Monday, February 15, 2010

Plea to the Jurisdiction Explained (Motion to Dismiss for Want of Jurisdiction)

What elsewhere would likely be called a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, or for want of jurisdiction, is known as a PLEA TO THE JURISDICTION in Texas. In a recent workers' comp case the First Court of Appeals in Houston summarizes the case law governing such pleas:

Plea to the Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction requires that the party bringing the suit have standing, that there be a live controversy between the parties, and that the case be justiciable. State Bar of Tex. v. Gomez, 891 S.W.2d 243, 245 (Tex. 1994). If the district court lacks the power to effect a remedy that would resolve the dispute at issue, the case does not present a justiciable issue. Di Portanova v. Monroe, 229 S.W.3d 324, 330 (Tex. App.-- Houston [1 Dist.] 2006, pet. denied).

"The absence of subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised by a plea to the jurisdiction, as well as by other procedural vehicles, such as a motion for summary judgment." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000) (footnotes omitted); see also Houston Mun. Employees Pension Sys. v. Ferrell, 248 S.W.3d 151, 156 (Tex. 2007) ("A party may contest a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction by filing a plea to the jurisdiction.").

A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea that seeks dismissal of a case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Harris County v. Sykes, 136 S.W.3d 635, 638 (Tex. 2004); see Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 554. The purpose of a dilatory plea is not to force the plaintiff to preview its case on the merits, but to establish a reason why the merits of the case should not be reached. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 554.

A plea to the jurisdiction can challenge either the sufficiency of the plaintiff's pleadings or the existence of jurisdictional facts. See Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226-27 (Tex. 2004). When a plea to the jurisdiction attacks the pleadings, the issue turns on whether the pleader has alleged sufficient facts to demonstrate subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 226. In such cases, we construe the pleadings liberally in the plaintiff's favor and look for the pleader's intent. Id. When the pleadings neither allege sufficient facts nor demonstrate incurable defects, the plaintiff should usually be afforded an opportunity to amend. Id. at 226-27. However, if the pleadings affirmatively negate jurisdiction, then the plea to the jurisdiction may be granted without leave to amend. Id.

When a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, a court may consider evidence in addressing the jurisdictional issues. Id. at 227. If the evidence reveals a question of fact on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court cannot grant the plea, and the issue must be resolved by a fact finder. Id. at 227-28.

However, if the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law. Id. at 228.

In reviewing a trial court's granting of a plea to the jurisdiction, we do not look to the merits of the plaintiff's case, but consider only the pleadings and the evidence pertinent to the jurisdictional inquiry. Id. at 227. The plaintiff bears the burden to allege facts affirmatively demonstrating the trial court's jurisdiction to hear a case. See Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 446 (Tex. 1993).

If a plaintiff pleads facts that affirmatively demonstrate an absence of jurisdiction and the jurisdictional defect is incurable, then the cause is properly dismissed. See Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227. However, when the plaintiff fails to plead facts that establish jurisdiction, but the petition does not affirmatively demonstrate incurable defects in jurisdiction, the issue is one of pleading sufficiency, and the plaintiff should be afforded the opportunity to amend. Id. at 226-27.

This standard of review generally mirrors that of a summary judgment under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 166a(c). Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228.

To prevail on a plea to the jurisdiction, the party asserting the plea "must show that even if all the allegations in the plaintiff's pleadings are taken as true, there is an incurable jurisdictional defect apparent from the face of the pleadings, rendering it impossible for the plaintiff's petition to confer jurisdiction on the court." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 554.

Whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction over a case is a legal question and, therefore, we review a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction under a de novo standard of review. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226; Mayhew v. Town of Sunnyvale, 964 S.W.2d 922, 928 (Tex. 1998). A trial court properly dismisses claims over which it has no subject matter jurisdiction. Thomas v. Long, 207 S.W.3d 334, 338 (Tex. 2006).

SOURCE: American Zurich Insurance Company v. Daniel Samudio 01-08-00233-CV (Tex.App.- Houston [1st Dist.] Feb. 11, 2010)(Alcala)

RELATED LEGAL TERMS: plea juris, motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, jurisdictional challenge, jurisdictional dismissal, order dismissing case for want of jurisdiction

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