Ninth Court ruling won’t let plaintiffs ‘thwart’ labor code by ‘reframing’ claim

David Yates May 28, 2015, 9:41am


The Ninth Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court’s ruling granting a plea to the jurisdiction motion brought by Communities in School Southeast Texas – effectively stopping a pair of plaintiffs from recasting their claim to avoid dismissal under the Texas Labor Code.

Originally alleging retaliation and discrimination, former CISSET employees Elizabeth Woods and Karen Prater filed suit against the outreach program and supervisor Karen Newton on Nov. 29, 2010, in Jefferson County District Court.

Woods was employed as a program coordinator. Prater was her subordinate. Both plaintiffs allege they were fired on false charges of insubordination.

On Nov. 14, 2012, their suit was dismissed for want of prosecution. A second lawsuit was filed on March 4, 2013, after the statute of limitations had lapsed on their discrimination claim, court records show.

CISSET responded to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit by filing a plea to the jurisdiction motion, which prompted the plaintiffs to amend their petition and discard the charges of retaliation and discrimination to avoid dismissal.

Nonetheless, trial court granted the plea and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice, court records show.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued the trial court erred because their common-law claims of breach of contract and fraud are not governed by the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act and that the claims against Newton should not have been dismissed because the TCHRA creates a cause of action only against an employer and not against supervisors or individual employees, states the Ninth Court’s May 21 opinion.

“A plaintiff may not recast her claim in the language of another cause of action to avoid limitations or compliance with mandatory statutes or to circumvent existing case law contrary to the plaintiff’s position,” the opinion states.

“The TCHRA affords public employees like Woods and Prater ‘a specific and tailored anti-retaliation remedy.’ The purposes and policies embodied in the TCHRA would be ‘thwarted’ if Woods and Prater could simply reframe their disputes as a fraud or breach of contract claim to ‘sidestep’ the requirements of the TCHRA.

“We conclude that the trial court properly dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against CISSET and Newton. We affirm the trial court’s judgment granting defendants’ plea to the jurisdiction and dismissing their claims with prejudice.”

Justice Leanne Johnson authored the opinion.

Missouri City attorney Larry Watts represents the plaintiffs.

Houston attorneys Carolyn Russell and Angela Prince of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart represent CISSET.

Appeals case No. 09-14-00021-CV

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