The Third Court of Appeals issued an opinion on interlocutory appeal this morning affirming a trial court’s denial of a plea to the jurisdiction filed by the Austin Independent School District. The opinion clearly states that an AISD employee’s claim against the district for violation of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (the “Act”) is NOT a claim that the employee has been aggrieved by the school laws of the state, and accordingly the employee is not required to exhaust administrative remedies with the Texas Education Agency prior to initiating litigation.
The case involved a school bus driver who was, she claimed, constructively discharged by the AISD as a result of her anxiety disorder. She filed discrimination claims with the EEOC and the Texas Commission on Human Rights, thus arguably exhausting her administrative remedies under federal and state anti-discrimination laws (the Court did not consider the AISD’s argument that she had actually not exhausted administrative remedies under the Act). After receiving right to sue letters from the EEOC and the TCHR, the plaintiff sued the AISD in Travis County District Court, alleging disability-based discrimination.
The AISD filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming that AISD employees are required to pursue administrative remedies with the TEA prior to suing. The AISD’s argument was based on a provision of the Texas Education Code which gives the TEA jurisdiction over claims that an employee was aggrieved by “the school laws of the state” or by a breach of an employee’s employment contract. The Third Court of Appeals was unpersuaded by the AISD’s argument, holding that a discrimination claim is not a claim that the AISD violated the school laws of the state.
AISD did not demonstrate in its plea to the jurisdiction, appellate brief, or at oral argument how Lowery’s discrimination claim pertained to the administration of any school law. . . . We have not found, and AISD has not cited, any case holding that a school district employee’s discrimination claim under the Act pertains to the administration of school laws, such that the employee must exhaust the school district’s and the education code’s administrative remedies before a trial court may exercise jurisdiction over the discrimination claim.
The Court ends up holding that “An employee of a school district who brings suit for discrimination under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act is not aggrieved by the school laws of this state. Therefore, she need only exhaust the administrative remedies imposed by the Act and is not required to exhaust a local school district’s grievance procedures or any other administrative remedies found in the education code.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Pemberton writes that the majority “sweeps unnecessarily broadly” by not limiting its holding to the facts of this particular case. In other words, Justice Pemberton would have held that this discrimination claim did not invoke the school laws of the state, rather than discrimination claims generally.
A.I.S.D. v. Lowery, Cause No. 03-06-00169-CV