The Second Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff who resigns cannot prove an adverse employment action when the only evidence of constructive discharge was forthcoming investigation

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Univ. of North Tex. Sys. v. Lisa Barringer, No. 02-19-00378-CV (Tex. App.—Fort Worth September 10, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this discrimination case, the plaintiff sued the University for age discrimination after resigning from her position.  The Court of Appeals held that she had failed to provide sufficient evidence of constructive discharge for his resignation and dismissed the case.

The plaintiff was a University employee who was placed on paid administrative leave prior to an investigation related to her lack of preparation for a scheduled presentation wand inappropriate comments.  After being placed on paid administrative leave, she resigned.  After she resigned, she filed a claim with the EEOC/Texas Workforce Commission which issued a right to sue letter.  She filed suit and  University filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court denied the plea and the University appealed.

An age discrimination claim under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) requires showing that the individual has suffered an adverse employment action.  Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 636 (Tex. 2012).  Proof of constructive discharge, where an employee reasonably feels compelled to resign, can demonstrate an adverse employment action.  Baylor Univ. v. Coley, 221 S.W.3d 599, 604–05 (Tex. 2007).  “But potential disciplinary action, investigations into alleged work-place violations, or work-place criticisms are insufficient alone to cause a reasonable person to resign.”  Also, personality conflicts or arguments are insufficient to create proof of constructive discharge. The Court of Appeals held the plaintiff’s evidence was insufficient, reversed the denial of the plea, and dismissed the plaintiff’s case.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Kerr, Birdwell, and Womack. Opinion by Justice Womack.

 

The First Court of Appeals held employment discrimination claims cannot be brought under the TCHRA in state court where the same claims were previously dismissed in federal court.     

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Suran Wije v. David A. Burns and Univ. of Texas, No. 01-19-00024-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] September 3, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this employment discrimination claim, the plaintiff sued a University official and the University for discrimination after he was unable to be re-employed by the University.  The Court of Appeals held that the University retained its immunity.

The plaintiff was an employee at the University from 2000-2005.  While there he made complaints regarding IT issues to his boss.  Years after resigning from the University in 2005, the plaintiff attempted to get a new position at the University but was unsuccessful.   The plaintiff found out he had been “blacklisted.” He sued the University in federal court after receiving a right to sue letter from the EEOC.  The plaintiff alleged that he was being discriminated against by the University and that his personnel file had misinformation in it.  The federal court dismissed his claims with prejudice and so he filed his claims in state court.  The claims included TCHRA claims, a 1983 claim, fraud, defamation, and negligence claims under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The trial court granted the University’s plea to the jurisdiction and the plaintiff appealed.

The State and state agencies, like the University, retain their immunity from federal sec. 1983 claims.  Moore v. La. Bd. of Elementary & Secondary Educ., 743 F.3d 959, 963 (5th Cir. 2014).  University officials also retain immunity.  The TCHRA contains an election of remedies and disallows suits under the TCHRA if the claims involved have already been adjudicated by a different court.  Tex. Labor Code § 21.211; City of Waco v. Lopez, 259 S.W.3d 147, 155 (Tex. 2008).  The Texas Tort Claims Act claims must be negligence claims that cause injury to a person or damage to property under its narrow waiver and does not allow for intentional tort claims. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ch. 101.   The Court of Appeals held that the University’s immunity had not been waived for any of the claims because: (1) they retain immunity for sec. 1983 claims; (2) his TCHRA claims were barred because they had already been brought to another court; and (3) neither his negligence or intentional tort claims met the requirements of the Texas Tort Claims Act.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Goodman, Landau, and Hightower.  Opinion by Justice Richard Hightower.

The First Court of Appeals to move forward with retaliation claim plaintiff must provide evidence of but-for causation

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Houston v. Kimberley R. Trimmer-Davis, No. 01-19-00088-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] August 25, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this employment retaliation case, the plaintiff sued the City when suspended after making a complaint and later terminated after failing to follow drug testing procedures.  The Court of Appeals allowed the retaliation claim related to the suspension move forward but dismissed the retaliation claim for termination due to no but-for causation evidence.

The plaintiff was a civil service employee of the City who made a complaint related to the treatment of females in her City department.  After investigating the complaint, the City determined the claim was untruthful and suspended the plaintiff for one day.  The Civil Service Commission overturned the suspension, but the untruthfulness complaint was left in the plaintiff’s personnel file.  The employee sued for retaliation for the suspension and for refusing to remove the untruthfulness complaint from her files.  Three weeks later, the employee was selected to take a random drug test and failed to follow the proper testing procedure multiple times.  She was terminated for her failure to properly follow the requirements. The plaintiff filed another complaint related to her termination.  The trial court granted the City’s plea to the jurisdiction as to the recordkeeping claim but denied the plea for the one-day suspension and the termination.  Both parties appealed.

To show retaliation, the employee has to show an adverse employment action was caused in retaliation for protected activity.  There is no disagreement that adverse employee actions occurred or that protected activity occurred prior to the actions.  The process for proving retaliation through circumstantial evidence is that: (1) the plaintiff prove that the adverse employment action and the protected activity occurred; (2) the employer then present non-retaliatory reasons for the actions; and (3) finally the plaintiff shows that the non-retaliatory reasons are pretextual.  The City argued that it had non-retaliatory reasons for the terminations.  The plaintiff argued that the non-retaliatory reasons were a pretext for all three activities (suspension, keeping the untruthfulness complaint in her file, and the termination).  The Court of Appeals held that the suspension occurred in a manner inconsistent with the City’s own policies, which provides sufficient evidence of pretext. The Court also held that the City’s arguments regarding its recordkeeping were insufficient to definitely prove there was no retaliatory intent in keeping the untruthfulness complaint in its files because the City’s policies related to recordkeeping were vague and contradictory.  Finally, the Court of Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence that the City had non-retaliatory reasons for the termination related to the drug testing and that the plaintiff had not provided sufficient evidence that her earlier complaints were a but-for cause of her termination.  The case was sent back to the trial court on the recordkeeping and suspension retaliation claims.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Kelly, Hightower, and Countiss. Opinion by Justice Peter Kelly.

Corpus Christi Court of Appeals held plaintiff can circumvent TWC for retaliation claim so long as underlying claim is based on TWC complaint

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Donna Indep Sch. Dist.. v. Cynthia Castilla, 13-19-00395-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi, August 13, 2020) (mem.op.).

In this employment discrimination and retaliation case, the plaintiff brought some claims that occurred outside of the required 180-day lookback under the Texas Labor Code but was able to bring a retaliation claim that was within the 180-day window even though the claim was not heard by the Texas Workforce Commission.

The plaintiff was a police officer with the Donna Independent School District who made multiple complaints against the School District and was later transferred and then terminated by the District.  While she was still employed by the District, but after the transfer, the plaintiff filed charges of discrimination for sexual harassment, age discrimination, and retaliation at the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).  During TWC’s review, the District terminated the plaintiff.  The TWC issued a right to sue letter stating that TWC did not have jurisdiction because the plaintiff was outside the 180-day requirement when she filed at the TWC.  The plaintiff brought suit in the trial court including the TWC claims and an additional claim of retaliation related to her termination.  She did not amend her TWC complaint to include retaliation.  the District filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. the District appealed. The District’s sole argument on appeal was that the trial court does not have jurisdiction because the plaintiff had not exhausted her administrative remedies. The Court dismissed all of the claims except the retaliation claims.

To present a claim under the Texas Labor Code for discrimination the claim has to be brought before the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days of the last related discriminatory activity.  Tex. Lab. Code §§ 21.201(a), (g); 21.202.  All statutory requirements, including the 180 day period, are jurisdictional. Tex. Gov’t Code § 311.034.  The Court of Appeals held that the discrimination claims were not valid because the incidents that were the subject of the claim were alleged to have occurred more than 180 days before the claim. However, the retaliatory transfer claim occurred within the 180-day window. The Court also held that the retaliation claim was based on retaliatory conduct because of her other claims which were already being reviewed by the TWC.  The Court quoted “under both state and federal law, courts have held that a claim of retaliation for filing a charge of discrimination is sufficiently related to the charge of discrimination to exhaust remedies for the retaliation claim, even though the charge contains no reference to the alleged retaliation.”  Tex. Dep’t of Transp. v. Esters, 343 S.W.3d 226, 230–31 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2011, no pet.). As a result, the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Longoria and Hinojosa.  Opinion by Chief Justice Contreras.

 

Houston First Court of Appeals holds that a School’s participation in discovery does not waive its governmental immunity.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Democratic Schools Research, Inc. d/b/a The Brazos School for Inquiry and Creativity v. Tiffany Rock, 01-19-00512-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.], Aug. 4, 2020).

In this employment discrimination case, the Houston First Court of Appeals overturned a trial court’s denial of a plea to the jurisdiction by a school because participation in discovery by the school did not waive its governmental immunity and its immunity had not otherwise been waived as it related to the plaintiff’s state law employment discrimination and retaliation claims.

The plaintiff was an African-American principal at a public charter school.   During her employment, the plaintiff sent emails to the school’s administration complaining about understaffing at the school and low morale at the school, including complaining of the school’s administration calling the school “too black” and that African American teachers were paid less.  The school administration responded to the complaints stating that the statement occurred but that it referenced the lack of Hispanic teachers at a different school campus and that there was no proof that African American teachers were paid less or that there was any bias in the school’s salaries.  The plaintiff never filed a formal grievance although being urged to do so by the school administration.  After ongoing discussions with the school’s administration regarding issues at her school, she was terminated for having a hostile attitude and insubordination.  After her termination, a Caucasian member of the school’s administration took on her duties until a permanent principal, who was African-American, could be hired.  The plaintiff sued the school for employment discrimination and retaliation.  The trial court denied the school’s plea to the jurisdiction, and the school brought this interlocutory appeal.

Governmental immunity is not waived by participation in the discovery process by the governmental entity, because sometimes a court may need to consider evidence when ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554, 555 (Tex. 2000); Tex. Dep’t of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 233 (Tex. 2004).  To establish an action for discrimination the employee must show that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) was treated differently than other employees who are not in the protected class. Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 253 S.W.3d 653, 640 (Tex. 2008).  If this burden is met, the burden then shifts to the employer.

The “too black” comment was not sufficient evidence of discrimination because it was unrelated to the plaintiff’s termination and because the comment related to the school’s diversity guidelines.  The Court also dismissed the allegation of lower pay because it was unsupported and was further not related to the plaintiff – one of the highest-paid individuals in the school district.  The plaintiff’s replacement was in her protected class, and temporary replacements are not considered as evidence of discrimination. Finally, the plaintiff presented no proof that she was treated differently from similarly situated employees. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred when it denied the school’s plea to the jurisdiction.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Lloyd, and Hightower. Opinion by Justice Evelyn V. Keyes.

 

14th Court of Appeals holds 1) proof of causation necessary to maintain labor code disability discrimination & 2) plea was properly denied for breach of contract

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Norris Rogers v. Houston Community College, 14-18-00591-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.], July 14, 2020) (mem. op.).

This case contains two claims: (1) disability discrimination under Texas Labor Code Section 21.105; and (2) breach of contract under Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code. The Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part the trial court’s orders and reinstated the contract claim.

The plaintiff, and adjunct electrical instructor, argued he was terminated by the College because of a disability which prevented him from performing carpentry work or general construction work.  He also argued a unilateral employment contract was created for employment.   The College filed a no-evidence summary judgment on the disability claim and a plea to the jurisdiction on the contract claim. The trial court granted both and Rogers appealed.

To establish a prima facie case of discrimination based on disability, a plaintiff must show that the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment decision because of the disability.  Donaldson v. Tex. Dept. of Aging & Disability Srvs., 495 S.W.3d 421, 436 (Tex. App.––Houston [1st Dist.] 2016, pet. denied).  The plaintiff did not establish he was terminated because of his disabilities.  During this analysis, the Court also discussed how a lack of causation in a no-evidence summary judgment argument can be presented.   The Court affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing the disability claims against the College.

Next, to establish a contract, and waiver of immunity, under Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code the plaintiff must prove that the contract: (1) is in writing, (2) states the essential terms of the contract, (3) provides for goods or services for the entity; and (4) was properly executed for the entity.  The plaintiff presented evidence that a unilateral contract existed.  The College stated that its policies and procedures would not allow this type of contract, but the Court held that the policies presented did not sufficiently negate the contract could exist.  Because there was sufficient evidence from a jurisdictional standpoint that the contract could exist, the Court overturned the trial court’s order granting the plea to the jurisdiction.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Wise, Zimmerer, and Spain.  Opinion by Justice Ken Wise.

 

When alleged harasser was placed on restrictions, then restrictions were removed five months later, the fact the employer believed it did not have time to respond to subsequent complaint is irrelevant says El Paso Court of Appeals

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County of El Paso, Texas v. Monique Aguilar, 08-19-00082-CV, (Tex. App – El Paso, March 18, 2020)

This is a gender discrimination/hostile work environment case where the El Paso Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part the denial of the County’s plea to the jurisdiction. [Comment: this is a 42-page opinion, so that is why the summary is longer than normal.]  The case presents a detailed thought process analysis under employment law, including prima facie element analysis and burden shifting.

Aguilar worked for the County in various positions for nearly twenty-four years.  She was holding the position of Facilities Manager when she complained to her supervisors and HR that she was paid substantially less than not only the male who previously held the position of Facilities Director (which was reorganized and formed in the Facilities Manager position) but also less than other similarly situated male coworkers.  She also raised the issue of pay disparity with the County Commissioner’s Court. She also complained she was harassed by a male co-worker.  The supervisor put restrictions on the co-worker in 2014, limiting contact with Aguilar and her staff. That restriction was lifted five months later, but according to Aguilar, the co-worker, Lucero, resumed his harassing behavior. When Aguilar obtained an email the supervisor wanted to discuss Lucero with her and her behavior in a meeting where he was present, she experienced an anxiety attack and eventually resigned. Aguilar brought suit under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHA”) under a constructive discharge theory. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The court first went through numerous pages regarding the affidavits and determined the trial court did not abuse its discretion in considering Aguilar’s affidavit. Next, the court determined Aguilar was required to establish she was “treated less favorably than similarly situated members of the opposing class[.]” The County presented evidence that Aguilar did not hold the same job position,  duties and responsibilities, or requirements for education as the comparators she listed. The applicable test is not whether the positions are comparable in some respects; the test is whether the positions are “comparable in all material respects.” While Aguilar’s burden at the prima facie stage was not onerous, it did require, at a minimum, that she present evidence raising a fact issue on whether she was similarly situated to members outside her protected group who were treated differently. She did not present contradicting evidence as to two other managers, but did as to a third, Cruz. As a result, the plea should have been granted as to disparate regarding the first two managers, but was properly denied as to Cruz. As far as the harassment claim goes, County argues that Lucero’s comments did not create a hostile work environment because many of them were made to persons other than Aguilar. But those comments were made about Aguilar and were humiliating to her. In addition, because many of the comments were made to her staff and to contractors with whom she worked, they interfered with her ability to perform her job duties. Aguilar demonstrated that a disputed material fact exists concerning whether her work environment was objectively hostile or abusive. While the restrictions on Lucero were put in place, they were lifted five months later and he returned to his prior behavior.  While the County asserts it did not have time to respond to the return, Aguilar’s hostile work environment claim is not based solely on the final week of her employment, divorced from the years of harassing conduct that preceded that week. A reasonable person could conclude that this failure effectively communicated to Aguilar that Lucero would be permitted to once again humiliate Aguilar and interfere with her job performance. As to her retaliation charge, she asserted after complaining about Lucero, her supervisor sent her an email accusing her of inappropriate behavior in a meeting. When her supervisor emailed her to discuss “next steps” she took that to mean discipline of her, so she resigned. The totality of the circumstances surrounding Aguilar’s hostile work environment claim create a fact issue as to whether retaliation was committed by the County for reporting harassment.  However, no fact issue exists regarding Aguilar’s retaliation charge for reporting disparate pay.   In sum, the plea was properly denied as to some claims, but should have been granted as to others.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Alley and Justices Rodriguez and Palafox. Opinion by Justice Palafox. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Trial court’s denial of plea after evidentiary hearing was proper given the trial court decides disputed facts unrelated to merits of underlying claims

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City of San Antonio v. Pedro J. Arciniega, 04-19-00467-CV, (Tex. App – San Antonio, Jan 15, 2020)

This is an employment discrimination case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Arciniega sued the City alleging a claim for age discrimination after his employment was terminated. 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. Arciniega asserted he filed it within 180 days after receiving the  City’s letter notifying him of his termination. When the hearing was held on the plea the City asserted it should be an evidentiary hearing on exactly when Arciniega received notice and Arciniegra’s attorney asserted his affidavit was sufficient to create a fact issue. 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.  The court allowed an evidentiary hearing at which witnesses were presented. After the testimony, the court denied the plea.

Legally, the 180-day period “begins when the employee is informed of the allegedly discriminatory employment decision.” A trial court “must not proceed on the merits of a case until legitimate challenges to its jurisdiction have been decided.”  When a defendant asserts and supports with evidence that the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and the facts underlying the merits and subject matter jurisdiction are intertwined, a plaintiff is only required to show that there is a disputed material fact regarding the jurisdictional issue. A different standard applies, however, when a jurisdictional issue is not intertwined with the merits of a plaintiff’s claim. In that situation, “disputed fact issues are resolved by the court, not the jury.” Based on the applicable standard of a review the court found that the denial of the plea, was an implicit finding Arciniega timely filed his administrative complaint with the TWC.  Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court’s finding, Arciniega’s testimony supported that finding. As a result, the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Affirmed. Panel consists of Justices Alvarez, Rios, and Watkins. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rios. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Former Employee Failed to Brief and ID Records Establishing Causation or Pretext in Employment Case

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Orlando Toldson v. Denton Independent School District, 02-18-00394-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Nov. 21, 2019)

This is a sexual harassment/retaliation claim where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Toldson worked for Denton Independent School District (DISD) as a paraprofessional teacher’s aide off and on from 2009 until he was terminated in February 2015. In 2014 Toldson served as an aide in the special education department at Ryan High School (RHS). Toldson complained to the assistance principle several times that the teacher (Ms. Winrow) was overly demanding and that Toldson did not know what was expected of him in the classroom. Toldson made no allegations during these meetings that Winrow had sexually harassed him.  These complaints continued for several months until Toldson eventually did mention what he felt was inappropriate sexual comments. DISD offered to move Toldson to a different classroom while investigating his complaints. The principle interviewed five witnesses,  did not find any who corroborated Toldson’s allegations of sexual harassment.  The principle concluded the investigation and offered to move Toldson to another teacher, to which Toldson objected. Toldson complained to the DISD HR department and asserted his immediate supervisors began retaliating against him by requiring him to be at department meetings where Winrow would be present. Toldson followed the grievance procedures up the process, but with no resolution he would accept. During this entire time, Toldson’s job performance at RHS was an issue including often arriving late for work, he often left early, and he was often absent, all without providing proper notification to his superiors. He also took longer breaks than allowed, as well as unauthorized breaks that left students unsupervised. Toldson was reassigned to a different campus.  While there, the record reflects Toldson sexually harassed a female teacher. Upon learning of the incidents, DISD terminated Toldson. Toldson sued for sexual harassment and retaliation. The DISD filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. Toldson appealed.

Regarding his retaliation claim, the court noted no evidence was identified by Toldson establishing causation. While Toldson asserts an email present somewhere in the record constitutes direct evidence of causation, Toldson failed to identify, cite, or adequately brief the email for the court. Toldson bears the burden of supporting his contentions with appropriate citations to the record. Failing that, Toldson fails to meet his burdens.  Further, the court agreed DISD presented evidence of a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for terminating Toldson’s employment. Toldson failed to demonstrate a fact issue exists regarding pretext. The court likewise had difficulty finding Toldson had properly briefed and identified arguments and issues regarding the sexual harassment claim. The court noted the summary judgment record in this case exceeds 2,000 pages. Of the nineteen sentences of alleged facts Toldson relies upon to show a fact issue the sexual harassment charge, eight contain no citation to the record whatsoever and the rest do not explain how they are related to any form of harassment.  Toldson provided no reference to a specific place in the record where any exhibits exist, so he failed to brief his issues. The summary judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justices Womack and  Wallach. The attorney listed for the district is Thomas P. Brandt.  The attorney listed for Toldson is Anthony Hamilton Green.

Firefighter’s claims against City dismissed since no adverse employment actions occurred; only minor internal decisions

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Billy Fratus v. The City of Beaumont, 09-18-00294-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Oct. 10, 2019).

This is an employment discrimination/retaliation/firefighter case where the Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Fratus was a firefighter who sued for 1) free speech equitable relief and 2) race discrimination and 3) retaliation under Chapter 21 of the Labor Code.  Fratus asserted the Fire Chief, Huff, did not like Fratus was Hispanic and excluded him from meetings, denied him discretionary perks of the job, spoke bad about him, interfered with Fratus’ relationship with his physician while on disability leave, and a host of other assertions centering on personality slights. Fratus also alleged that the City retaliated against him for speaking out against what he believed was Chief Huff’s sexual harassment of another employee, and for disagreeing with Chief Huff’s firing of one employee. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. Fratus appealed.

Fratus’ claims for declaratory relief centered only on past allegations.  As a result, it is actually a claim for monetary damages for which the City is immune. Further, claims for equitable relief for constitutional violations “cannot be brought against the state, which retains immunity, but must be brought against the state actors in their official capacity.” Since Fratus did not sue any individuals, the equitable relief claims are dismissed. To prevail on a retaliation claim based on protected free speech Fratus has to establish, among other things, he spoke out on a matter of public concern. Speech made privately between a speaker and his employer rather than in the context of public debate is generally not of public concern. The record shows Fratus made criticisms to other co-workers, which does not qualify. A retaliation claim is related to but distinct from a discrimination claim, and it focuses upon the employer’s response to the employee’s protected activity. The TCHRA addresses only “ultimate employment decisions” and does not address “every decision made by employers that arguably might have some tangential effect upon employment decisions.”  Actionable adverse employment actions do not include disciplinary filings, supervisor’s reprimands, poor performance reviews, hostility from fellow employees, verbal threats to fire, criticism of the employee’s work, or negative employment evaluations.  The pleadings and record reflect Fratus did not allege any adverse employment decisions, only petty disagreements and internal rifts. Fratus failed to plead a prima facie claim. Fratus’s appellate brief states that he also has an issue under the Texas Open Meetings Act.  However, such does not meet briefing requirements because it lacks citations to the record or to applicable authority and therefore presents nothing for review. As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justices Kreger and Johnson. Opinion by Justice Johnson.  The attorney listed for Fratus is Laurence Watts.  The attorneys listed for the City are Tyrone Cooper and Sharae Reed.

U.S. Supreme Court holds EEOC charge filing process is mandatory, but not jurisdictional

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Fort Bend County v Davis, 18-525, (U.S. June 3, 2019).

Lois M. Davis filed a charge against her employer, petitioner Fort Bend County. Davis alleged sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the harassment. While her EEOC charge was pending, Fort Bend fired Davis because she failed to show up for work on a Sunday and went to a church event instead. Davis attempted to supplement her EEOC charge by handwriting “religion” on a form called an “intake questionnaire,” but she did not amend the formal charge document. Upon receiving a right-to-sue letter, Davis commenced suit in Federal District Court, alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.  After several years of litigation, Fort Bend raised the issue of the trial court’s lack of jurisdiction over the religious discrimination claim because she did not properly file a charge with the EEOC. The trial court agreed and dismissed the claim. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and the County appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court held the word “jurisdictional” is generally reserved for prescriptions delineating the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the persons over whom the court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction). A claim-processing rule requiring parties to take certain procedural steps in, or prior to, litigation, may be mandatory in the sense that a court must enforce the rule if timely raised. But not all mandatory rules are jurisdictional. Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule.

GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. If you would like to read this opinion click here.

December 2018 Condensed Summaries

The problem with December is courts try to get cases off their desk prior to the holiday break. Clients like to get stuff resolved before the holiday break. Which means a lot of stuff happens in December preventing me from keeping up with all of the cases coming out related to governmental entities.  While I do not like to do it very often, I am having to provide a condensed version of the case summaries for December 2018.

  1. 1st District COA holds county courts at law in Harris County are the exception and have exclusive jurisdiction for inverse condemnation claims. San Jacinto River Authority v. Charles J. Argento 01-18-00406-CV (Tex. App. — Houston [1st] Dec. 4, 2018). Opinion click here.  This is 36 page opinion where the First District Court of Appeals in Houston consolidated several cases where homeowners brought takings claims due to flooding. The court held the Legislature gave the Harris County civil courts at law exclusive jurisdiction over inverse-condemnation claims under Texas Government Code § 25.1032(c). Therefore, the district courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims. The district courts do, however, have subject-matter jurisdiction over the homeowners’ statutory takings claims under Government Code Chapter 2007, the Private Real Property Rights Preservation Act.

 

  1. University’s plea to the jurisdiction granted as to ex-employee subject to RIF. Francisco Sanchez, Jr. v. Texas A&M University- San Antonio 04-17-00197-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, Dec. 12, 2018). For opinion click A University employee (Sanchez) was subject to a reduction-in-force and brought discrimination charges after being demoted. Sanchez had two positions, with one being a project lead. He filed his EEOC charge for one position after the 180-day deadline from the date of the adverse action and the other EEOC charge was filed within 180 days for the second position. The court held the continuing violation doctrine did not apply to Sanchez. Further, Sanchez could not establish discrimination through direct evidence. The RIF was a legitimate non-discriminatory reason which was not disputed with competent evidence.

 

  1. Fact that attorney “sent” TTCA claim notice letter is irrelevant; TTCA requires notice to be “received’ within time period. City of San Antonio v. Gabriela Rocha 04-18-00367-CV (Tex App. – San, Antonio, Dec.12, 2018). For opinion click This is a TTCA police vehicle accident case. While the TTCA gives a plaintiff 180 days to provide written notice of claim to waive immunity, the City Charter only provided a 90 day window. And while the affidavit of Rocha’s lawyer notes he “sent” the notice timely, the plain language of the TTCA and Charter require the notice to have been “received” within the time period. So, formal written notice was not received timely. The court then analyzed whether the City had actual notice. After examining the record, the court held nothing indicates the City had actual notice of an injury or property damage. As a result, no waiver of immunity exists.

 

  1. Officer’s F-5 dishonorable discharged sustained since omission of material facts in report qualifies under a discharge for untruthfulness. Patrick Stacks v. Burnet County Sheriff’s Office 03-17-00752-CV (Tex. App. — Austin, 12, 2018). For opinion click here. This is an appeal from an F-5 determination that a sheriff’s deputy was dishonorably discharged. Stacks was terminated after a confidential information who personally observed a stop made by Stacks brought forth testimony of significant omissions by Stacks in his report. Stacks asserted the omissions did not amount to “untruthfulness.” The administrative law judge as the SOAH hearing disagreed and held Stacks was discharged for untruthfulness and therefore the dishonorable discharge should apply. The district court agreed. The court of appeals held the law recognizes the misleading effect of omissions. A failure to disclose a fact “may be as misleading as a positive misrepresentation…” As a result, for F-5 determinations, a discharge for untruthfulness includes a discharge for omitting material information or facts that rendered a statement misleading or deceptive.  The ALJ determination was sustained.

 

  1. Property Owners’ takings claims failed as Authority acted within its federal license under Federal Power Act. Jim Waller, et al v. Sabine River Authority of Texas 09-18-00040-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Dec. 6, 2018). For opinion click This is a flooding/inverse condemnation case. During a federal license renewal process, residents who live downstream of the Toledo Bend Dam presented their suggestions about changing the regulations governing the hydroelectric plant to prevent flooding. The suggestions were not incorporated. Then a historic rainfall event occurred causing flooding and the residents sued for takings claims. The Authority acted within the terms of its license and the flooding was caused by the historic rain levels. Further, Plaintiff’s arguments would impose duties expressly rejected by the federal agency during relicensing. As such, the claims are preempted by the Federal Power Act.

 

  1. Supreme Court remands case to COA to reevaluate based on its holding in Wasson II. Owens v. City of Tyler, 17-0888, 2018 WL 6711522, at *1 (Tex. Dec. 21, 2018). For the opinion click here.  The City of Tyler built Lake Tyler in 1946 and leased lakefront lots to residents in a manner very similar to Wasson. Tenants decided to build a new pier and boathouse extending from their lot onto the water. This caused neighboring tenants to object. The neighboring tenants sued the City after it issued a building permit.  After the intermediate court of appeals issued an opinion, the Texas Supreme Court issued the most recent Wasson decision. As a result, the Supreme Court send remanded the case back to the court of appeals in order analyze the case under the four-part test.

 

 

  1. Declaratory Judgment action was first filed, so later filed negligent action must be abated. In re: Texas Christian University, 05-18-00967-CV, (Tex. App. – Dallas, December 21, 2018). For opinion click here. Two negligent/medical malpractice claims were filed, one in Tarrant County and one in Dallas County. The cases are inherently interrelated. The central facts to both lawsuits involve the circumstances surrounding a student athlete’s injury during the September 2015 football game, the subsequent treatment from JPSPG physicians, and the alleged harassment and pressure he felt from TCU’s coaching staff to return to play. To resolve uncertainties regarding the hospital’s liability regarding the athletic event, TCU filed its declaratory judgment action seeking declarations regarding the construction and validity of the Health Services Contract.  As a result, the “first filed” rule dictates the later filed lawsuit by the student must be abated.

 

  1. Texas Supreme Court details statutory construction to determine emergency medical response exception to liability. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Denton, et al., v D.A., et al. 17-0256 (Tex. December 21, 2018). This is a medical malpractice case, but deals with the emergency medical responder provision of the Texas Medical Liability Act, similar in wording to the emergency responder provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act.  Utilizing statutory construction principals, the court noted punctuation and grammar rules can be crucial to proper construction. The Court focused on the prepositional phrase “in a” hospital, and determined the phrase placed before each contested text indicates the Legislature intended for each phrase to be treated separately. The Plaintiff’s construction argument would require the Court to ignore the second use of the prepositional phrase “in a” and renders that language meaningless. The Court declined to use external aides for construction (including the legislative history). While the Texas Code Construction Act allows a court to rely on such aides, even for unambiguous statutes, the Court held it is the Court, as the high judicial body, who decides when such aides will be used, not the Legislature. Further, statements explaining an individual legislator’s intent cannot reliably describe the legislature body’s intent. By focusing on the language enacted, the Court encourages the legislature to enact unambiguous statutes, it discourages courts from usurping the legislature’s role of deciding what the law should be, and it enables citizens to rely on the laws as published. As a result, based on the language in the statute, the Plaintiffs must establish willful and wanton negligence when their claims arise out of the provision of emergency medical care in a hospital obstetrical unit, regardless of whether that care is provided immediately following an evaluation or treatment in the hospital’s emergency department or at some point later, after the urgency has passed.

 

  1. Dog owner could seek injunction stay of municipal dangerous dog court order in county court at law. The State of Texas by and through the City of Dallas v. Dallas Pets Alive, Nos 05-18-00084-CV and 05-18-00282-CV. For the opinions click here and here. Rusty, a pit bull/terrier mix dog, bit and injured a two-year-old child at an adoption event. The City determined Rusty was a dangerous dog under Texas Health & Safety Code § 822.002 in municipal court. The adoption center filed an appeal but also filed for injunctive relief in county court at law to stop the municipal court’s order, which the county court at law granted. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction as to injunction order which was denied. The majority opinion held where the state initiates litigation, it has no immunity from suit. Further, the appellate court (i.e. county court at law) has jurisdiction to protect its own jurisdiction (i.e. involving the subject of a pending appeal). The court held the county court at law had jurisdiction to hear the dangerous dog appeal from municipal court and the injunction was propepr. Justice Lang dissented and would have held the county court at law would not have jurisdiction over the appeal.

Ex-employee failed to file supplemental EEOC charge, so failed to exhaust administrative remedies says Eastland Court of Appeals

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Christopher Wernert v. City of Dublin, 11-16-00104-CV (Tex. App. – Eastland, August 30, 2018).

This is an employment discrimination case were the Eastland Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s dispositive motion.

Wernert was a police officer for the City who suffered a serious knee injury on the job when he slipped and fell on an icy street while directing traffic. The injuries were listed as permanent preventing him from continuing patrol duties. However, Wernert was also an investigator and continued to perform those duties for two years. Then, the Chief of Police added patrol duties back into his job requirements. Wernert filed an EEOC/TWC charge.  Wernert was then required to exhaust his leave but was later terminated by a new Chief when he could not return to work, including patrol. Wernert filed suit but alleged acts which occurred after his EEOC charge was filed. The City filed a summary judgment motion, asserting a lack of jurisdiction for failing to exhaust administrative remedies. The trial court granted the motion and Wernert appealed.

Each discrete act of discrimination requires administrative remedy compliance. Discrete discriminatory acts are not actionable if time-barred, and each discrete discriminatory act starts a new clock for filing charges alleging that act.  The court analyzed the current state and federal law and whether Wernert was required to file a supplement charge in order to preserve acts which occurred after the first charge.  The only adverse actions taken prior to the first charge was a change in job duties, while the forced leave and termination occurred after his charge.  Adopting the reasoning from the U.S. Fifth Circuit expressed in Simmons-Myers v. Caesars Entertainment Corp., 515 F. App’x 269, 273 (5th Cir. 2013), the Eastland court held Wernert’s claims are precluded because he did not file an administrative charge for these discrete acts that occurred after his previous EEOC charge. Wernert was required to pursue administrative relief for each of these discrete acts even though they were related to the factual basis of his previous charge. And since the only acts for which he sought damages were the post-charge acts, the trial court properly granted the summary judgment.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Willson, Justice Bailey and Senior Justice Wright, Retired. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Bailey.  The attorney listed for the City is James T. Jeffrey, Jr.  The attorneys listed for Wernert are Robert J. Wiley and Eric P. Dama.

Sheriff’s deputy unable to sue for TCHRA, Whistleblower Act, and collective bargaining claims says Beaumont Court of Appeals

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Jefferson County, Texas v. Cherisse Jackson, 09-17-00197-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, July 26, 2018).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction in an employment suit where the Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed the Plaintiff’s claims.

Jackson sued the County alleging the sheriff and Deputy Werner with IA, discriminated and retaliated against her after she failed to cooperate in an investigation against another county employee, April Swain. Werner was investigating whether Swain and an inmate had been involved in a sexual encounter at the jail in 2014. Jackson claimed that Deputy Werner approached her to determine whether Jackson had witnessed the alleged encounter. When she told Werner she did not see the incident, Werner allegedly then asked for a written statement claiming she had while viewing a security monitor. Jackson refused and asserts she was later demoted, then not given a lieutenant’s position. Jackson later filed an EEOC complaint asserting retaliation and discrimination for failing to give the statement in violation of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”). Six days after Jackson filed her EEOC claim, she sued the County under the Texas Whistleblower Act. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied. The County appealed.

The County asserts Jackson failed to establish a causal connection between the failure to cooperate and the adverse actions. It asserts Jackson was demoted following a Disciplinary Review Board hearing, which found that in May 2015, Jackson engaged in insubordinate conduct toward Lieutenant Hawkins, a superior officer. The court held the documents attached to the County’s plea support the County’s allegation that it demoted Jackson because Lieutenant Hawkins filed a grievance against Jackson that a Disciplinary Review Board determined had merit. The investigation and the disciplinary proceedings involving Jackson consumed nearly the entirety of the six-month period during which Jackson was eligible to be considered for a promotion to lieutenant. Once produced, the burden shifted to Jackson to rebut with evidence of pretext, which she was unable to do. Under the TCHRA, Jackson asserts she participated in an investigation, so the anti-retaliation provisions apply.  However, under the TCHRA exhaustion of remedies must occur before a trial court can acquire jurisdiction over a party’s TCHRA claims. The court held Jackson exhausted her administrative remedies only for two of her claims, that the County demoted her then refused to promote her. But she failed to establish a causal connection. Further, as to Jackson’s Texas Constitution claims, none of the evidence the parties asked the trial court to consider established that Jackson had been treated any differently than other, similarly situated, employees. The collective bargaining agreement did not provide a protected property interest in rank. Additionally, any “free speech” claims she has brought relate only to her internal communications as part of her job and are not protected. Finally, since Jackson failed to follow the mandatory arbitration provision of the collective bargaining agreement, she cannot sue for breach.  As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justice Horton and Justice Johnson. Opinion by Justice Horton. The attorneys listed for the County are          Kathleen M. Kennedy and Quentin D. Price.  The attorney listed for Jackson is Laurence Watts

Employee failed to establish valid comparators in equal protection/employment discrimination case, so individuals entitled to qualified immunity says 5th Circuit

Mitchell v. Mills No. 17-40737 (5th Cir. July 13, 2018)

This is an equal protection in employment case where the 5th Circuit held the individual defendant mayors were entitled to qualified immunity.

Mills and Chartier were both mayors at different times during Mitchell’s employment by the City. Mitchell is an African-American man in the Public Works Department (“PWD”). Mitchell alleged the defendants paid him less than two comparable white coworkers.  Mitchell’s comparators are Davlin, who is a Street Superintendent and Heard, who was Davlin’s predecessor. Both comparators shared some overlapping duties with Mitchell, but they also had additional duties and skills including experience in operating street-related heavy equipment, including a motor grader. Mills and Chartier moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, which the trial court denied. They filed this interlocutory appeal.

Mitchell bears the burden to overcome qualified immunity. Mitchell may not rest on mere allegations or unsubstantiated assertions but must point to specific evidence in the record demonstrating a material fact issue.  In order to establish a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the employment context, a plaintiff must prove a racially discriminatory purpose or motive.  As part of his prima facie case of wage discrimination, Mitchell “must show that he was a member of a protected class and that he was paid less than a non-member for work requiring substantially the same responsibility.”  His circumstances must be “nearly identical” to those of a better paid employee. Given the undisputed facts, Davlin and Heard are not nearly identical comparators. They worked in the street department and Mitchell in the water department. Streets required specialized skills which were not required for Mitchell’s job. It is undisputed that Mitchell possessed none of these skills and that such skills and responsibilities were not required for his position. In sum, Mitchell failed to carry his burden to overcome the defendants’ claim of qualified immunity. The summary judgment should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices JOLLY, SOUTHWICK, and WILLETT. Opinion by Justice Jolly. Attorney listed for Defendants is Darren Keith Coleman.  The attorney listed for Mitchell is Dorian Vandenberg-Rodes.