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Res Judicata

WERE THE STUDENT’S CLAIMS BARRED BECAUSE OF HER PREVIOUS SUITS?

Case citation:  Crawford v. San Marcos CISD, 2015 WL 236653 (W.D. Tex. 2015) (unpublished).

Summary: Rachel Crawford was a high school student at San Marcos High School. She had Asperger’s Syndrome and received special education services as a result. In August of 2006, she allegedly suffered a head injury when school employees attempted to restrain her on the floor of the girl’s bathroom. A mediation was conducted between Rachel’s mother and the school district, and before any lawsuit was filed Rachel’s mother entered into a settlement agreement, withdrawing all complaints regarding the August 2006 incident and releasing the district and district employees from any claims that could have arisen out of the incident.

After the settlement agreement, Rachel was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation and had surgery. When she returned to school from the surgery, Rachel became emotionally distraught. On one occasion, school staff feared she may jump from a second floor railing. Rachel was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and received involuntary mental health care. She returned to school in the spring of 2008, and alleged that the district placed her in a small room in the school library where she was separated from other students and threatened with suspension if she didn’t adhere to a strict schedule.

In August of 2009, Rachel’s mother filed the first of three lawsuits against the district. The parties eventually settled this lawsuit, and agreed to a Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice. In it, Rachel’s mother stipulated on the student’s behalf that all of the claims and causes of action that were or could have been brought against the district and all current or former employees were dismissed with prejudice.

Rachel filed a lawsuit on her own behalf before the first suit was settled. This lawsuit was based on the same August 2006 incident and spring 2008 incident that were addressed in the first lawsuit. This suit was eventually dismissed, and in March of 2014 Rachel filed a third lawsuit, alleging claims under the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Rachel’s claims are barred by the doctrine of res judicata and the previous settlement agreements.

Ruling: The court granted the district’s motion of summary judgment and concluded that Rachel’s claims were barred under the doctrine of res judicata. The doctrine of res judicata forecloses re-litigation of claims that were or could have been raised in a prior action. The elements that must be met for a claim to be barred by res judicata are: “(1) the parties in both the prior and current suit must be identical or in privity; (2) the judgment in the prior action was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (3) the prior action was concluded to a final judgment on the merits; and (4) the same claim or cause of action was involved in both actions.”

The first element of res judicata was met because the suits were all filed by either Rachel or Rachel’s mother. When Rachel’s mother filed the first suit, Rachel was a minor and Rachel’s mother was filing the suit on her behalf. This means there is privity between Rachel and her mother. The court found that there was clearly a final judgment rendered by a competent court, so the second and third elements were met without much need for analysis.

The court held that the fourth element of res judicata was also met and, thus, Rachel’s third lawsuit was barred by res judicata. The court determined that the fourth element was met by using the “transaction test,” which required analysis of whether the two actions were “based on the same nucleus of operative fact.” The first suit was brought under the IDEA while the third suit was brought under the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and Fourteenth Amendment. However, both suits were based on the identical facts occurring in the same time period—that is, both were based on the August 2006 restraint incident and the spring 2008 isolated classroom incident. Therefore, the two actions were based on the same nucleus of operative fact, and the final element of res judicata was satisfied. Rachel’s third lawsuit was therefore barred, and the court granted the district’s motion for summary judgment.

 

Settlement Agreements

THE DISTRICT WAS NOT ENTITLED TO ENFORCE THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT

Case citation: Barragan v. Nederland ISD, 2015 WL 474282 (Tex. App. – Beaumont 2015) (unpublished).

Summary: Irma Barragan appealed the trial court’s enforcement of an agreement to settle the lawsuit and dismissal with prejudice of her personal injury lawsuit against Nederland Independent School District. Irma Barragan sued the Nederland Independent School District and Janis L. Pokraka for injuries allegedly sustained when Barragan’s vehicle, which was sitting at a stop sign, was struck by a school district bus driven by Pokraka when Pokraka made an improper left turn. Barragan asserted a cause of action for negligence and claimed that she suffered significant bodily injuries as a result of the accident.

The district denied that it was liable and also alleged that Barragan was negligent in operating her vehicle. The district contended that any recovery by Barragan should be reduced by her percentage of responsibility. A letter, dated July 19, 2012, from the school district’s counsel, Monica Wilkins, to Barragan’s counsel, Cynthia Frederick, offered to “settle this case” for $20,000 “inclusive of any and all subrogation claims, healthcare liens, Medicaid liens, Medicare liens, workers’ compensation liens, hospital liens and/or child support liens.” The letter requested, “[i]f your client agrees to settle for $20,000.00, please sign below and fax this agreement back to me.” The letter, which was e-filed with the court on September 25, 2012, contained the signature of Frederick, but did not contain Barragan’s signature. On September 27, 2012, Barragan filed a motion to substitute Paul “Chip” Ferguson as her attorney, citing as grounds Frederick’s alleged failure to communicate, and failure to adequately represent Barragan.

The next day, the district filed a “Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement” in which it contended that the letter signed by Frederick constituted “an enforceable settlement agreement in accordance with Rule 11 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.” Barragan, however, claimed that she never agreed to the Rule 11 agreement and that it was not valid.

At the hearing on the district’s motion to enforce the Rule 11 agreement, Barragan’s former attorney testified that Barragan agreed to settle the case. Following the hearing, the trial court signed an order granting the district’s motion to enforce the agreement. The trial court also entered an order dismissing the suit and awarding the district court costs and attorney’s fees. Barragan then filed this appeal.

Ruling: The court of appeals reversed the dismissal and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings.  The appeals court observed that, when parties reach a settlement agreement in pending litigation, the court may render an agreed judgment as long as no party has withdrawn consent. If a party has withdrawn its consent, the settlement may be enforced as a contract if the agreement complies with the requirements of Rule 11. The agreement may be filed with the trial court even after one of the parties withdraws its consent, but it must be filed before one of the parties attempts to enforce it. Under Rule 11, “no agreement between attorneys or parties touching any suit pending will be enforced unless it be in writing, signed and filed with the papers as part of the record, or unless it be made in open court and entered of record.”

The district raised a breach of contract claim. However, the trial court did not order Barragan to sign a settlement agreement, release, judgment, or otherwise specifically perform under the agreement, and it did not award monetary damages to the district. The trial court had before it conflicting evidence from Barragan and Frederick regarding whether Frederick had authority to settle Barragan’s case, and with the exception of the monetary amount of the settlement and the liens to which it was intended to apply, no evidence was before the trial court as to the specific terms of the purported settlement agreement. The district did not present either its motion to enforce the agreement or its motion to dismiss as a summary judgment motion, a request for declaratory judgment, or a motion to dismiss. Nor did it observe the procedures applicable to seeking such final pretrial dispositions, and the trial court did not conduct a bench trial. The trial court did not resolve any factual issues, nor did it determine that no genuine issues of material fact existed. The appeals court, therefore, concluded that the trial court erred by adjudicating the validity of the Rule 11 agreement and dismissing Barragan’s case with prejudice without either following proper procedures for a final pretrial disposition or conducting a bench trial. The appeals court reversed the trial court’s orders granting the district’s motion to enforce the Rule 11 agreement, dismissing Barragan’s case with prejudice and awarding attorney’s fees to the district. The court returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

 

Commissioner Jurisdiction

THE COMMISSIONER LACKED JURISDICTION OVER THE PARENT’S CLAIMS

Case citation: Parent v. Comal ISD, Dkt. No. 020-R8-10-2013 (Comm’r Educ. September 29, 2014).

Summary: A mutual agreement was reached to resolve a dispute between the parent and Comal Independent School District. The signed agreement stated that the parent would release the district from any and all claims that the parent had against it. It also stipulated that the superintendent would provide certain documents requested by the parent.

The parent later brought a complaint to the Commissioner, claiming that the district improperly withheld documents concerning the child. The district argued that the parent did not exhaust all administrative remedies, and as a result, the Commissioner did not have jurisdiction over the claim.

Ruling: The Commissioner dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. The Commissioner’s jurisdiction under the Texas Education Code is limited to actions and decisions of a school board. The petitioner must file a grievance and get a school board ruling before appealing to the Commissioner. In this case, the parent never filed a grievance with the school board. Therefore, there was no school board ruling upon which the Commissioner could rule. Because the parent did not exhaust all administrative remedies, the Commissioner had no jurisdiction over the case.

 

DID THE DISTRICT PREVENT THE TEACHER FROM EXHAUSTING ADMINISTRATIVE REMEDIES?

Case citation: Tafoya v. El Paso ISD, Dkt. No. 034-R10-01-2014 (Comm’r Educ. August 15, 2014).

Summary: Robbie Tafoya was employed by the El Paso Independent School District until his resignation on April 1, 2013. On November 18, 2013, the president of the El Paso Federation of Teachers and Support Personnel sent an email to the district’s director of employee relations indicating that she had a grievance to submit on Tafoya’s behalf. The director of employee relations responded that any grievance would be untimely under the grievance policy. No grievance was ever submitted. Tafoya sent a letter to the Commissioner challenging the district’s decision. He alleged retaliation and constructive discharge (i.e., he was forced to resign). The Commissioner construed the letter as a petition for review.

Ruling: The Commissioner concluded that, although it could exercise jurisdiction over a claim of constructive discharge, Tafoya had failed to exhaust administrative remedies because he did not timely submit a grievance following the challenged employment actions. The Commissioner observed that “constructive discharge without good cause is a per se violation of a teacher’s contract.” Thus, generally the Commissioner has jurisdiction over claims of constructive discharge without good cause.

However, in this case, Tafoya never submitted a grievance to the district since his resignation of April 1, 2013. Tafoya argued that the district refused to accept his grievance and thus prohibited him from exhausting administrative remedies. The Commissioner observed that when a teacher submits a grievance, the district must allow a hearing, even if the only issue to be decided is the timeliness of the grievance. Thus, if it is shown that a district administratively denies a grievance as untimely without affording a hearing, the employee would prevail on the issue of jurisdiction and on the merits. However, in this case, Tafoya never actually submitted a grievance. The email communication from the El Paso Federation of Teachers and Support Personnel did not include a grievance, and Tafoya otherwise did not attempt to grieve the challenged employment actions or his resignation. Thus, the Commissioner concluded that Tafoya did not exhaust administrative remedies.

Comments: Had the representative from the El Paso Federation of Teachers and Support Personnel attached the grievance to the email, this may have had a completely different result.