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Texas Workforce Commission v. Wichita County

Supreme Court of Texas

May 25, 2018

Texas Workforce Commission, Petitioner,
Wichita County, Texas, Respondent

          Argued February 28, 2018

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


         The narrow issue presented is whether an individual qualifies as "unemployed" under the Texas Unemployment Compensation Act (Unemployment Act or Act) while taking unpaid leave from her job under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Applying the Unemployment Act's unambiguous language, we hold that she does. However, because eligibility for unemployment benefits requires more than "unemployed" status, we express no opinion on whether an individual on FMLA leave is ultimately entitled to such benefits. We reverse the court of appeals' judgment.

         I. Background

         Julia White worked for Wichita County as an assistant emergency management coordinator. On August 16, 2011, she went on FMLA leave for severe anxiety and depression. Her accrued paid leave ran out on August 19, after which she switched to unpaid leave. The County continued paying her health insurance premiums in accordance with the FMLA. In late September, White informed the County of certain medical restrictions placed on her return to work by her treatment providers, including that she work in a position that enabled her to interact with other people on a regular basis. The County initially concluded it lacked an open position meeting those restrictions; however, an accommodating position in a different department subsequently became available, and White returned to work for the County on November 4, 2011.[1]

         In the meantime, White filed an initial claim for unemployment benefits with the Texas Workforce Commission on October 2. The County contested the claim on the ground that White remained a County employee and thus did not qualify for benefits. On October 25, the Commission issued a decision in which it determined that White was "unemployed" while "on an unpaid leave of absence" for a "medically verifiable illness" and that it could pay White benefits "if [she met] all other requirements." The decision further noted that the Commission "monitors eligibility for benefits . . . every time weekly payments are requested."

         The County appealed, asserting that White "never voluntarily left work, was never fired, was never laid off, and never left her employment." After a hearing, the Commission Appeal Tribunal affirmed the decision. The tribunal concluded that White was absent from work for medical reasons, had not been discharged for misconduct, and thus was not disqualified from receiving benefits. The tribunal also held that the County was required to reimburse the Commission for any benefits paid to White. The County appealed that decision, and the Commission affirmed.

         The County filed a petition for judicial review in district court, alleging that "the evidence presented clearly indicates that White did not separate from her employment with Wichita County and is therefore disqualified from benefits." The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the County's motion, denied the Commission's, and rendered final judgment reversing the Commission's decision that White qualified for benefits, finding that "substantial evidence does not support" the decision.

         The court of appeals affirmed, although it declined to "answer the broad questions of whether and to what extent termination of the employment relationship must serve as a condition for the receipt of unemployment benefits." 507 S.W.3d 919, 926 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2016). Instead, the court of appeals concluded that it would be "absurd" for an individual to be entitled to unemployment benefits during FMLA leave. Id. at 928. We granted the Commission's petition for review.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review summary judgments de novo. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Joachim, 315 S.W.3d 860, 862 (Tex. 2010). Summary judgment is proper when no genuine issues of material fact exist and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c). When the parties file competing summary judgment motions and the trial court grants one and denies the other, "we consider the summary judgment evidence presented by both sides, determine all questions presented, and if the trial court erred, render the judgment the trial court should have rendered." Sw. Bell Tel., L.P. v. Emmett, 459 S.W.3d 578, 583 (Tex. 2015).[2]

          III. Analysis

         This case turns on the interpretation of a statute, which is a question of law requiring us to determine and give effect to the Legislature's intent. CHCA Woman's Hosp., L.P. v. Lidji, 403 S.W.3d 228, 231 (Tex. 2013). In so doing, we focus on the statute's text. In re Office of Att'y Gen., 422 S.W.3d 623, 629 (Tex. 2013) ("Legislative intent is best revealed in legislative language."). We give statutory terms "their common, ordinary meaning unless the statute clearly indicates a different result." William Marsh Rice Univ. v. Refaey, 459 S.W.3d 590, 593 (Tex. 2015) (citation omitted); see also TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. v. Combs, 340 S.W.3d 432, 439 (Tex. 2011) (observing that statutory terms are given their ordinary meaning unless assigned a different meaning by statute or a different meaning is apparent from the statutory context). Further, we analyze statutes "as a cohesive, contextual whole, accepting that lawmaker-authors chose their words carefully, both in what they included and in what they excluded." Sommers v. Sandcastle Homes, Inc., 521 S.W.3d 749, 754 (Tex. 2017). "Where statutory text is clear, that text is determinative of legislative intent unless the plain meaning of the statute's words would produce an absurd result." Tex. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Ruttiger, 381 S.W.3d 430, 452 (Tex. 2012).

         A. Plain Language

         The Unemployment Act's purpose is "to provide compensation for workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own." Collingsworth Gen. Hosp. v. Hunnicutt, 988 S.W.2d 706, 709 (Tex. 1998). To serve that purpose, the Act grants benefits to an "eligible individual" who is "totally unemployed" or "partially unemployed" in a particular ...

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