plaintiff fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law. Id. at 228.

         III. TIMELINESS OF COMPLAINT

         HHSC argues that "De La Cruz's failure to file a complaint with the TWC within 180 days of his termination bars his suit on sovereign immunity grounds." De La Cruz responds that his verified Charge Form "related back to-and satisfied any deficiency with-the unverified Complaint Form."

         A. Applicable Law

         The Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) provides the framework for employment discrimination claims in Texas. Prairie View A & M Univ. v. Chatha, 381 S.W.3d 500, 502-03 (Tex. 2012); see Tex. Lab. Code Ann. ch. 21 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.). An employer violates the TCHRA if the employer "fails or refuses to hire an individual, discharges an individual, or discriminates in any other manner against an individual in connection with compensation or the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment" because of the employee's gender. Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 21.051(1). A claimant under the TCHRA must file a discrimination complaint within 180 days of the alleged unlawful employment action. Id. ยง 21.202(a). The complaint must be in ...


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