IN RE UNITED SERVICES AUTO. ASS'N

Decision Date26 March 2010
Docket NumberNo. 07-0871.,07-0871.
Citation307 SW 3d 299
PartiesIn re UNITED SERVICES AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION, Relator.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Lacey L. Gourley, Bracewell & Giuliani, L.L.P., Pamela Stanton Baron, Thomas R. Phillips, Baker Botts L.L.P., Austin, TX, Mario A. Barrera, Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, San Antonio, TX, William H. Ford, Ford & Massey, P.C., San Antonio, TX, for Relator.

Jeffrey D. Small, Law Office of Jeff Small, Jeffrey Alan Goldberg, Cynthia A. Cano, Law Offices of Jeffrey A. Goldberg, San Antonio, TX, for Real Party in Interest.

Charles C. High Jr., Kemp Smith P.C., El Paso, TX, for Amicus Curiae Texas Association of Business.

Vanetta Loraine Christ, Vinson & Elkins LLP, Houston, TX, for Amicus Curiae Texas Employment Law Council.

Daniel L. Geyser, Asst. Solicitor General, James C. Ho, Solicitor General of Texas, David S. Morales, Office of the Attorney General of Texas, Clarence Andrew Weber, First Assistant Attorney General, Greg W. Abbott, Attorney General of Texas, Austin, TX, for Amicus Curiae State of Texas.

Chief Justice JEFFERSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Texas has some 3,241 trial courts1 within its 268,580 square miles.2 Jurisdiction is limited in many of the courts; it is general in others. Compare TEX. GOV'T CODE § 25.0021 (describing jurisdiction of statutory probate court), with id. § 24.007-.008 (outlining district court jurisdiction); Thomas v. Long, 207 S.W.3d 334, 340 (Tex.2006) (noting that Texas district courts are courts of general jurisdiction). We have at least nine different types of trial courts,3 although that number does not even hint at the complexities of the constitutional provisions and statutes that delineate jurisdiction of those courts. See OFFICE OF COURT ADMINISTRATION, 2008 ANNUAL REPORT, TEXAS JUDICIAL SYSTEM, SUBJECT-MATTER JURISDICTION OF THE COURTS passim (2008), available at http://www.courts.state.tx.us/pubs/AR2008/ jud branch/2a-subject-matter-jurisdiction-of-courts.pdf;4 GEORGE D. BRADEN ET AL., THE CONSTITUTION OF THE STATE OF TEXAS: AN ANNOTATED AND COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS 367 (1977). Statutory county courts (of which county courts at law are one type)5 usually have jurisdictional limits of $100,000, see TEX. GOV'T CODE § 25.0003(c)(1), unless, of course, they do not, see, e.g., TEX. GOV'T CODE §§ 25.0732(a) (El Paso County), 25.0862(a) (Galveston County), 25.0942(a) (Gregg County), 25.1322(a) (Kendall County), 25.1802(a) (Nueces County), 25.2142(a) (Smith County); see also Sultan v. Mathew, 178 S.W.3d 747, 756 (Tex.2005) (Hecht, J., dissenting) (observing that "monetary jurisdictional limits on statutory county courts are generally from $500 to $100,000, but they vary widely from county to county, and many such courts have no monetary limits"). Appellate rights can vary depending on which court a case is filed in, even among trial courts with concurrent jurisdiction, and even when the same judge in the same courtroom presides over two distinct courts. See, e.g., Sultan, 178 S.W.3d at 752 (holding that there was no right of appeal to courts of appeals from cases originating in small claims courts, but recognizing that justice court judgment would be appealable); see also id. at 754-55 (Hecht, J., dissenting) (noting that the same justice of the peace hears small claims cases and justice court cases).6 Consider the five-step process involved in determining the jurisdiction of any particular trial court:

Recourse must be had first to the Constitution, second to the general statutes establishing jurisdiction for that level of court, third to the specific statute authorizing the establishment of the particular court in question, fourth to statutes creating other courts in the same county (whose jurisdictional provisions may affect the court in question), and fifth to statutes dealing with specific subject matters (such as the Family Code, which requires, for example, that judges who are lawyers hear appeals from actions by non-lawyer judges in juvenile cases).

OFFICE OF COURT ADMINISTRATION, SUBJECT-MATTER JURISDICTION OF THE COURTS at 1.

Our court system has been described as "one of the most complex in the United States, if not the world." BRADEN, THE CONSTITUTION OF THE STATE OF TEXAS, at 367; see also Continental Coffee Prods. Co. v. Cazarez, 937 S.W.2d 444, 449 (Tex.1996) (voicing "concern over the difficulties created for the bench, the bar, and the public by the patchwork organization of Texas' several trial courts"); Sultan, 178 S.W.3d at 753 (Hecht, J., dissenting) (noting that Texas courts' "jurisdictional scheme ... has gone from elaborate ... to Byzantine"); Camacho v. Samaniego, 831 S.W.2d 804, 807 n. 4, 811 (Tex.1992) (stating that "confusion and inefficiency are endemic to a judicial structure with different courts of distinct but overlapping jurisdiction" and observing that "there are still more than fifty different jurisdictional schemes for the statutory county courts"); TEXAS JUDICIAL COUNCIL, ASSESSING JUDICIAL WORKLOAD IN TEXAS' DISTRICT COURTS 2 (2001), available at http://www.courts.state. tx.us/tjc/TJC Reports/Final Report.pdf (observing that "`the Texas trial court system, complex from its inception, has become ever more confusing as ad hoc responses are devised to meet the needs of an urban, industrialized society'" (quoting CITIZENS' COMMISSION ON THE TEXAS JUDICIAL SYSTEM, REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS— INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY 17 (1993))).

Proposals to modernize this antiquated jurisdictional patchwork have failed,7 but the Legislature has attempted to address one of its most worrisome aspects. In 1931, the Legislature passed "an act to extend the period of limitation of any action in the wrong court." Act approved Apr. 27, 1931, 42d Leg., R.S., ch. 81, 1931 Tex. Gen. Laws 124, 124, current version at TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM.CODE § 16.064. This statute tolls limitations for those cases filed in a trial court that lacks jurisdiction, provided the case is refiled in a proper court within sixty days of dismissal. TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM.CODE § 16.064(a). The tolling provision does not apply, however, to those cases in which the first filing was made with "intentional disregard of proper jurisdiction." Id. § 16.064(b). We must decide today whether the plaintiff intentionally disregarded the jurisdictional limits applicable to county courts at law in Bexar County. Because we conclude that he did, in a way that cannot be cured by ordinary appellate review, we conditionally grant relief.

I. Background

James Steven Brite sued USAA, his former employer, alleging that it had illegally discriminated against him based on his age, violating the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). See generally United Servs. Auto. Ass'n v. Brite, 215 S.W.3d 400 (Tex.2007) ("Brite I"). He filed suit in the Bexar County Court at Law No. 7, which has jurisdiction concurrent with that of the district court in "civil cases in which the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $100,000, excluding interest, statutory or punitive damages and penalties, and attorney's fees and costs, as alleged on the face of the petition. ..." TEX. GOV'T CODE § 25.0003(c)(1). Brite asserted in his original petition that his damages exceeded the $500 statutory minimum, but he did not plead that his damages were below the $100,000 maximum. Brite I, 215 S.W.3d at 401. He pleaded that "in all reasonable probability, his loss of income and benefits will continue into the future, if not for the balance of his natural life" and sought "compensation due Plaintiff that accrued at the time of filing this Petition" (back pay), "the present value of unaccrued wage payments" (front pay), punitive damages, and attorney's fees. Id.

Before limitations expired, USAA filed a plea to the jurisdiction, contending that Brite's damage claims exceeded the $100,000 jurisdictional limit of the statutory county court, excluding interest, statutory or punitive damages, and attorney's fees and costs. USAA argued that because Brite's annual salary was almost $74,000 when he was terminated, his front pay and back pay allegations alone exceeded the county court's jurisdictional maximum. Brite opposed, and the trial court twice denied, USAA's jurisdictional plea. Shortly thereafter, Brite amended his petition to seek damages of $1.6 million, and subsequently claimed in discovery responses that "`his lost wages and benefits in the future, until age 65, total approximately $1,000,000.00.'" Brite I, 215 S.W.3d at 401 (quoting discovery responses). After a jury trial, the trial court awarded Brite $188,406 in back pay, $350,000 in front pay, $300,000 in punitive damages, $129,387 in attorney's fees, and prejudgment interest. Id.

A divided court of appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. See United Servs. Auto. Ass'n v. Brite, 161 S.W.3d 566, 579 (Tex.App.-San Antonio 2005, pet. granted). We reversed, concluding that the amount in controversy at the time Brite filed suit exceeded $100,000, depriving the county court at law of jurisdiction over the matter. Brite I, 215 S.W.3d at 402. We dismissed the underlying suit for want of jurisdiction. Id. at 403.

Within sixty days of our judgment dismissing the county court case, Brite refiled his claim in Bexar County district court. USAA filed a plea to the jurisdiction and moved for summary judgment asserting, among other things, that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Brite failed to file suit within TCHRA's two-year time limit; that the tolling provision in section 16.064 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code did not apply to TCHRA claims; and that even if it did, Brite's original suit was filed with "intentional disregard of proper jurisdiction," depriving him of that provision's protection. The trial court denied the plea and motion. The court of appeals denied relief, concluding that USAA had not established that its appellate remedy...

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