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Eustice v. Powers

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

January 7, 2020

CHRISTOPHER D. EUSTICE, Appellant
v.
TIMOTHY C. POWERS, Appellee

          On Appeal from the County Civil Court at Law No. 2 Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 1113102

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Spain, and Poissant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Tracy Christopher, Justice.

         After Texas A & M University's Aggie Honor System Office (AHSO) determined that student Christopher D. Eustice should be suspended for two years for plagiarism, Eustice sued AHSO's director Timothy C. Powers. Eustice's claims were dismissed with prejudice by the justice court and by the county civil court at law to which Eustice appealed. He now challenges only the dismissal of his contract claims against Powers in Powers's official and individual capacities. We conclude that (1) sovereign immunity bars Eustice's contract claims against Powers in his official capacity, and (2) Eustice has waived his challenge to the dismissal of his contract claims against Powers in Powers's individual capacity. Thus, we affirm the challenged part of the trial court's judgment.

         I. Background

         According to Eustice, Texas A & M University determined in the fall of 2013 that he committed an act of academic misconduct by stealing and printing a copy of an exam to facilitate cheating. He was given a failing grade in the course. In a separate incident in the fall of 2014, a different professor reported Eustice to AHSO for plagiarism. After an investigation, hearing, and appeal before AHSO, the University gave Eustice a failing grade in that course as well and suspended him for two years. Eustice completed his education in another state. He sued the University and its president in federal court for claims arising from the AHSO's determinations of academic misconduct, and those claims were dismissed with prejudice.

         Based on the same facts, Eustice sued AHSO's director Timothy C. Powers in a justice court for defamation per se, breach of an oral contract for a service lasting not more than a year, breach of written contract, violations of Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code, violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, fraud, and personal injury. Powers filed a combined sworn motion for summary disposition and plea to the jurisdiction, which the justice court granted, dismissing Eustice's claims with prejudice.

         In Eustice's appeal by trial de novo in the county civil court at law, Powers filed a document styled as a plea to the jurisdiction in which he sought dismissal of Eustice's claims against him. Among other grounds, Powers argued that sovereign immunity applied to the claims against him in his official capacity, and that official immunity applied to the claims against him in his individual capacity. After considering the plea and Eustice's response, the trial court granted the plea and dismissed all of Eustice's claims with prejudice. Eustice now appeals that judgment.

         Eustice's amended appellate brief does not contain a statement of the issues presented on appeal;[1] under "Issues Presented," he merely states that he sued Powers in the latter's official and individual capacities under certain legal theories, which Eustice lists. In the body of his brief, however, Eustice argues that the trial court erred in dismissing his claims that Powers, in his official and individual capacities, breached an oral or written contract with Eustice. Because no other claims have been briefed, we understand Eustice to appeal only the dismissal of his contract claims.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review de novo the trial court's grant of a plea to the jurisdiction. See Chambers-Liberty Ctys. Navigation Dist. v. State, 575 S.W.3d 339, 345 (Tex. 2019). We first look to the pleadings to determine if the pleader has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate the court's jurisdiction to hear the cause. See Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). We construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff, look to the pleader's intent, and accept as true the factual allegations in the pleadings. Id. If the issue is one of pleading sufficiency, the plaintiff should be afforded the opportunity to amend unless the pleadings affirmatively negate jurisdiction. Id. at 227.

         A defendant also may challenge the plaintiff's factual allegations with supporting evidence. See Sampson v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 500 S.W.3d 380, 384 (Tex. 2016). The standard of review mirrors that of a summary judgment. Id. "[I]f the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228. But "[i]f the evidence creates a fact question regarding the jurisdictional issue, then the trial court cannot grant the plea to the jurisdiction, and the fact issue will be resolved by the fact finder." Id. at 227-28.

         III. Sovereign Immunity from the Contract Claims Against Powers in His Official Capacity

         In his plea to the jurisdiction, Powers asserted that sovereign immunity bars Eustice's contract claims against him in his official capacity. Unless waived, sovereign immunity protects the State of Texas and its agencies from suit and liability. Chambers-Liberty Ctys. Navigation Dist., 575 S.W.3d at 344. Sovereign immunity extends to the State's officials because a suit against a State officer or employee in that person's official capacity is a suit against the State; the State is the real party in interest and is vicariously liable for the ...


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