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Point Isabel Independent School District v. Hernandez

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

June 13, 2019


          On appeal from the 444th District Court of Cameron County, Texas.

          Before Justices Rodriguez [1], Longoria, and Hinojosa



         Appellee Hilda Hernandez filed a lawsuit against appellant Point Isabel Independent School District (District) arguing that she was unlawfully terminated from her position with the school due to age discrimination and retaliation. The District filed a plea to the jurisdiction for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The trial court denied the plea to the jurisdiction. The District argues on appeal that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over Hernandez's claims under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). We reverse and render.

         I. Background

         Hernandez worked for the District as a teacher. On February 17, 2016, she was asked to resign from her position "over an alleged incident that occurred on or about February 12, 2016." The incident involved an allegation from a third-grade student which was being investigated by Child Protective Services. Hernandez had a hearing before the Board of Trustees (Board) regarding the nonrenewal of her employment contract on or about April 12, 2016. Hernandez did not testify before the Board. After the hearing, the Board determined that Hernandez's contract would not be renewed. Hernandez appealed the Board's decision to the Texas Commissioner of Education (Commissioner).

         On June 15, 2016, the Commissioner issued his decision, which included findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Tex. Educ. Code Ann. § 21.301. The Commissioner found that Hernandez "roughly grabbed a student who was under her supervision" and that Hernandez's action with the student "was unnecessary and without justification and was not done to correct any misbehavior on the part of the student." The student had "minor soft tissue injury" as a result of the incident. The Commissioner found that the nonrenewal of Hernandez's contract was based on the evidence of the incident with the student and therefore was not an unlawful non-renewal, specifically stating that "[s]ubstantial evidence supports [the District's] decision to nonrenew [Hernandez's] contract." Hernandez appealed the Commissioner's decision to the 357th District Court of Cameron County. On May 3, 2017, the district court issued a final judgment upholding the Commissioner's decision, denying Hernandez's appeal.

         On or about July 29, 2016, Hernandez filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission Division of Civil Rights (Workforce Commission) complaining of age discrimination and retaliation based on the nonrenewal of her contract. She received a notice of dismissal and right to file a civil action from the Workforce Commission on December 5, 2016, and subsequently filed the underlying lawsuit on January 27, 2017. The District filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. This appeal followed.

         II. Plea to the Jurisdiction

         The District argues that it has governmental immunity from suit unless Hernandez actually "states a claim for conduct that would violate the Texas Commission of Human Rights Act." It argues that she cannot establish the elements of her claim under the TCHRA because of collateral estoppel.

         A. 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 failed 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.

         B. Applicable ...

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