Religious freedom plaintiffs lose because they sent a letter by fax instead of certified mail holds 5th Circuit.

Morgan v. Plano Independent School District, No. 12-40493 (5th Cir. July 26, 2013)

This is a Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”) case against the Plano Independent School District.  Plano ISD argued that TRFRA’s pre-suit notice requirement is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit and that because Plaintiffs did not strictly comply by sending a letter certified mail, return receipt requested (but by fax), PISD’s governmental immunity has not been waived. After lengthy analysis a divided panel held compliance was jurisdictional and reversed the denial of a partial summary judgment motion.

This is an older case which went through two previous appeals.  Four former elementary school students (“the Morgans”) sued alleging they were prevented from distributing a “candy cane ink pen” with a laminated card containing a religious message about the legend of the candy cane and its Christian origins. After six years of litigation, the ISD filed a partial summary judgment on the failure to give proper notice on the constitutional and TRFRA claims which was granted to some plaintiffs but denied to others. The District appealed. While this is an interlocutory appeal, the court determined it had jurisdiction since the federal courts must look to state substantive law and a lack of jurisdiction is appealable, even interlocutory.

The court went through a lengthy analysis in this twenty-three page opinion going over whether the notice requirement was jurisdictional and whether or not substantial compliance is sufficient. The Texas Code Construction Act expressly notes that notice provisions are jurisdictional and the court, citing to Texas Supreme Court precedent, held the notice could apply retroactively since it was procedural in nature.  The court dispensed with the argument that sovereign immunity is not governmental immunity since courts use them inter-changeably depending on the entity involved.  Since statutory waivers of immunity are to be interpreted narrowly “as written” and since the express language calls for certified mail, return receipt requested, that is the only condition the jurisdictional waiver can be triggered. As a result, the denial of the partial summary judgment was error. The court reversed and rendered a decision in favor of the District.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.