Appeal from the 353rd District Court Travis County, Texas
Trial Court Cause No. D-1-GN-17-006402
consists of Justices Christopher, Spain, and Poissant.
appeal from the dismissal of a suit on jurisdictional grounds
arises from a dispute over eligibility to receive death
benefits under the Texas Workers' Compensation Act
("the Act"). After the death of Travis County flight
nurse Kristin McLain in a fall from a helicopter during a
medivac rescue, appellant Ralph Winston Merrill III claimed a
right to death benefits as McLain's common-law husband.
As the self-insured carrier, the County denied there was a
valid marriage and maintained that only McLain's parents
were eligible for death benefits. Merrill prevailed at the
administrative level, and while the County appealed the
ruling to the 419th District Court in Travis County, Merrill
filed his own suit for judicial review in the 353rd District
Court. The County challenged the latter
court's jurisdiction on the ground, among others, that
Merrill lacks standing, because as the prevailing party, he
is not aggrieved by the administrative decision. The trial
court presumably agreed, as do we. Thus, we affirm the
provide context for the factual background of the case, we
begin with the governing law. To place the dispute and its
history in context, the identity of McLain's beneficiary
likely will significantly affect the length of time that the
County must pay death benefits, and thus, the total amount it
must pay. McLain died while performing her job as a first
responder, and if Merrill is her surviving spouse, then he is
entitled to death benefits for the remainder of his
life. If, as the County contends, McLain and
Merrill were not validly married, then McLain's parents
are her beneficiaries, and the County is required to pay them
death benefits for no more than 104 weeks.
resolve disputes about a person's eligibility for death
benefits, a case passes through three administrative stages
in the Workers' Compensation Division-a benefit-review
conference, a contested-case hearing, and an appeal to a
Division appeals panel-before the case is subject to judicial
the parties attend a benefit-review conference to discuss the
claim's facts, review available information, delineate
disputed issues, and if possible, resolve those disputed
issues by agreement. See Tex. Lab. Code Ann. §
410.021. After the conference, the benefit-review officer
prepares a written report detailing each issue that was
raised but not resolved, "including any issue raised for
the first time at the conclusion of [a second] benefit review
conference," if one was held. See id. §
410.026(a)(4). The benefit-review officer also identifies
each issue that was resolved and states each party's
position on every unresolved issue. See id. §
410.031. The Division then schedules a contested-case hearing
on those unresolved issues. See id. § 410.025.
second stage, the parties attend the contested-case hearing
before an administrative law judge ("the
ALJ"). The ALJ generally may consider only those
issues that were raised, but not resolved, at the
benefit-review conference. See id. § 410.051.
The ALJ may consider an issue that was not raised at the
benefit-review conference only if the parties consent or
"good cause existed for not raising the issue at the
conference." Id. § 410.151(b); see
also 28 Tex. Admin. Code § 142.7(d), (e). Unless
one of these exceptions applies, "the 'issues'
that the review officer identifies remain the same through
hearing, appeal, and judicial review." State Office
of Risk Mgmt. v. Martinez, 539 S.W.3d 266, 274 (Tex.
2017). The ALJ's decision regarding benefits is final in
the absence of a party's timely request for appeal. Tex.
Lab. Code Ann. § 410.169.
third stage begins with a party's request for appeal to a
Division appeals panel, to which the opposing party must file
a response. See id. § 410.202. The request and
response "must clearly and concisely rebut or support
the decision of the ALJ on each issue on which review is
sought." Id. To decide the issues for which the
appeal was requested, the appeals panel reviews the request,
the response, and the record developed at the contested-case
hearing. Id. § 410.203. When affirming an
ALJ's decision, the panel does not issue its own written
decision except in cases (a) of first impression, (b)
involving a recent change in the law, or (c) involving errors
at the contested-case hearing requiring correction but that
do not affect the hearing's outcome. Id. §
410.204(a-1). If the appeals panel does not issue its own
decision, then the ALJ's decision is the appeals
panel's decision. Id. § 410.204(c). The
panel's decision is final absent a timely a timely suit
for judicial review. Id. § 410.205(a).
review is available only as to certain matters and parties.
Review "is limited to issues decided by the appeals
panel and on which judicial review is sought."
Id. § 410.302(b); see also id. §
410.301(a). Only a party who has exhausted administrative
remedies under the Act and "is aggrieved by a final
decision of the appeals panel" may seek judicial review.
Id. § 410.251.
Merrill and McLain's parents initially claimed to be the
proper beneficiaries of McLain's death benefits, but
McLain's parents later withdrew their claim. In its
capacity as carrier, the County disputed that Merrill was
McLain's beneficiary because it denied he was her
common-law husband. The parties reached no agreement on the
issue at the benefit-review conference, and the
benefit-review officer reported a single unresolved
issue-"Identity of Legal Beneficiaries"-to be
decided at a contested-case hearing.
the contested-case hearing, Merrill filed a "Response to
BRC Report and Request to Add Issues," in which he
asserted that "[four] issues were omitted from the BRC
report and should be added." See 28 Tex. Admin.
Code § 142.7(e) ("A party may request the
administrative law judge to include in the statement of
disputes one or more disputes not identified as unresolved in
the benefit review officer's report. The administrative
law judge will allow such amendment only on a determination
of good cause."). Merrill identified these matters as
1. Does Travis County have standing to dispute
[Merrill's] entitlement to death benefits?
2. Has Travis County waived its right (if any) to dispute
[Merrill's] entitlement to death benefits?
3. Does 409.011(b)(4) or any law or rule allow Travis County to
dispute [Merrill's] entitlement to death benefits?
4. Is Travis County barred by the doctrines of collateral
estoppel and/or res judicata from disputing [Merrill's]
entitlement to death benefits?
responded, "This request to add issues is denied for
lack of ...