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Jones v. Texas Workforce Commission

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

December 31, 2019

LATIA M. JONES, Appellant

          On Appeal from the 55th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2018-26830

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost and Justices Spain and Poissant.


          Charles A. Spain Justice

         Latia M. Jones filed suit against the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) based on a denial of her claim for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) after Hurricane Harvey. See Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act), 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 5121-5208 (West 2012 & Supp. 2019); id. § 5177 (West 2012) ("Unemployment Assistance"); 20 C.F.R. § 625 (2019). TWC filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on Jones's pleadings. The trial court granted this plea and dismissed all Jones's claims. Jones appeals, and we affirm.

         I. Background

         In August 2017, Jones applied for federal DUA benefits administered by TWC. In September 2017, TWC issued a decision that Jones's unemployment was not a direct result of a major disaster and she was ineligible for DUA benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 625.5, .9 (2019).

         Jones requested an administrative appeal of this determination. TWC conducted an administrative hearing by telephone. In November 2017, the TWC appeal tribunal issued its decision affirming the denial of Jones's DUA application. See id. § 625.10(a). Jones requested further administrative appeal of the TWC appeal tribunal's decision.

         TWC forwarded Jones's appeal to the United States Department of Labor (DOL) for a final administrative decision. See id. § 625.10(c) (providing for review by appropriate regional administrator, employment and training administration). In December 2017, the DOL regional administrator issued his decision denying Jones's DUA claim.

         At the same time Jones's administrative appeal was proceeding, TWC inadvertently released DUA benefits to Jones. In January 2018, after TWC realized the error, TWC began the administrative process to recover the DUA benefits paid to Jones to which she was not entitled. See id. § 625.14. Jones attempted further administrative appeals with both TWC and DOL. TWC and DOL informed Jones that the decision of the DOL regional administrator was the final and conclusive administrative decision on her DUA claim and there was no further administrative appeal available.

         In March 2018, Jones filed a petition in Harris County District Court against, and sought damages from, TWC and TWC employees Chris Oakley, Francis Brown, Jimmy Mullens, Lasha Lenzy, and Melissa M. Butler.[1] In pertinent part, Jones alleged that she was entitled to "trial de novo as a matter of right" under Texas Labor Code section 212.202 to challenge TWC's "reversed decision/determination" on her DUA claim.

         TWC and the TWC employees answered with a general denial. They also filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court initially signed an order denying the plea to the jurisdiction without prejudice. After a hearing by phone, the trial court signed an order on June 11, 2018, granting TWC and the TWC employees' plea to the jurisdiction and dismissing all Jones's claims against them for lack of jurisdiction.

         II. Analysis

         In two related issues, Jones argues that the trial court erred by granting TWC's plea to the jurisdiction and disallowing her "request for judicial review Trial de novo as a matter of law." In her brief, Jones does not identify the TWC employees as appellees. Significantly, Jones does not raise or argue any "issues or points of error" against them. See Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(a), (f), (i); Showbiz Multimedia, LLC v. Mountain States Mortg. Ctrs., Inc., 303 S.W.3d 769, 771 n.3 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, no pet.) (appellee must be party against whom appellant raises issues or points of error in appellant's brief). We conclude that the only appellee is TWC.

         In its plea, TWC argued that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to review TWC's decision denying Jones's DUA claim. Generally, sovereign immunity, unless waived, protects the State, its agencies, and its officials from lawsuits for damages, absent legislative consent to sue the State. Fed. Sign v. Texas S. Univ., 951 S.W.2d 401, 405 (Tex. 1997). TWC is a state agency. Tex. Labor Code Ann. § 301.001(a). "Sovereign immunity from suit defeats a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction and thus is properly asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction." Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, ...

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