Constitutional exception to exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine does not include subject matters ancillary to administrative decisions

Houston Independent School District v. Rose, 01-13-00018-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.] July 2, 2013).

This is a failure to exhaust administrative remedies case which deprives the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction. The court’s analysis is important to consider when a plaintiff also brings a constitutional challenge arising out of the same subject matter.

Rose was under a one-year contract with the Houston Independent School District (“HISD”) whose position was eliminated under a reduction in force.  Rose initiated an administrative grievance procedure under the Texas Education Code but filed this suit before exhausting the procedures. The trial court dismissed her part of her claims when it granted the City’s plea to the jurisdiction but refused to dismiss Rose’s request for declaratory relief under Article I, Sections 3 and 8 of the Texas Constitution. The city filed this interlocutory appeal asserting the constitutional claims should have been dismissed as well.

The court went through a history of complaints and disciplinary actions against Rose dating back several years. In relation to this complaint, the Commissioner of Education held the HISD’s Board decision was supported by substantial evidence and upheld the dismissal. However, a month before the Commissioner’s decision, rose initiated this lawsuit. Among other things, Rose asserted she exercised her constitutional right to free speech by communicating her supervisor’s decisions not to admit a child to the mother (an action she was previously disciplined for) and that her husband criticized her supervisor on Facebook. Rose asserted that while she appealed the decision to eliminate her position, the administrative process did not allow her to challenge the motive behind the termination, thereby depriving her of proper due process.

The court noted the administrative exhaustion requirements do not apply in certain limited circumstances, one being where a party “has made a constitutional challenge that would remain standing after exhaustion of the administrative remedy.” Another exception applies of the exhaustion would have been futile. The court held the constitutional exception cannot be invoked if the constitutional claims are ancillary to and supportive of a complaint about the handling of an employment contract. The court held the Commissioner of Education has authority to consider the constitutionality of a district’s actions. Rose cannot excise her constitutional claims from her employment claims since they implicate the validity of HISD’s action.  The court also dismissed Rose’s assertion HISD was estopped from challenging her constitutional exception since HISD did not raise it in the trial court citing Texas Supreme Court cases that courts cannot obtain jurisdiction through estoppel. Finally, the court held the record does not negate the HISD Board’s careful consideration of the dismissal so there is no evidence qualifying under the futility doctrine. The court reversed the trial court’s denial and dismissed Rose’s claims.

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