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City of San Antonio v. Arciniega

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

January 15, 2020

CITY OF SAN ANTONIO, Appellant
v.
Pedro J. ARCINIEGA, Appellee

          From the 150th Judicial District Court, Bexar County, Texas Trial Court No. 2015-CI-10713 Honorable Norma Gonzales, Judge Presiding

          Sitting: Patricia O. Alvarez, Justice Irene Rios, Justice Beth Watkins, Justice

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          IRENE RIOS, JUSTICE

         The City of San Antonio appeals the trial court's order denying its plea to the jurisdiction. The City contends the trial court erred by failing to apply the correct legal standard in ruling on the plea or, alternatively, the trial court erred in ruling before the parties completed offering evidence. We affirm the trial court's order.

         Background

         Pedro J. Arciniega sued the City alleging a claim for age discrimination after his employment was terminated effective August 2, 2013. Arciniega alleged in his petition that he timely filed an administrative complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission ("TWC") on January 31, 2014.

         The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting Arciniega failed to timely file his administrative complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days after the date he was terminated; therefore, his lawsuit was barred on jurisdictional grounds. Specifically, the City asserted Arciniega was terminated on August 2, 2013, but did not file his administrative claim with the TWC until 182 days later on January 31, 2014.

         Arciniega filed a response to the plea asserting he did not receive the City's letter notifying him of the termination until, at the earliest, August 5, 2013. Arciniega further responded that he timely filed his administrative complaint within 180 days after he received the termination letter.

         After Arciniega filed his response, the City filed a motion for bifurcated trial asserting the City's plea relies on evidence of jurisdictional facts which Arciniega controverted in his response. The City's motion also noted Arciniega argued in his response that the City's plea could not be granted if a fact issue was presented regarding the trial court's jurisdiction. The City's motion further noted, "If Plaintiff is correct, then issues of material fact concerning jurisdiction will have to be decided by the trier of jurisdictional facts." Accordingly, the City moved for a separate trial on the issue of jurisdiction. On December 19, 2018, the trial court signed an order denying the motion for bifurcated trial.[1]

         On April 10, 2019, Arciniega filed a motion to dismiss the City's plea. Arciniega's motion asserted he had alleged in his petition that he timely filed his administrative complaint with the TWC, and the City did not allege in its plea that his allegations were fraudulently made. On May 16, 2019, the trial court signed an order denying the motion to dismiss.[2]

         On June 20, 2019, the trial court held a hearing on the City's plea.[3] During opening arguments, the City noted the issue raised in its plea was whether Arciniega timely filed his administrative complaint within 180 days of the date he was informed of his termination, and the trial court was being asked to determine the date Arciniega was informed. Arciniega's attorney responded an evidentiary hearing was not necessary because Arciniega's affidavit, which was attached to his response, raised a fact issue regarding the date he was notified of his termination, and a plea to the jurisdiction must be denied if a fact issue is raised. When the City's attorney asked if he could provide a brief rebuttal, the trial court stated it was "trying to look at the rules to see about why we're having an evidentiary hearing." The City's attorney responded the trial court was required to hear evidence and resolve fact issues regarding jurisdiction when the challenged jurisdictional facts are not intertwined with the merits of the case. In explaining the reason the challenged jurisdictional facts were not intertwined with the merits of the underlying case, the City's attorney asserted that even if the City stipulated Arciniega was terminated based on his age, which was the issue in or the "merits" of the underlying case, the date Arciniega was informed of the termination was a separate jurisdictional fact the trial court would still be required to resolve. The trial court ruled it was going to allow evidence.

         The City called Claudia Lujan as its first witness. Lujan was the City's human resources administrator on the date Arciniega was terminated. Lujan testified Arciniega was given notice of his proposed termination on July 26, 2013, and a copy of the memo containing the notice was admitted into evidence. Lujan testified Arciniega was placed on administrative leave after he received the notice of proposed termination. On August 2, 2013, Lujan testified she called Arciniega and informed him he was being terminated effective that day and that written notice would be mailed to him. Lujan stated the notice of final termination was mailed to Arciniega the same day, and Lujan identified her handwritten note at the bottom of the notice stating she spoke with Arciniega on August 2, 2013 at 9:41 a.m. and notified him "that the decision has been made to proceed with termination, formal document is forthcoming." Lujan testified Arciniega asked some follow-up questions about whether he was no longer employed to which Lujan responded he was terminated effective immediately. Arciniega's attorney cross-examined Lujan about various policies and rules that were not followed in the process of Arciniega's termination, including a rule requiring notice of final termination to be hand-delivered or sent by registered or certified mail. Lujan testified Arciniega signed the green card acknowledging receipt of the certified mail on August 10, 2013. A copy of the green card was admitted as evidence. Lujan also identified her handwritten notes that she kept regarding Arciniega's termination which were also admitted into evidence. The notes contained the following entry:

8/2 @ 9:41 Called PJ [Arciniega] & notified him that Termination is forthcoming effective 8/2/13.

         At the end of Lujan's testimony, the City's attorney asked that Lujan not be excused in case she was needed for rebuttal, and the court announced a fifteen minute recess. After the recess, ...


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