With Friday’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court released two opinions:
In re United Services Automobile Association, No. 07-0871 (docket and briefs), about whether a plaintiff who, for strategic reasons, sues in the wrong trial court can later file suit in the correct court; and
Kendall Gray has posted a really nice article about how In re USAA fits into Texas mandamus law over at The Appellate Record.
In general, you can’t get mandamus relief to order a trial court to grant summary judgment.
But the Court did here. Kendall suggests that this unusual result was animated by “the right of the court system to defend itself” (which he dubs the “Chuck Norris principle”):
If you try to game the system, especially where there is a legislative policy stated to the contrary, Chuck (the Court System) will issue a mandamus (round-house kick) to your face.
That seems about right.
So what does this mean for future cases? Whatever motivated the Court in In re USAA, the precedent seems set that it is possible to get mandamus review of the denial of a motion for summary judgment on limitations grounds. There are two guesses:?
This was a statute of limitations question, so the defendant would (arguably) be harmed by even having to go to trial. The Court noted that there had already been a full trial in the wrong court, so going forward would result in a second wasteful trial. But a wasteful trial is a wasteful trial, and where it is clear that relief should be granted, the defendant and court system are better off with early relief.
Or, the relief here was closer to a sanction than a decision about the limitations question. The Court was very troubled by what it saw as the plaintiff’s intentional disgregard of the rules for tactical advantage. The result had already been substantial costs imposed on both the defendant the court system. (( The first opinion is at USAA v. Brite, 215 S.W.3d 400 (Tex. 2007) (docket and briefs). ))
It’s possible that the first, broader reading will take hold and that the Court will add statutes of limitations to its growing list of defenses that will get you a ticket to mandamus review (arbitration clauses, forum-selection clauses, and the like).
But I agree with Kendall that the safer bet is the second reading, that this outcome was driven by the Court’s perception that the system was being intentionally abused.
A common piece of briefwriting advice is this: “Never tell a court that it can’t do something.” There are polite ways to lead a court to that conclusion. But an outright challenge to court authority is just begging for trouble.
We pause for the overruling of a case from the 1990s: The time period for filing a Human Rights Act lawsuit is no longer jurisdictional.
In the middle of this opinion, the Court provided a little relief to workers suing under the TCHRA. In Schroeder v. Texas Iron Works, Inc., 813 S.W.2d 483 (Tex. 1991), the Texas Supreme Court noted (in a footnote) that the time period for filing those lawsuits was “mandatory and jurisdictional.” Id at 487 n.10.
In re USAA overrules that holding. The Chief Justice explained that “we, like the U.S. Supreme Court, have recognized that our sometimes intemperate use of the term ‘jurisdictional’ has caused problems.” In more recent cases, such as See Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Loutzenhiser, 140 S.W.3d 351, 359 (Tex. 2004), it had held that similar statutes were not jurisdictional. With In re USAA, the Court formally overruled Shroeder‘s holding about the TCHRA to bring it into line.