O’Neil v. Ector I.S.D, (Tex. 2008)(per curiam)
No. 07-0084(Tex. Mar. 28, 2008)(per curiam) (teacher contract dispute)
HELEN O'NEAL v. ECTOR COUNTY INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT; from Travis County; 11th district
(11-06-00013-CV, 221 S.W.3d 286, 11-09-06)
Pursuant to Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 59.1, after granting the petition for review and without hearing oral
argument, the Court affirms the court of appeals' judgment.
Terms: public employment disputes | grievances | teachers | school law | education law | administrative law |
administrative remedies |
Also see --> Other recent opinions handed down by the Texas Supreme Court | Texas Opinions Home Page |
Labor and Employment Decisions by the Texas Supreme Court | Public employment case law
Per Curiam Opinion
The Legislature has established administrative procedures with short deadlines to encourage prompt resolution of
teacher contract disputes. But appeals and remands may extend those procedures for years, as occurred here. The
question presented is whether a teacher may file a parallel suit in state court to avoid a potential limitations bar.
Because the administrative remedies here provide the same relief available in collateral litigation, we hold that a
second suit is neither necessary nor permissible.
Helen O’Neal was employed by Ector County Independent School District as a teacher under a two-year term
contract, and as a volleyball coach under an addendum thereto. The District terminated her coaching (but not her
teaching) contract during the contract’s first year. She filed a grievance nine days later, which the school board
denied as untimely and the Commissioner of Education affirmed. Two years later, the Travis County District Court
reversed, finding her appeal timely as it was governed by the 15-day deadline in Chapter 21 of the Texas Education
Code. Tex. Educ. Code §§ 21.251(a)(2), 21.253. Neither party appealed that ruling, and the proceedings were
remanded to the Commissioner. Three years later, the Commissioner found the District had violated O’Neal’s right to
a Chapter 21 hearing on termination and remanded to the Board for factual findings necessary to determine her
Meanwhile, shortly before the fourth anniversary of the administrative proceedings O’Neal filed this breach of
contract action in Ector County “to preserve and protect the four-year statute of limitations for such claims.” The
Board filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting failure to exhaust administrative remedies, which the trial court
granted. The court of appeals affirmed, declining to address whether limitations might bar O’Neal’s damage claims.
221 S.W.3d 286, 291–92. Because those claims are already part of the administrative proceedings, we affirm the
court of appeals’ judgment, though for different reasons.
If an agency has exclusive jurisdiction to resolve a dispute, a party must first exhaust administrative remedies before
a trial court has subject matter jurisdiction. In re Sw. Bell Tel. Co., L.P., 235 S.W.3d 619, 624-25 (Tex. 2007). O’Neal
does not dispute that the Board and Commissioner have exclusive jurisdiction of this dispute, and concedes she
must exhaust her administrative remedies. See Tex. Educ. Code §§ 21.251–.260, 21.301–.307 (providing for
hearings and appeal to Commissioner if term contract is terminated). Until exhaustion occurs, a trial court generally
must dismiss related litigation without prejudice. Subaru of Am., Inc. v. David McDavid Nissan, Inc., 84 S.W.3d 212,
227 (Tex. 2002); Texas Educ. Agency v. Cypress-Fairbanks I.S.D., 830 S.W.2d 88, 90 (Tex. 1992).
O’Neal says her case should be different because no one can award her damages under the controlling statute,
section 7.057 of the Education Code. See Cypress-Fairbanks I.S.D., 830 S.W.2d at 91. We agree that if an agency
has exclusive jurisdiction of some claims but no jurisdiction of others, a trial court may abate its own case until the
administrative proceedings are concluded. Subaru, 84 S.W.3d at 221; Am. Motorists Ins. Co. v. Fodge, 63 S.W.3d
801, 805 (Tex. 2001).
But the procedures here are not governed by Chapter 7 but by Chapter 21 of the Education Code. Section 7.057
expressly provides that it “does not apply” to teacher contract disputes. See Tex. Educ. Code § 7.057(e)(1). O’Neal’
s claim is governed by Chapter 21 because it is an addendum to her teaching contract, was terminated “before the
end of the contract period,” and she “requested” an appeal. See Tex. Educ. Code § 21.251(a)(2). Under that
chapter, available remedies include reinstatement, back pay, and employment benefits. See Tex. Educ. Code §§
Because Chapter 21 expressly grants administrative jurisdiction to award O’Neal damages, she did not have to file a
separate suit in another court to obtain them. Moreover, Chapter 21 provides its own deadlines for appeal to the
trial court, see Tex. Educ. Code § 21.307(b), so the general limitations period does not apply. No matter how long
the administrative proceedings take, O’Neal’s damage claims will not be time-barred so long as she continues to
meet the Chapter 21 deadlines.
Accordingly, without hearing oral argument, see Tex. R. App. P. 59.1, we affirm the trial court and court of appeals’
judgment dismissing O’Neal’s suit for the reasons stated above.
OPINION DELIVERED: March 28, 2008