When Mr. Hamilton left Socorro ISD he did so with a promise that the district would provide a “neutral reference” to prospective employers. This reference was to be limited to his beginning and ending dates of employment, positions held, and salary. Mr. Hamilton later sued the district, alleging that it broke that promise.
Did it? Well….we don’t know. But we do know that the district is not immune from liability and will have to defend itself on the basis of the facts. The district filed a Plea to the Jurisdiction, arguing that it was protected from litigation over a claim like this due to governmental immunity. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument.
All of this started when the principal of Slider Middle School informed Mr. Hamilton that he planned to recommend the nonrenewal of the man’s contract. The parties entered into negotiations which led to a Separation Agreement and Release of Claims. That’s where the district promised to provide a neutral reference.
For his part, Mr. Hamilton promised to go away quietly. He released any legal claims that he might have had arising out of his employment with the district, including “any claims or causes of action arising under….the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act [TCHRA] or any other state or federal equal employment opportunity law.”
Mr. Hamilton believed that his nonrenewal was an act of age discrimination, but by releasing any claim that he might make under the TCHRA, he could not pursue that argument. In fact, Mr. Hamilton released any claim he might make based on anything that happened prior to April, 2015 when he signed the Agreement. But his suit was about things that allegedly happened after that-- negative references to prospective employers. He had not released that claim.
The court rejected the school’s Plea to the Jurisdiction. The court reasoned that 1) Mr. Hamilton had a viable age discrimination claim in 2015; 2) the district was not immune from that claim—it faced potential exposure; 3) the district negotiated its way out of that exposure with the Agreement; 4) therefore, the district cannot also claim immunity for violating the terms of the Agreement.
We therefore hold that because a waiver of immunity was statutorily established on Hamilton’s then-viable age-discrimination claim when he entered into the settlement agreement, Hamilton’s later claim of breach of the separation agreement was not barred by governmental immunity.
The case is Socorro ISD v. Hamilton, decided by the Court of Appeals for El Paso on July 17, 2019.
DAWG BONE: GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITY IS A WONDERFUL THING, BUT IT DOES NOT ALWAYS APPLY.
That’s it for this week, Readers. The Dawg barks again on Monday!