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Texas State Board of Nursing v. Pedraza-Texas Administrative Law and Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

The following article concerns a case brought before the Thirteenth Court of Appeals in Texas in August 2012. In this case, the Texas State Board of Nursing appealed the trial court's decision to deny the Board's plea to the jurisdiction. A plea to the jurisdiction is a delaying plea used to defeat a cause of action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. This plea is procedural and does not involve arguments regarding the merits of the cause of action.

The appellee, Bernardino Pedraza, held a vocational nursing license from the Texas Board of Nursing. Pedraza faced a hearing before an administrative law judge due to allegations that he violated § 217.12 of the Texas Administrative Code. This section of the Code revolves around unprofessional conduct on the part of licensed nurses. Specifically, Pedraza was believed to have "engaged in unprofessional conduct and violated the minimum standards of nursing practice by failing to recognize and maintain professional boundaries of the nurse-client relationship."

The administrative law judge proposed that the Board suspend Pedraza's vocational license for two years. The Board decided not to accept this proposal and instead decided to revoke his license altogether. Pedraza filed a motion for rehearing. He concurrently filed an original petition and application for injunctive relief with a district court in Hidalgo County, where he resided. Along with his request that the trial court stay enforcement of the Board's order, Pedraza also pleaded two other causes of action-violation of his due process rights and defamation.

The Board, in its subsequent answer and plea to the jurisdiction, asserted that the trial court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to stay enforcement of the Board's order because Pedraza failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The Board cited the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) as authority for its argument. Pedraza attempted to argue that instead, the Nursing Practice Act applied. The Court ruled with the Board on this matter. An administrative proceeding brought under the Nursing Practice Act is subject to the APA.

The provision of the APA that is most relevant is codified as Texas Government Code § 2001.171. This provision specifies that only a person who has "exhausted all administrative remedies available within a state agency and who is aggrieved by a final decision in a contested case is entitled to judicial review." Furthermore, the Texas Supreme Court and the Austin Court of Appeals have both held that judicial review of an administrative decision is granted only by statute and only when a party has gone through the entirety of the APA's administrative process.

The Court decided that Pedraza's administrative appeal was thus not ripe for judicial review at the time it was filed since the Board's decision was not final and appealable. The Board had yet to rule on his motion for rehearing. The Court then turned to the issue of Pedraza's two other remaining claims-defamation and due process violations.

The Board argued that the trial court also lacked subject-matter jurisdiction in regard to these claims. In terms of the due process claim, the Board argued that they were derivative of his petition for judicial review and therefore should be dismissed. In terms of his defamation claim, the Board argued that it was shielded under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The Court disagreed with the former but agreed with the latter.

Although Pedraza's due process claim had certain jurisdictional defects, the Court cited Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife v. Miranda and held that since his pleadings did not affirmatively demonstrate incurable defects in jurisdiction, the trial court was required to give him an opportunity to replead and cure the defects. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226-227 (Tex. 2004). However, in Texas, sovereign immunity does deprive a trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction for lawsuits involving certain state or governmental units. Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, the Board is immune from this type of claim. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.001(3) (West 2011).

The Court therefore reversed the trial court's denial of the Board's plea to the jurisdiction, dismissed Pedraza's petition for judicial review, dismissed his claim for defamation, and remanded the case to the trial court to give Pedraza a chance to cure his pleading defects regarding the due process claim. In January 2014, the Texas Supreme Court denied the subsequent petition for review in the case.

10.0Tony Ray Bertolino

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