Appeals Court: Trial court erred, PAISD teacher did not exhaust administrative remedies

David Yates Feb. 6, 2008, 7:45am

Texas justices on the Ninth Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's ruling that would have allowed a former teacher to pursue civil action against the Port Arthur Independent School District over an alleged discrimination firing.

On Jan. 31, Chief Justice Steve McKeithen issued an opinion reversing and dismissing Judge Gary Sanderson's (60th District Court) ruling denying PAISD's jurisdiction claims concerning plaintiff Paula Mathews.

PAISD contended Mathews failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before filing suit for breach of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) settlement agreement and for retaliation under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, stated the opinion and court documents.

But Mathews argued she did not have to exhaust her administrative remedies before filing suit because her claims grew out of an earlier charge of discrimination.

After she was fired, Mathews filed a Title VII age and race discrimination complaint with the EEOC in October 2004. In March 2005, the parties executed a mediation conciliation agreement in which PAISD agreed to pay Mathews $35,500 and would permit her to apply for any open teaching positions.

When she was not rehired by the school district, Mathews claimed she was being discriminated against again and filed suit in the Jefferson County District Court on Jan. 5, 2006.

The parties had voluntarily mediated Mathew's earlier age and race discrimination claims and executed a settlement agreement before any EEOC determination was made. There was no pending claim of discrimination before the trial court when the retaliation claim arose, and Mathews did not file an administrative charge of retaliation or complain to the administrative agency regarding the alleged breach, Justice McKeithen wrote.

"We hold the trial court erred when it denied the school district's plea to the jurisdiction," he added. "Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order and dismiss the cause."

In its answer to Mathews' suit, the school district maintained that the teacher's firing was based on "legitimate, non-discriminatory or retaliatory reasons."

During the mediation process, PAISD agreed to provide Mathews a letter of recommendation. Although PAISD did not agree to rehire Mathews, the agreement stated that "Paula is encouraged by Port Arthur ISD to apply for any opening in her qualifications and, within the norms of the school principal having hiring authority, [PAISD] will support her application," wrote Justice McKeithen.

In April 2005, the EEOC joined the settlement, agreed to "terminate its investigation and to not use the above referenced charge as a jurisdictional basis for a civil action. . . ."

In her suit, Mathews alleged PAISD breached the settlement agreement by failing to hire her for positions available after April 2005, even though she was the most qualified. Mathews alleged the positions were intentionally and purposefully filled with less-qualified individuals. Court documents state that Mathews also alleged that the principals of the schools did support her application for openings in her qualifications, retaliating against her.

During the trial court proceedings, Mathews argued that Judge Sanderson had jurisdiction over her discrimination and breach of agreement claims. When Judge Sanderson denied PAISD's plea to the jurisdiction, the school district appealed.

In its appeal, PAISD contended the trial court erred in determining that Mathews was not required to exhaust the administrative remedies provided by Title VII before asserting her claims against the school district for breach of contract and retaliation, wrote Justice McKeithen.

"Generally, exhaustion of administrative remedies is a prerequisite to bringing a civil action under Title VII or the CHRA," he added.

"When PAISD allegedly retaliated against Mathews, no proceedings were active before any agency or court," wrote Justice McKeithen.

"In her case, filing a retaliation complaint with the EEOC would not have been a futile and redundant exercise; to the contrary, Mathews received relief on her initial complaint, and the settlement agreement specified that the EEOC did not waive or limit its right to investigate or seek relief on any other charge.

"We conclude that the trial court could not exercise jurisdiction over an unexhausted claim solely because Mathews asserted retaliation."

PAISD is represented the Feldman & Rogers law firm.

Mathews is represented by the Law Office of David E. Bernsen.

Appeals case No. 09-07-162 CV
Trial case No. B176-271

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