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Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District v. Esparza

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

August 22, 2019

EDINBURG CONSOLIDATED INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellant,
v.
CRISTINA L. ESPARZA, Appellee.

          On appeal from the County Court at Law No. 4 of Hidalgo County, Texas.

          Before Justices Benavides, Hinojosa, and Perkes

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GINA M. BENAVIDES, Justice

         Appellant Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District (ECISD) challenges the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction on appellee Cristina Esparza's employment discrimination suit. See Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 21.051. By two issues, ECISD argues that the trial court erred by denying its plea to the jurisdiction because Esparza's administrative claim was filed too late to permit the trial court to exercise jurisdiction over her claims, and that ECISD is immune from Esparza's claim for exemplary damages, which Esparza concedes on appeal.[1] We affirm.

         I. Background

         Esparza was the principal of one of ECISD's middle schools in the summer of 2016. After school was dismissed for the summer, a private photo of Esparza that she sent to her husband was widely disseminated on social media within the local community. According to Esparza, the photo was not authorized to be publicly disseminated and she complained to law enforcement.

         On June 22, 2016, Esparza and the ECISD assistant superintendent had a conversation in which Esparza was given the choice of resigning or being fired. Esparza received a letter the next day that informed her that her employment was suspended with pay while the district investigated. On July 20, 2016, Esparza received another letter from ECISD that informed her that she was being reassigned from her principal position and would be advised at a later date regarding her employment status. On August 25, 2016, Esparza received a notice of proposed termination of her employment from the ECISD Board of Trustees.

         Esparza filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) on January 24, 2017 and received a right to sue letter on November 3, 2017. She filed suit against ECISD alleging gender discrimination on December 22, 2017. ECISD filed its answer and plea to the jurisdiction with exhibits on January 18, 2018. After an evidentiary hearing at which Esparza testified and exhibits[2] were introduced, the trial court denied the plea to the jurisdiction on September 13, 2018. ECISD filed this interlocutory appeal. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.104(a)(8).

         II. Plea to the Jurisdiction

         ECISD argues that the trial court erred because Esparza's filing with TWC was untimely. It argues that her filing occurred more than 180 days after June 22, 2016, the day Esparza was told she would be fired and thus did not invoke the trial court's jurisdiction.

         A. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

         Governmental units, including school districts, are immune from suit unless the state consents. Texas Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 224 (Tex. 2004). The Legislature mandates that all statutory prerequisites to suit are jurisdictional in suits against governmental entities. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 311.034; Prairie View A & M Univ. v. Chatha, 381 S.W.3d 500, 514 (Tex. 2012). Here, it is undisputed that compliance with section 21.202 of the labor code is mandatory.[3] See Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 21.202; Chatha, 381 S.W.3d at 514. Failure to comply with the time limit is a jurisdictional bar to suit. Chatha, 381 S.W.3d at 514; Univ. of Tex.-Pan Am. v. De Los Santos; 997 S.W.2d 817, 821 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi-Edinburg 1999, no pet.); see also McAllen Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Espinosa, No. 13-11-00563-CV, 2012 WL 3012657, at *6 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi-Edinburg Jun. 15, 2012, no pet.) (mem. op.).

         "A jurisdictional plea may challenge the pleadings, the existence of jurisdictional facts, or both. When a jurisdictional plea challenges the pleadings, we determine if the plaintiff has alleged facts affirmatively demonstrating subject-matter jurisdiction." Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark, 544 S.W.3d 755, 770 (Tex. 2018); Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227-28. If the plea challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, we must consider evidence when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issue. Clark, 544 S.W.3d at 770. If we consider evidence relating to the plea to the jurisdiction, a plaintiff must raise "at least a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 771. "[W]e must take as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff, indulging every reasonable inference and resolving any doubts in the plaintiff's favor." Id.; see also McAllen Indep. Sch. Dist.; 2012 WL 3012657, at *6. But "we cannot disregard evidence necessary to show context, and we cannot disregard evidence and inferences unfavorable to the plaintiff if reasonable jurors could not." Clark, 544 S.W.3d at 770; see also McAllen Indep. Sch. Dist.; 2012 WL 3012657, at *6. Once a defendant challenges the plaintiff's case with evidence, as here, "the jurisdictional inquiry focuses on the evidence and whether the plaintiff can create a fact issue." Id. at 785. If the evidence raises a fact issue, the trial court cannot grant the plea to the jurisdiction. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228.

         B. Accrual of Claim ...


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