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Houston Community College Systems v. Texas Workforce Commission

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

August 20, 2019

HOUSTON COMMUNITY COLLEGE SYSTEMS, Appellant
v.
TEXAS WORKFORCE COMMISSION AND SABRINA Y. LEWIS, Appellees

          On Appeal from the 151st District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2016-52796

          Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Kelly, and Goodman.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Peter Kelly Justice.

         Houston Community College Systems (HCC) appeals the trial court's summary judgment affirming the Texas Workforce Commission's (TWC) determination that appellee Sabrina Y. Lewis was entitled to unemployment benefits. On appeal, HCC contends that a procedural error during the administrative appeals process requires reversal of the TWC determination.

         We affirm.

         Background

         Appellee Sabrina Y. Lewis began working for HCC in 1992. In September 2015, Lewis confronted a subordinate and informed her that she would be placed on a performance improvement plan. Lewis maintains that she called campus police after the subordinate began yelling and disrupting the office. HCC in turn contends that Lewis yelled and behaved inappropriately, in violation of its policies. HCC put Lewis on administrative leave, and she engaged an attorney. HCC terminated Lewis's employment in early October 2015.

         Lewis filed a claim for unemployment benefits, which was allowed by TWC, and HCC appealed. TWC sent Lewis a notice of hearing, which informed her that an appeal tribunal hearing was scheduled for January 5, 2016. Lewis wanted her previously-engaged attorney to represent her at the TWC appeal tribunal hearing, but the attorney was out of the country and would not return before January 5. Both Lewis and HCC requested that the hearing be postponed. The hearing officer denied both requests.

         On January 5, 2016, the hearing was conducted by telephone. Lewis called in, and she was sworn as a witness. After answering several undisputed background questions, she declined to participate further because her attorney had previously advised her not to discuss her employment termination. The hearing officer asked if she was going to participate and informed her that if she stayed on the phone call, he would "deem that as a participation." Lewis disconnected. The hearing officer conducted the remainder of the hearing without Lewis, accepting evidence from HCC. Based on HCC's evidence, the appeal tribunal concluded that Lewis's actions constituted misconduct and that she was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.[1]

         Lewis's attorney requested a new hearing, asserting that Lewis had good cause for her failure to appear because the attorney was out of the country. She also asserted that a new hearing would be "fair" because only HCC's "one-sided evidence" was considered by TWC in making its determination. A different hearing officer conducted a hearing, determined that the unavailability of Lewis's attorney was good cause for her nonappearance, reopened the hearing, and received evidence. After the hearing, the appeal tribunal concluded that the evidence did not prove the "alleged misconduct" and that Lewis was entitled to unemployment benefits.

         HCC initiated a further administrative appeal, and the TWC upheld the appeal tribunal's determination. Having exhausted its administrative remedies, HCC appealed to the district court for de novo review. In the trial court, HCC moved for summary judgment, arguing that the hearing examiner erred by reopening the hearing because Lewis initially made an appearance during the January telephone hearing. HCC asserted that this error required a reversal and reinstatement of the initial "no benefits" determination made after the January appeal tribunal hearing. Lewis moved for summary judgment on the ground that the TWC's final decision that she was entitled to unemployment benefits was supported by substantial evidence. The trial court granted Lewis's summary judgment motion and denied HCC's motion. HCC appealed.

         Analysis

         In its brief, HCC states four issues challenging the trial court's rulings on the motions for summary judgment. Its argument, however, centers entirely on the alleged procedural error of reopening the administrative appeal hearing.[2]

         We review de novo the trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment. Tarr v. Timberwood Park Owners Ass'n, Inc., 556 S.W.3d 274, 278 (Tex. 2018). Each party moving for traditional summary judgment bears the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); see Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co. v. Knott, 128 S.W.3d 211, 215-16 (Tex. 2003). "When opposing parties file counter motions for summary judgment and the trial court grants one motion and denies the other, the appellate court has jurisdiction to determine all questions presented in ...


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