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Williams v. Office of Attorney General

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

August 8, 2019

LA JUANA WILLIAMS, Appellant
v.
OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Appellee

          Submitted on June 24, 2019

          On Appeal from the 136th District Court Jefferson County, Texas, Trial Cause No. D-195, 693

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LEANNE JOHNSON JUSTICE.

         In this Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) claim, Appellant La Juana Williams, appeals the trial court's order granting a plea to the jurisdiction filed by her employer, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) (Defendant or Appellee). See generally Tex. Lab. Code Ann. §§ 21.051-.556 (West 2015 & Supp. 2018). In Appellant's Brief, Williams presents two stated issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in concluding that pretext is a prima facie element of her TCHRA claim, and (2) whether the trial court erred in concluding that Williams failed to establish a prima facie claim of retaliation. In her Reply Brief, Williams subdivides her issues into three parts as follows:

1. Whether the trial court erred by concluding that Williams did not meet a prima facie case of retaliation for the termination of her employment.
2. Whether the OAG met its burden of production for its legitimate[] reasons for terminating her employment.
3. Whether Williams presented evidence of pretext.

         We consider the subparts as phrased in both her original appellate brief and in her reply to be part of the same issue-whether the trial court erred in granting the plea to the jurisdiction. We affirm.

         Background

         Williams alleged in her Original Petition that she is an African American female who began working for the OAG Child Support Division in 1990. In her deposition, she testified that she started her work with the child support division at the Nederland office, transferred to an office in Austin, then transferred to the Beaumont Office where she worked until 2005. In 2005, she transferred to the Houston office, and she worked in the Houston office until January 2008, when she requested a transfer back to the Nederland or Beaumont office. Shortly before she asked for the transfer back to the Nederland or Beaumont office, her husband had died, and another family member was ill. The OAG transferred her back to the Nederland office in 2008.

         Williams alleged in her Petition that she began reporting to Winton "Jay" Webster, a Caucasian male, in March 2008. Williams alleged that she personally observed Webster "mistreat minority employees and treat Caucasian employees more favorably regarding the terms of their employment." Williams claimed that Webster would at times refuse to speak to her and would "cut her off, yell at [her], roll his eyes at [her], or hum out loud to drown [her] out when [she] would speak in meetings." Williams's Petition also alleges that Webster ignored for months without reason her request to relocate her office space to a more private location. According to Williams's Petition, when Williams asked Webster if he was making employment decisions based on her race, he would not deny the accusation but respond that he was the manager and if she did not like the decisions he made she could find another job. The Petition alleges that Williams made a report to Regional Administrator Charles "Chip" Arnold "around Thanksgiving 2011" that Webster had issues with her based on race and had taken away her job duties, taken away her job title as a Review Officer, and had made her a Customer Inquiry Representative ("CIR"). According to the Petition, Webster retaliated against Williams after she made the report to Arnold, and Webster assigned her to the duties and title of Child Support Officer IV-Established Caseload without providing her training for the position.

         Williams alleged that her employment was terminated on August 1, 2012, and that her employer subjected her to "unfavorable, disparate treatment, a hostile environment and harassment based on her race (African American) and her gender (female)." Williams also alleged that her employer "discriminate[d] and retaliated against Plaintiff in violation of the [TCHRA], . . . based on her race (African American) and her gender (female) and for engaging in protected activity." Williams sought an unspecified amount in damages, interest, and attorney's fees.

         The OAG filed an Answer, Affirmative Defenses, and Requests for Disclosure. The OAG generally denied the allegations and asserted several affirmative defenses, including governmental immunity, [1] and the OAG alleged that the decisions challenged by Plaintiff were made for legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons.

         After engaging in written discovery and obtaining Williams's deposition, the OAG filed Defendant's Plea to the Jurisdiction and Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Plea"). The OAG alleged in its Plea that Williams failed to meet the prima facie requirements of her TCHRA retaliation claim, and that Williams failed to establish a causal connection. The OAG alleged that it terminated Williams because she (1) failed to report alleged child abuse to Child Protective Services; (2) invoked the authority of the OAG when instructing a parent to return his child to a potentially dangerous situation; and (3) scheduled an in-person, in-the-office conference on a child support case that had been flagged for family violence contrary to established policy.

         Williams filed a response arguing that the OAG's stated reasons for her dismissal were "false, fabricated, and pretextual." The trial court held a hearing and heard arguments from the parties.[2] According to the Appellee's brief, quoting the trial court's letter ruling, "[a]t the beginning of the hearing [on the OAG's dispositive motions], [Williams] voluntarily abandoned her other discrimination claims and elected to proceed only on her retaliation claim under the TCHRA." Williams's briefing on appeal complains solely about her retaliation claim.

         In an October 24, 2017 letter ruling, the trial court explained it was going to enter an order granting the plea to the jurisdiction because the plaintiff had failed to establish "a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse employment action."[3] The trial court entered an order granting the Plea and Motion for Summary Judgment and it dismissed the case. Williams timely filed a notice of appeal.

         OAG's Plea to the Jurisdiction

         The OAG alleged in its Plea that Williams's termination stemmed from three instances:

[i]n July 2012, the OAG determined that Williams had (1) failed to report alleged child abuse to Child Protective Services; (2) invoked the authority of the OAG when instructing a parent to return their child to a potentially dangerous situation; and (3) scheduled an in-person, in-the-office conference on a child support case that had been flagged for family violence. Because this conduct violated OAG policy and put people at risk, the OAG terminated her employment.

         In support of its Plea, the OAG produced affidavits from William Boyd, Webster, Arnold, and Myra Sines; emails; the termination letter; a request for termination memo; a transcript of the oral deposition of Williams; documents from the OAG's office including the Family Violence Policy (signed by Williams); Williams's receipt of the OAG policy for Reporting Child Abuse; and excerpts from Williams's responses to Interrogatories. Certain documents were also attached to and described in the affidavits, including a transcription of the recorded telephone call wherein Williams took a call from a custodial parent about alleged abuse, and a complaint from a parent.

         In Williams's deposition, a transcript of which was attached to the Plea, she testified that, from the first day she started work in the Nederland office, Webster was hostile to her. Williams described one instance when she went into Webster's office to ask about a medical leave issue, he referred her to Boyd (her direct manager), and Webster walked out. On another occasion, she testified in her deposition that Webster called Williams into a conference room and began writing her up for failing to work on a case. According to Williams, when she showed him documents that showed she had worked on the case, Webster "snatched the paper" out of her hands and said, "Well, then I guess I need to talk to my attorney."

         Williams also testified in her deposition that Webster was initially unresponsive to her request for a quiet office. According to Williams, in a staff meeting, Webster said there was "too much visiting going on in another coworker's office and he wanted it stopped[.]" Then he said, "So, no, . . . you can't move." Williams testified she sent him an email voicing her unhappiness about the way he handled the situation. Webster responded by saying, "No, your request [to move offices] is not wrong; and I apologize if you feel slighted about me bringing it up in a staff meeting." He also indicated that the request to move offices was "denied at this time, but it may happen in the near future." Later, Williams was allowed to move to another office.

         Williams testified that on other occasions Webster would not acknowledge her "good morning" greetings, cut her off while she was speaking and roll his eyes or hum or whistle when she asked questions during monthly staff meetings, that he was unresponsive to her request for more training once she was moved to a new position, and that he would yell at her.

         Williams testified that she eventually confronted Webster and asked him why he treated her the way he did and whether it had anything to do with her race. According to Williams, Webster responded by saying, "I am the manager here, I make all decisions in this office, whether you feel they are good or bad. If you don't like it, you can find you another job."

         Williams claims that in 2011 she told Regional Administrator Chip Arnold when he was visiting the Nederland office that she was about to file a racial discrimination suit against Webster, that she was dissatisfied with her CIR work, and that she could be better utilized in another section. Although Williams testified that she felt the CIR responsibilities she had been given were "another personal attack" by Webster, she also admitted that she volunteered to take the CIR responsibilities when a co-worker was out on medical leave. Williams testified that Arnold apologized and that she was moved to work in establishment as she had requested.

         According to Williams, after her complaint to Arnold, Webster gave her more "cold shoulder" treatment, exhibited hostile body language, and used a forceful tone when speaking to her. Williams testified in her deposition that Webster never physically touched her, never called her any names, and never physically threatened her.

         In the affidavit of William Boyd attached to the OAG's Plea, Boyd averred, in relevant part:

[] In July 2004, I began working for the Child Support Division of the [OAG]. I worked in the Nederland [] Office from September 2004 to December 2015. Within that time, from May 2005 to December 2015, I was the Office Supervisor. During 2011 and 2012, I also periodically assumed some responsibilities that were normally assigned to the Office Manager, Veronica Burns, after she got into a terrible car accident. During these time periods, I acted as both office supervisor and office manager. During my time as Office Supervisor, our Nederland [] Office staff meetings were held on a monthly basis.
[] At some point during Lajuana Williams's employment, another employee, Lori Williams had a medical situation. At the time of this medical situation, Lori Williams had been working as the customer service inquiry representative. When Lori Williams went out on medical leave, Lajuana Williams became our customer service inquiry representative.
[] In late 2011, a long-time establishment worker was preparing to retire. The decision was made for Lajuana Williams to become an establishment worker. To give her an opportunity to learn the responsibilities for the new position, she was assigned to shadow an existing establishment worker.
[] At some point after Lajuana Williams became an establishment worker, she came to me and requested formal training. I told her that I would reach out to the regional trainer for Region 5, which includes the Nederland office. I contacted the regional trainer for Region 5 and learned that Region 5 did not have any establishment trainings scheduled, but that they would coordinate with the Houston region to see if the Houston region had any establishment training available. I also know that Mona Gabriel, the office manager at the time, printed the establishment training manual, hole-punched it, and gave it to Lajuana Williams to help her learn the job.
[] In July 2012, an incident arose related to Lajuana Williams's failure to report a child abuse call to Child Protective Services. The Regional Customer Service Center ("RCSC") practice at that time was for RCSC staff to forward calls reporting child abuse from the RCSC to the local field office. After the RCSC staffer forwarded the call to the field office, the staffer would send an email notification to their manager. The next day, the manager would check the case file in the Texas Child Support Enforcement System ("TXCSES") to ensure that the appropriate documentation had been completed by the field office. If the field office followed policy, there would be a note in the TXCSES case file indicating that the alleged child abuse had been reported to Child Protective Services. If that documentation was missing from the case file, the call center would follow-up with the field office to ensure that the report to DFPS had been completed and documented.
[] On July 19, 2012, pursuant to the practice described above, the management email account for the Nederland [] Office received the email from Heather Murphy, RCSC Supervisor for Region 5. Heather Murphy's email included an email from Amanda Head, describing a report of child abuse the RCSC office for Region 5 had received. A true and ...

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