El Paso Court of Appeals holds limitations defense in Whistleblower Act case could not be raised in a plea to the jurisdiction

Sims v. City of Madisonville, 08-15-00113-CV, 2018 WL 4659572, at *1 (Tex. App.—El Paso Sept. 28, 2018, no pet. h.)

This case involves a Whistleblower Act claim against the City of Madisonville where the El Paso Court of Appeals reversed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Sims was a police officer with the Madisonville Police Department from November 2004 until he was terminated on July 27, 2012. Sometime prior to termination Sims reported to Madisonville Chief of Police Charles May that he had learned Sims’ supervising officer, Sergeant Jeff Covington, and another officer were conspiring to plant narcotics in the vehicle of Sgt. Covington’s ex-wife. (Covington was in the middle of a custody battle with the ex-wife at the time.) Chief May did not utilize that information. Sims met with Chief May and Covington one day before his termination. Before the meeting, Sims accessed computer files through his own computer and discovered evidence against Covington. Sims claimed Chief May was surprised by Sims’ remote access of the computer files and concluded that Sims had violated the Department’s computer-use policies. Sims was terminated. Chief May asked the Texas Rangers to investigate Sims’ conduct. In August 2012, a grand jury indicted Sims for breaching computer security under the penal code, but the charge was later dismissed.  Sims challenged his F-5 “dishonorable discharge” designation at the State Office of Administrative Hearings ( “SOAH”). The SOAH hearing examiner found in favor of Sims, citing that the elements for a dishonorable discharge had not been met. Sims then filed suit under the Texas Whistleblower’s Act, 90 days after the SOAH hearing. Madisonville asserted that Sims’ two-year wait in filing his suit made it untimely. The trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction and Sims appealed.

Sims asserted that “non-compliance with the Whistleblower Act’s limitations provisions is not jurisdictional, and that an affirmative defense of limitations cannot be raised in a plea to the jurisdiction but must be proven in summary judgment proceedings.” The court agreed. Madisonville’s plea did not address any specific jurisdictional facts of Sims’ case regarding waiver of sovereign immunity.  It merely asserted the claims were untimely and argued limitations was jurisdictional. The court recognized that under certain statutes, a limitations bar could be jurisdictional, especially if the timing were indispensable to a jurisdictional question. However, that is not the contention raised or presented to the trial court by Madisonville. The court held the statute of limitations defense can be raised as an affirmative defense but not in a plea to the jurisdiction in this case.  The order granting the plea was reversed and remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justice McClure, Justice Rodriguez and Justice Hughes. Opinion by McClure. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.