Martinez v. Texas Health and Human Services Commission
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS granting 17 MOTION to Dismiss 14 Amended Complaint/Counterclaim/Crossclaim etc. . The motion by Defendant Texas Health and Human Services Commission to dismiss the claims against it pursua nt to Rules 12(b)(1) and (b)(6) is GRANTED. Dkt 17.Martinezs claims under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act are DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. They may not be repleaded. Her disability-discrimination claim under Title VII is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. (Signed by Judge Charles Eskridge) Parties notified.(jengonzalez, 4)
United States District Court
Southern District of Texas
June 04, 2021
Nathan Ochsner, Clerk
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
TEXAS HEALTH AND
§ CIVIL ACTION NO.
§ JUDGE CHARLES ESKRIDGE
OPINION AND ORDER
GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS
The motion by Defendant Texas Health and Human
Services Commission to dismiss the claims against it for
violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Texas
Commission on Human Rights Act, and the Family and Medical
Leave Act and for disability discrimination under Title VII is
granted. Dkt 17.
Plaintiff Hortencia Martinez has worked at HHSC since
February 2009. Dkt 14 at ¶ 10. She accessed files regarding her
mother’s “denied case” in December 2016 and January 2017. Id
at ¶¶ 11, 15. It’s unclear what kind of case her mother had before
HHSC, why it was denied, or what information was contained in
those files. But Martinez claims to have accessed those files “with
the permission of her supervisor.” Id at ¶¶ 11, 15. Martinez then
asked Kelli Williams (her manager) in February 2018 “for
guidance regarding the process to follow to apply to request
benefits for her mother.” Id at ¶ 13. She concedes that Williams
told her not to access her mother’s files. Id at ¶ 15. A report from
the information-technology department was requested two days
later that showed she had already accessed those files. Williams
met with Martinez on March 8, 2018 about her access of those
files, which Martinez asserted that she’d done with approval. Ibid.
Williams and Lawrence Singleton (the interim director of
HHSC) then gave Martinez “a disciplinary action notice.” Id at
¶ 16. It stated that “Martinez had until 5:00 p.m. on March 22,
2018 to submit a written rebuttal to the notice” or she would face
immediate termination. Ibid. Martinez claims that she timely
submitted a rebuttal to Williams by email. Id at ¶ 17.
Martinez then submitted an employment-discrimination
complaint with HHSC on March 26, 2018. Id at ¶ 18. Martinez
alleged that “she was being treated differently, and less favorably,
than other HHSC non-Hispanic employees” because “other
HHSC non-Hispanic employees that violated that same rule were
not reprimanded and were not told that they could be
terminated.” Ibid. Martinez was then terminated on March 28,
Martinez also pleads numerous facts regarding her health and
related need to avail herself of the Family Medical Leave Act. Id
at ¶¶ 3, 12–15. She specifically claims to suffer from “an
autoimmune disease, which requires her to take time off every
month,” along with “anxiety and panic attacks.” Id at ¶ 12.
Martinez asserts that she was on FMLA leave from
November 15th to 17th of 2017 and claims that she was offered
a promotion on the latter date. Ibid. But she was also told “that
there would be limited leave approval for the first six (6) months
of her new position.” Id at ¶ 13. So, Martinez says, she expressed
concern to Williams about her continued need for monthly
injections. Id at ¶ 13. Williams allegedly responded “that although
leave would be limited, it did not mean that it would not be
approved.” Ibid. After Williams confronted Martinez about her
accessing her mother’s files, Martinez had a panic attack and
asked Williams to allow FMLA leave for the remainder of the
day, which was approved. Id at ¶ 15. Williams also approved her
request for leave the next day due to the rescheduling of an
infusion-treatment appointment. Ibid.
Martinez ultimately filed a charge against HHSC with the
United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in
September 2018 “for discrimination based on race and disability
and for retaliation against Plaintiff for participating in protected
activities.” Id at ¶ 8. The EEOC issued Martinez a right-to-sue
notice on August 5, 2020. Ibid.
Martinez then brought action against HHSC in October
2020. Dkt 1. HHSC moved to dismiss, and Martinez responded.
Dkts 12, 15. Martinez also amended her complaint, now asserting
claims for race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964, 42 USC § 2000e-2(a) and § 21.051 of the
Texas Labor Code. Dkt 14 at ¶¶ 19–26. She also asserts claims
for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under
the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 USC §§ 12101, et seq,
disability discrimination under Title VII, and for retaliation in
violation of Title VII and § 21.055 of the Texas Labor Code. Id at
¶¶ 27–43. Martinez lastly asserts that HHSC “interfered with her
FMLA rights in violation of 29 USC § 2601, et seq.” Id at ¶ 6. The
then-pending motion to dismiss was denied as moot given the
amended complaint. Minute Entry of 02/25/2021.
HHSC now again moves to dismiss the TCHRA, ADA, and
FMLA claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure, as it argues those claims are barred by sovereign
immunity. Dkt 17. HHSC further moves to dismiss the Title VII
claim for disability discrimination pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of
the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Ibid.
2. Legal standard
Federal courts are ones of limited jurisdiction. Howery v
Allstate Insurance Co, 243 F3d 912, 916 (5th Cir 2001), citing
Kokkonen v Guardian Life Insurance Co of America, 511 US 375, 377
(1994). Rule 12(b)(1) permits a defendant to seek dismissal of an
action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Fifth Circuit
holds that dismissal is appropriate “when the court lacks the
statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the claim.” In re
FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Mississippi
Plaintiffs), 668 F3d 281, 286 (5th Cir 2012), quoting Home Builders
Association, Inc v City of Madison, 143 F3d 1006, 1010 (5th Cir 1998).
The burden is on the party asserting jurisdiction to establish
by a preponderance of the evidence that subject-matter
jurisdiction is proper. New Orleans & Gulf Coast Railway Co v
Barrois, 533 F3d 321, 327 (5th Cir 2008), citing Howery, 243 F3d
at 919; Paterson v Weinberger, 644 F2d 521, 523 (5th Cir 1981).
Indeed, a presumption against subject-matter jurisdiction exists
that “must be rebutted by the party bringing an action to federal
court.” Coury v Prot, 85 F3d 244, 248 (5th Cir 1996).
UTMB also moves to dismiss Martinez’s claim for disability
discrimination under Title VII pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dkt 17 at 10. Standards in this
regard needn’t be stated because Martinez responded that she “is
not pursuing a disability discrimination claim under Title VII.”
Dkt 18 at 9–10.
Properly understood, sovereign immunity is a legal concept
predating both the Eleventh Amendment and the United States
Constitution as a whole. Cutrer v Tarrant County Local Workforce
Development Board, 943 F3d 265, 268 (5th Cir 2019) (citations
omitted). Indeed, the Supreme Court holds that “the States’
immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty
which the States enjoyed before the ratification of the
Constitution, and which they retain today.” Alden v Maine, 527 US
706, 713 (1999); see also Franchise Tax Board v Hyatt, 139 S Ct
1485, 1496 (2019) (citations omitted). Even so, questions of
sovereign immunity are now typically resolved under the rubric
of the Eleventh Amendment.
The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution
provides, “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be
construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or
prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of
another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”
This text “bars an individual from suing a state in federal court
unless the state consents to suit or Congress has clearly and
validly abrogated the state’s sovereign immunity.” Perez v Region
20 Education Service Center, 307 F3d 318, 326 (5th Cir 2002)
(citations omitted). It has been further construed that “sovereign
immunity also prohibits an individual from suing his home state
in federal court.” Cutrer v Tarrant County Local Workforce
Development Board, 943 F3d 265, 269 (5th Cir 2019), citing Hans v
Louisiana, 134 US 1 (1890).
The Fifth Circuit holds, “Even in cases where the State itself
is not a named defendant, the State’s Eleventh Amendment
immunity will extend to any state agency or other political entity
that is deemed the ‘alter ego’ or an ‘arm’ of the State.” Vogt v
Board of Commissioners of the Orleans Levee District, 294 F3d 684, 688–
89 (5th Cir 2002), citing Regents of the University of California v Doe,
519 US 425, 429 (1997). As such, HHSC is a state agency entitled
to sovereign immunity. Cephus v Texas Health and Human Services
Commission, 146 F Supp 3d 818, 827 (SD Tex 2015), quoting
Janek v Harlingen Family Dentistry, PC, 451 SW3d 97, 99 (Tex
App—Austin 2014, no pet); Tex Govt Code § 531.021(a).
Three exceptions allow for suits against states, state agencies,
and state officials in federal court.
First, a state may explicitly waive its sovereign immunity.
College Savings Bank v Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense
Board, 527 US 666, 670 (1999), citing Clark v Barnard, 108 US 436,
447–48 (1883). Such waiver may not be implied. Sossamon v Texas,
563 US 277, 285 (2011) (citations omitted). Instead, such consent
to suit “must be ‘unequivocally expressed’ in the text of the
relevant statute.” Ibid, citing Pennhurst State School and Hospital v
Halderman, 465 US 89, 99 (1984).
Second, Congress may abrogate sovereign immunity through
“the exercise of its power to enforce the Fourteenth
Amendment—an Amendment enacted after the Eleventh
Amendment and specifically designed to alter the federal-state
balance.” Florida Prepaid, 527 US at 670, citing Fitzpatrick v Bitzer,
427 US 445 (1976).
Third, the Ex parte Young doctrine avoids the bar to suit if the
“complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks
relief properly characterized as prospective.” Verizon Maryland Inc
v Public Service Commission of Maryland, 535 US 635, 645 (2002),
quoting Idaho v Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 US 261, 270 (1997).
a. ADA claims
Martinez brings claims for disability discrimination and
failure to accommodate under Title I of the ADA, 42 USC
§§ 12101, et seq. Dkt 14 ¶¶ 27–34. The State argues that sovereign
immunity bars these claims. Dkt 17 at 7–8. Martinez argues in
response that Texas knowingly waived its sovereign immunity as
to her ADA claims because it accepted federal funding. Dkt 18
Title I of the ADA provides, “A State shall not be immune
under the eleventh amendment to the Constitution of the United
States from an action in Federal or State court of competent
jurisdiction for a violation of this chapter.” 42 USC § 12202. The
plain text of the statute appears to abrogate the sovereign
immunity of the individual States. “But the Supreme Court has
held that Congress exceeded its constitutional abrogation
authority in enacting § 12202.” Sullivan v Texas A&M University
System, 986 F3d 593, 596 (5th Cir 2021), citing Board of Trustees v
Garrett, 531 US 356, 374 (2001). As such, Martinez can’t rely on
abrogation to overcome Texas’s sovereign immunity from her
claim under Title I of the ADA.
Texas also hasn’t waived its immunity to suit under Title I of
the ADA by accepting federal funds. The pertinent statute
A State shall not be immune under the Eleventh
Amendment of the Constitution of the United
States from suit in Federal court for a violation
of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
[29 USC § 794], title IX of the Education
Amendments of 1972 [20 USC §§ 1681 et seq],
the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 [42 USC §§
6101 et seq], title VI of the Civil Rights Act of
1964 [42 USC §§ 2000d et seq], or the provisions
of any other Federal statute prohibiting
discrimination by recipients of Federal financial
42 USC § 2000d-7(a)(1). Those enumerated statutes “deal solely
with discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance.”
Cronen v Texas Department of Human Services, 977 F2d 934, 937
(5th Cir 1992). And so, “a plaintiff seeking to invoke the residual
clause must show his cause of action arises under a statute within
that defined set.” Sullivan, 986 F3d at 597, citing Yates v United
States, 574 US 528, 545 (2015).
The Fifth Circuit holds, “Title I of the ADA does not fall
within the residual clause of § 2000d-7(a)(1).” Sullivan, 986 F3d
at 597; see also Levy v Kansas Department of Social & Rehabilitation
Services, 789 F3d 1164, 1171 (10th Cir 2015). This means that
Texas hasn’t waived sovereign immunity under Title I of the
ADA by accepting federal funds.
The claims under Title I of the ADA must be dismissed as
barred by sovereign immunity.
b. FMLA Claim
HHSC argues that it “has sovereign immunity to Plaintiff’s
discrimination and retaliation claims to the extent those claims
stem from Plaintiff taking FMLA self-care leave as well as any
claims under the FMLA.” Dkt 17 at 9–10; see Dkt 14 ¶¶ 6, 12–
15. Martinez responded that by “accepting federal financial aid,
Defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived its Eleventh
Amendment immunity to suits under any anti-discrimination
statute, including the FMLA.” Dkt 18 at 9.
Like the ADA, the FMLA purports to make States amenable
to suit. Sullivan, 986 F3d at 596, citing 29 USC §§ 2617(a)(2),
2611(4)(A)(iii). Unlike under Title I of the ADA, “Congress acted
constitutionally in making the States amenable to suit” under the
FMLA’s family-care provision. Sullivan, 986 F3d at 596, citing 29
USC § 2612(a)(1)(C) (emphasis added). But Martinez doesn’t
bring action under that provision. She (like the plaintiff in
Sullivan) instead sued under the self-care provision. 29 USC §
2612(a)(1)(D). And the Supreme Court holds that Congress
exceeded its constitutional powers in trying to make States
amenable to suit with respect to that provision. Sullivan, 986 F3d
at 596, citing Coleman v Court of Appeals of Maryland, 566 US 30,
43–44 (2012). As such, Martinez can’t rely on abrogation to
overcome Texas’s sovereign immunity from her FMLA claim.
Texas also hasn’t waived its immunity to suit under the selfcare provision of the FMLA by accepting federal funds. Like
Title I of the ADA, the FMLA isn’t among the statutes
mentioned in § 2000d-7(a)(1). And as with Title I of the ADA,
the Fifth Circuit holds that the FMLA doesn’t deal “solely with
discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance.”
Sullivan, 986 F3d at 598, quoting Cronen, 977 F2d at 937. This
means that the FMLA likewise doesn’t “fall within the ambit of
§ 2000d-7(a)(1)’s residual clause.” Sullivan, 986 F3d at 598. Texas
therefore hasn’t waived sovereign immunity under the FMLA by
accepting federal funds. Ibid.
The FMLA claim must be dismissed as barred by sovereign
c. TCHRA claims
Martinez brings claims for race discrimination and retaliation
under §§ 21.051 and 21.055 of the Texas Labor Code, otherwise
known as The Texas Commission on Human Rights Act. Dkt 14
at ¶¶ 24–26, 42–43. The State moves to dismiss those claims
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) as barred by sovereign immunity. Dkt
17 at 8.
Claims against the State or one of its agencies under the
TCHRA are barred by sovereign immunity in federal court unless
the State or agency waived its immunity. The Fifth Circuit plainly
holds, “In the TCHRA, the State of Texas waives its immunity to
suit in state courts, but it ‘does not expressly waive sovereign
immunity in federal court.’” Sullivan, 986 F3d at 599, quoting Perez,
307 F3d at 332 (emphasis in original). This is because “a State’s
waiver of sovereign immunity in its own courts is not a waiver of
the Eleventh Amendment immunity in the federal courts.”
Pennhurst, 465 US at 99 n 9 (citations omitted). Thus, “the
Eleventh Amendment bars the adjudication of pendent state law
claims against nonconsenting state defendants in federal court.”
Hernandez v Texas Department of Human Services, 91 F Appx 934,
935 (5th Cir 2004, per curiam), citing Pennhurst, 465 US at 120. This
is in fact a well-settled proposition as applied to the TCHRA. For
example, see Pequeño v University of Texas at Brownsville, 718 F Appx
237, 241 (5th Cir 2018); Wei-Ping Zeng v Texas Tech University Health
Science Center, 836 F Appx 203, 207 (5th Cir 2020, per curiam);
Hernandez v Texas Department of Human Services, 91 F Appx 934,
935 (5th Cir 2004, per curiam) (citation omitted).
The TCHRA claims must be dismissed as barred by
d. Disability-discrimination claim under Title VII
Martinez claims that HHSC “intentionally engaged in
unlawful employment practices involving Plaintiff because of her
race and disability.” Dkt 14 ¶ 36. HHSC moves to dismiss
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) because any “disability discrimination
claim would not fall within the purview of Title VII’s protected
classes so Plaintiff has not stated a claim upon which relief can
be granted.” Id at 10. Martinez in response states that she “is not
pursuing a disability discrimination claim under Title VII.”
Dkt 18 at 9–10.
The disability-discrimination claim under Title VII will be
dismissed to the extent it has been pleaded.
4. Potential for repleading
A district court “should freely give leave [to amend] when
justice so requires.” FRCP 15(a)(2). The Fifth Circuit holds that
this “‘evinces a bias in favor of granting leave to amend.’” Carroll
v Fort James Corp, 470 F3d 1171, 1175 (5th Cir 2006) (citation
omitted). But the decision whether to grant leave to amend is
within the sound discretion of the district court. Pervasive Software
Inc v Lexware GmbH & Co KG, 688 F3d 214, 232 (5th Cir 2012)
(citation omitted). It may be denied “when it would cause undue
delay, be the result of bad faith, represent the repeated failure to
cure previous amendments, create undue prejudice, or be futile.”
Morgan v Chapman, 969 F3d 238, 248 (5th Cir 2020), citing Smith v
EMC Corp, 393 F3d 590, 595 (5th Cir 2004).
The ADA, TCHRA, and FMLA claims will be dismissed
without prejudice because sovereign immunity deprives the
Court of subject-matter jurisdiction. She may not replead them.
The disability-discrimination claim under Title VII will be
dismissed with prejudice as voluntarily abandoned.
The motion by Defendant Texas Health and Human
Services Commission to dismiss the claims against it pursuant to
Rules 12(b)(1) and (b)(6) is GRANTED. Dkt 17.
Martinez’s claims under the Texas Commission on Human
Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family
Medical Leave Act are DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. They
may not be repleaded.
Her disability-discrimination claim under Title VII is
DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
The claims for race discrimination and retaliation under Title
VII will proceed, as neither has been subject to a motion to
dismiss. Dkt 14 at ¶¶ 19–23, 35–38, and 39–41.
Signed on June 4, 2021, at Houston, Texas.
Hon. Charles Eskridge
United States District Judge
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