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.

 

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.

Supervisor entitled to qualified immunity as to one suspended employees 1st Amendment claim but not the other

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Benfield v. Magee, 18-30932, (U.S. 5th Cir. December 17, 2019)

This is a First Amendment in employment action where the U.S. 5th Circuit reversed the denial of the individual supervisor’s qualified immunity defense and dismissed the claims as to one employee, but not the other.

Warren and Benfield worked in Louisiana as paramedics for the Desoto Parish Emergency Medical Services. Louisiana paramedics must complete annual recertification training, which required the approval of the medical director. Warren asserts he suggested changes to the procedures manual which would prevent Magee, their supervisor, from electronically signing in lieu of the medical director. Warren asserts afterward Magee harassed him (including criticizing Warren’s religious beliefs, denying him a promotion, accusing him of inappropriate relationships.)  When a new co-medical director inquired into the Plaintiff’s recertification, they blamed Magee for telling them to electronically falsify the records. Magee suspended Warren and Benfield for falsification.   Warren and Benfield sued Magee directly, claiming that he suspended them for exercising their First Amendment free-speech and free-association rights.  The trial court denied Magee’s assertion of qualified immunity and he appealed.

Warren’s letter of changes to the procedure’s manual occurred 19 months prior to his suspension. And while a plaintiff can establish a causal connection with other inferences, Warren’s allegations do virtually nothing to establish a chronology or relationship. He states that this harassment occurred sometime after the June 2015 letter, yet provides no further specificity.  Warran would be unable to overcome the qualified immunity defense without stating with specificity when he was harassed.  As a result, his assertions are insufficient to establish a causal connection and such claims are dismissed. However, Magee made no substantive argument for dismissing Benfield’s free-speech claim, believing Benfield raised only a freedom of association claim. As a result, the denial was proper as to Benfield.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Stewart, Clement and Ho.  Opinion by Justice Clement. The attorney listed for Magee is Edwin H. Byrd.  The attorney listed for Warren and Benfield is Bryce J. Denny.

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.

Order granted County’s plea to the jurisdiction reversed by 13th Court of Appeals in Whistleblower Act case

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Leticia Perez v. Cameron County and Juan A. Gonzalez 13-17-00581-CV (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi & Edinburg, November 15, 2018).

This is a Texas Whistleblower Act case where the Thirteenth Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the order granting the County’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Perez worked as a deputy clerk in the Cameron County Clerk’s Office (“CCCO”). Perez asserts she had witnessed the elected clerk, Rivera, give kickbacks to CCCO vendors. She reported her concerns to the district attorney’s office and the FBI. Later, CCCO was audited for the problems which were the subject of Perez’s report to the district attorney and the FBI. Rivera allegedly “began a campaign of retaliation” against Perez which she believed was due to the report and her refusal to support Rivera’s successor. Perez filed a grievance against Rivera, who later terminated her. Perez filed a whistleblower claim against the County, alleging that she was wrongfully fired after she reported illegal activity by the county clerk. She also brought suit for negligence against the county assistant attorney who advised her to file a grievance.  The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. Perez appealed.

First, Perez did not file a grievance after her termination, but the County’s grievance procedure was applicable only to active employees, not former employees. Many courts have held that when the government has no grievance procedure or a grievance procedure that does not clearly apply to terminated employees, the procedure is not part of the required exhaustion of administrative remedies. The court held a terminated employee should not be obligated to follow a grievance procedure which does not exist or, as is the case here, a grievance procedure which does not apply to terminated employees. Perez’s second point of error essentially stated that she properly plead a good faith reporting. In her petition, Perez claimed that she observed Rivera engaging in potentially illegal activity by awarding “improper and illegal contracts” to CCCO’s vendors. She elaborated in her affidavit that she reported in good faith that Rivera exploited his post as county clerk to engage in “kickbacks and contract rigging.”  Such meets the required elements for bribery and abuse of official capacity, which are both penal provisions. The court held Perez sufficiently alleged a good faith report of a violation of the law. Finally, Perez argued that the trial court accidentally dismissed her claims against Gonzalez (the attorney) as part of its ruling on the County’s plea to the jurisdiction. After granting the plea as to the County, the order then provided, “all requested relief not be granted herein is hereby expressly DENIED.” However, this unambiguous language does not finally dispose of Perez’s claims against Gonzalez. Because the order did not expressly dispose of Perez’s claims against Gonzalez or include a clear and unequivocal finality phrase, it did not dismiss those claims.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Rodriguez, Justice Contreras and Justice Benavides. The attorney listed for the County is Juan A. Gonzalez. The attorney listed for Perez is Javier Pena.

 

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

Texas Supreme Court holds standards in same-sex discrimination cases are distinctly different than opposite-sex standards

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Alamo Heights Independent School District v Catherine Clark, 16-0244, — S.W.3rd – (Tex. April 6, 2018).

This is a workplace same-sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation case where the Texas Supreme Court held that while the actions complained of were vulgar, they were not motivated by an illegal purpose. Warning, this is a 66-page majority opinion. So, the summary is a bit long.

The Alamo Heights Independent School District (“AHISD”) employed Catherine Clark as a coach.  Clark asserts her fellow female coach, Monterrubio, began sexually harassing her by making continuous comments about her body. Clark filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.  The principal placed Clark on an intervention plan. Monterrubio was transferred to another campus. However, Clark was ultimately terminated and filed suit. AHISD filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. At the intermediate court of appeals, the panel held the high frequency of the non-severe comments nevertheless created a hostile environment centered around Clark’s gender and affirmed. Summary found here. The Texas Supreme Court granted review.

The facts take up a large section of the opinion. However, the key factual points of note are that Monterrubio would often comment about Clark’s boobs and appearance. Moterrubio would also comment about her own sex life to male and female employees, including sexual escapades involving three men in three nights. She would send vulgar cartoons intended to be humorous.  The Court noted the multitude of other events were not sexual in nature, but were merely rude or crass. Monterrubio’s behavior was the same whether it was addressed to a male, female, parent, teach or student. AHISD investigated Clark’s complaints each time, either at the campus level or district level. At one point the district did transfer Monterrubio to a different campus. However, Clark continued to have personality conflicts with other employees and her performance was continuously documented as being low. AHISD eventually terminated Clark.

The Court went through a very detailed analysis of same-sex harassment standards under Title VII and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”). Citing the seminal case of Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court held Title VII’s protection against workplace discrimination “because of . . . sex” applies to harassment between members of the same gender. The Court recognized same-sex discrimination cases are more complicated because of their nature. In addition to sexual desire, the Court noted a same-sex case can be established by showing general hostility to a particular gender in the workplace or direct comparative evidence of treatment of both sexes. However, all of the methods require conduct to have more than offensive sexual connotations, but to be discriminatory because of the gender.

The Court stressed and restressed that the context of the workplace and the individual acts is critical to an analysis of the sexual desire method. Clark never alleged, and no evidence established, Monterrubio was homosexual and none of the contexts demonstrate any sexual desire towards Clark, so the sexual desire method was disposed of. Next the Court noted there was no evidence of a general hostility towards women. None of the record “even hints” that Monterrubio’s behavior, characterized as mistreatment of men and women alike, evinces hostility towards women in the workplace. Finally, the Court noted there was no evidence of a comparative discrimination. The Court held comments about gender-specific anatomy, alone, does not create an inference of harassment.  Clark made over 100 wide ranging complaints about Monterrubio and only a handful were about gender-specific anatomy. Focusing “only on gender-specific anatomy and ignoring motivation is legally unsound and is a misreading of Oncale.” Regardless of how it might apply in opposite-sex cases, a standard that considers only the sex-specific nature of harassing conduct without regard to motivation is clearly wrong in same-sex cases.  Motivation, informed by context, is the essential inquiry. Under the retaliation claim, the Court held that permitting a retaliation case, predicated on a but-for analysis, to proceed to trial when the prima facie case has been rebutted and no fact issue on causation exists “defies logic.”  To qualify as a protected activity, complaining of harassment is not enough. The complainer must show some indication gender is the motive.  Therefore, none of Clark’s internal complaints constitute protected activity. However, the EEOC complaint does qualify as protected. The TCHRA does not protect employees from all forms of retaliation, only those actions which are materially adverse. The only actions taken against Clark which qualified was placing her on an intervention plan and the eventual termination. However, Clark failed to establish causal link between either of these actions and her EEOC complaint. Eight months elapsed between the EEO charge and recommendation for termination. Such is too long in this situation. Further, nothing shows the stated reasons for Clark’s termination were false. It is undisputed Clark failed to follow lesson plans, failed to maintain student grades properly and had low performance reviews. An employer is not forbidden from addressing performance issues involving employees who have engaged in protected activity, including following through on known pre-existing issues. As the jurisdictional analysis for the plea requires a full analysis of the factual issues, and Clark failed to carry her burden, the plea should have been granted.

The Majority’s opinion spends the last several pages responding to the dissent’s analysis (found here), calling the legal theories flawed and the listing of facts a distortion. The Court held the purported harassment is “repugnant and unacceptable in a civilized society. But we cannot step beyond the words of the statute…”  Plaintiff’s claims were therefore dismissed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. JUSTICE GUZMAN delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by CHIEF JUSTICE HECHT, JUSTICE GREEN, JUSTICE JOHNSON, JUSTICE DEVINE, and JUSTICE BROWN. JUSTICE BOYD filed a dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE LEHRMANN joined. JUSTICE BLACK did not participate.

Ex-employee failed to allege she was qualified for her position but court held she was entitled to amend in discrimination/retaliation case

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City of Granbury v. Christine Willsey 02-17-00343-CV (Tex. .App. — Fort Worth, March 15, 2018)

This is an age/sex discrimination and retaliation case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed-in-part and reversed-in-part the order denying the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Willsey worked for the City for over seventeen years, including nine years as a police officer and almost nine years as a public works inspector.  In 2016 the City eliminated her inspector position but reassigned her to be a permit clerk. Three days after she inquired as to how long before her retirement would vest, the City terminated her. The City asserts the inspector as well as the permit clerk position were eliminated and absorbed into the existing number of employees. The City filed a combined answer/plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court denied the plea. The City appealed.

The court went through a detailed point-by-point prima facie analysis. To be successful in an age discrimination claim a plaintiff must plead that she was either (1) replaced by someone outside the protected class, (2) replaced by someone younger, or (3) otherwise discharged because of her age. Willsey did not plea or establish she was qualified for the inspector position, only that she was eliminated. Simply because she was an inspector for nine years does not equate to her continued qualifications for the position. The same goes for her sex discrimination claims. Under the retaliation claims, Willsey asserts that the City pursued her after her termination by “making up false accusations against her and seeking criminal charges against her” for stealing records, interfering with her future employment. However, the court responded “[e]ven construing Willsey’s pleadings liberally in her favor, we are left to guess what the protected activity is that Willsey participated in prior to her termination that the final decisionmaker for the City was aware of and the causal link between that protected activity and her termination.” However, the court then analyzed whether the lack of pleading sufficiency could be cured by allowing her the ability to amend. Because this is a reduction-in-force case rather than a true replacement case, and the City’s arguments focus on a replacement case, it has not established an amendment would be futile. As a result, it remanded the case to allow the trial court to allow an amendment after some level of discovery has occurred.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Walker, Justice Kerr and Justice Pittman. The attorney listed for Willsey is Christopher S. Medlenka. The attorney listed for the County are Fredrick ‘Fritz’ Quast.

14th Court of Appeals holds employee does not have to file TWC charge of retaliation if the employee asserts retaliation for filing discrimination charge

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Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas v. Viola M. Douglas 14-17-00176-CV (Tex. App— Houston [14th Dist.] February 27, 2018)

This is an employment discrimination and retaliation case where the 14th District Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the employer’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Douglas is a lieutenant with the Metro Police Department (“Metro”). She applied for one of two available captain positions. Metro had procedures to use an outside agency to do competency assessments of candidates, but the Chief, at the time, decided to use a five-person panel of Metro employees. The panel scored Douglas the highest of the candidates. The Chief then interviewed the candidates and promoted both male candidates. Douglas was not promoted. Douglas filed a discrimination charge with the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division (“TWC”) but after 180 days without a right-to-sue letter, Douglas filed suit. After her charge was filed, Douglas asserts the incoming Chief (who was a female) had her performance review lowered. So, she added a retaliation charge to the suit. Metro filed its plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied.

An appeal is moot when there is no longer a live controversy between the parties and appellate relief would be futile. Live controversies exist so the claims are not moot. An adverse employment action in the context of a retaliation claim is not limited to conduct that constitutes ultimate employment decisions. Actionable conduct includes any actions that a reasonable employee would find materially adverse. A downgrade of an employee’s performance evaluation may constitute an adverse employment action if it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. As a result, Douglas jurisdictionally asserted an adverse employment action. Douglas argues she was not required to exhaust her administrative remedies because the trial court has ancillary jurisdiction over retaliation claims that grow out of an earlier discrimination charge. The court analyzed the different U.S. Supreme Court opinions on this type of argument. Ultimately, it held that a plaintiff cannot rely upon a continuing violation theory for retaliatory conduct which occurred prior to the original charge, but when the retaliatory conduct is allegedly in response to the original charge (i.e. retaliation grows out of a discrimination charge filed), the plaintiff need not exhaust a new set of administrative remedies. As a result, the trial court properly denied the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Jamison, Busby and Donovan. Justice Jamison delivered the opinion of the court. The attorney listed for Douglas is Linda D. King. The attorney listed for Metropolitan Transit Authority is Daniel Nicholas Ramirez and Hao Pham Le.

Austin Court of Appeals holds ex-professor properly alleged disability and age discrimination claim even where there is no legal obligation to renew a term contract

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Texas State University v. Dr. Kathleen Quinn 03-16-00548-CV (Tex.App—— Austin, Texas November 29,2017)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction in an employment-discrimination dispute where the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.

Quinn accepted an “emergency hire”  professor position for the University’s doctoral nursing program when it was just starting the program. When the University made the position permanent, Quinn applied.   She was  had progressive and severe nerve damage to her hands and feet. The pain in her feet made walking difficult. She requested an accommodation while in the temporary position, but nothing was done. The University did not hire Quinn and did not renew her contract the following year. She sued the University claiming disability and age discrimination and retaliation. She cast her case against the University as one coming within the terms of the Texas Labor Code section 21.051. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. It appealed.

The court held “[c]ontrary to the University’s argument, Quinn discharged her pleading requirement in her amended petition by asserting in minute detail the facts supporting her discrimination and retaliation claims. [she] filed a lengthy fact-studded response in which she marshaled evidence in support of each contested element of her discrimination and retaliation claims.”  Quinn brought forward evidence that she was qualified for the job she had and for the post she sought. Apparently satisfied with her qualifications, the University kept her on for two years in “emergency hire” status. The University argued because there is no legal obligation to renew a term contract, as a matter of law no “adverse action” can occur.  However, the court declined to make that holding as a bright line rule. Quinn established she was replaced by a non-disabled, younger female. She also complained to her employers about the failure to accommodate her disability, which can form the basis of her retaliation claim. As a result, the plea was properly denied.

If you want to read the opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Puryear, Field and Shannon. Justice Shannon delivered opinion of the court. To see the attorneys listed for the Appellant and Appellee’s click here.