State News : Texas

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On April 5, 2019, the Texas Supreme Court held that, while the 45-day deadline to file for judicial review of an Appeals Panel decision is mandatory, it is not jurisdictional-- meaning that judicial appeals from decisions by the Division of Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel that are filed with the trial court past the 45-day statutory filing deadline do not automatically divest the trial courts of jurisdiction.  The Supreme Court’s decision overrules conflicting decisions from seven different Texas courts of appeals.

On March 17, 2012, Santiago Chicas (Santiago) fell from a ladder, sustaining fatal injuries.  His wife, Berlita Chicas (Chicas), sought workers’ compensation benefits from Texas Mutual, the workers’ compensation insurer for her husband’s employer.  Texas Mutual disputed the claim, and Chicas sought dispute resolution with the Division of Workers’ Compensation.    At CCH, the Hearing Officer found that Santiago was not an employee of the insured at the time of the injury, and therefore, his injury was not compensable.  Chicas appealed to the Appeals Panel.  On January 5, 2015, she was notified that after review by the AP, the Decision and Order was final. 

Meanwhile, and while the administrative proceedings were pending, Chicas filed a wrongful-death suit and then amended her probate-court pleadings, seeking judicial review of the administrative decision. Texas Mutual successfully filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  Twelve days after the probate court dismissed her claims, Chicas sought judicial review of the Appeals Panel decision in District Court. The District Court granted Texas Mutual’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed Chicas’ claims.  Chicas appealed.  The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Tex. Lab. Code Section 410.252(a)’s 45-day deadline for filing for judicial review of the agency’s decision is not a jurisdictional statutory prerequisite, and therefore, the trial court had erred in granting Texas Mutual’s plea to the jurisdiction.  (The Court did not address whether Chicas’ claims were timely, noting that the limitations issue was properly left for resolution by way of a motion for summary judgment.) In an opinion by Justice Brown, the Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Chicas’ failure to file suit before the 45-day deadline did not deprive the District Court of jurisdiction.  In reaching its decision, the Court examined: (1) the plain meaning of the statute, (2) whether the statute contains specific consequences for noncompliance, (3) the purpose of the statute, and (4) the consequences that would result from each possible interpretation of the statute. As part of its analysis, the Court noted that the plain text of the statute did not indicate any legislative intent that the statute be jurisdictional, that the statute did not require dismissal for failure to comply, and that the purpose of the statute was not to deprive courts of jurisdiction in certain cases.  The Court further stated that interpreting the statute as jurisdictional would “leave final judgments vulnerable to attack on the ground that the deadline was not met.”

Bottom line: a party arguing that the 45-day deadline was not met needs to raise and preserve that argument, since such an argument can be waived if not raised properly because it does not go to a court’s jurisdiction to hear the case.

Since Texas Mutual’s plea to the jurisdiction relied solely on argument that the 45-day deadline is jurisdictional, the Supreme Court declined to address argument as to whether the filing deadline is a statute of limitations that would trigger application of the tolling provision in a workers’ compensation appeal.  The case has been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. Texas Mutual Ins. Co. v. Chicas, No. 17-0501, 2019 WL 1495202, (Tex., April 5, 2019).

-  Copyright 2019, Erin Hacker ShanleyStone Loughlin & Swanson, LLP.