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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:An 11-member pension board has broad authority to administer, manage and operate the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System (HMEPS), which provides retirement benefits to certain employees of the city of Houston under Art. 6243h of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes. The pertinent text of Art. 6243h reads: “(x) The pension board shall manage the pension fund under this Act and under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, and may: “(1) adopt, for the administration of the pension fund, written rules and guidelines; “(2) interpret and construe this Act and any summary plan, descriptions, or benefits procedures, except that each construction must meet any qualification requirements established under Section 401, Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended; “(3) correct any defect, supply any omission, and reconcile any inconsistency that appears in this Act in a manner and to the extent that the pension board considers expedient to administer this Act for the greatest benefit of all members; “(4) determine all questions, whether legal or factual, relating to the eligibility for membership, service, or benefits or relating to the administration of the pension fund to promote the uniform administration of the pension fund for the benefit of all members and retirees; and “(5) establish and maintain records necessary or appropriate for the proper administration of the fund. “(y) The determination of any fact by the pension board and the pension board’s interpretation of this Act are final and binding on any interested party, including members, deferred participants, retirees, eligible survivors, beneficiaries, and the city.” Craig E. Ferrell Jr. began his law enforcement career as a cadet in the Houston Police Academy and from 1977 to 1990 served as a police officer in the Houston Police Department. During that period, Ferrell participated in the Houston Police Officers’ Pension System (HPOPS). In 1990, having obtained a law degree, Ferrell went to work for the legal services division of the Houston Police Department, where he still works. Because he was no longer classified as a police officer, he withdrew his contributions from HPOPS and began accruing credit in HMEPS, a separate pension system covering employees of the city of Houston. In 1998, HMEPS issued a written Acknowledgment of Statutory Application that read, in pertinent part: “A person is not eligible for HMEPS membership for the time period during which the person was in a position covered by another pension system to which the City of Houston contributes (“City pension system”). . . . A person cannot receive any credited service in HMEPS for the time during which the person was not a member of HMEPS.” Later that year, Ferrell requested that HMEPS award him service credit for the time he spent as a police officer. In January 1999, HMEPS Executive Director David Long sent Ferrell a letter denying his request and informing him that “a person may receive credited service in HMEPS only for time during which the person is a member of HMEPS.” In March 2003, Ferrell sued HMEPS on multiple theories, including breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation. Ferrell also sought a declaratory judgment that he was entitled to pension benefits in HMEPS for each year he worked for the city of Houston, beginning in 1977. HMEPS filed a plea to the jurisdiction seeking to dismiss Ferrell’s suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the basis of sovereign immunity. Ferrell then amended his petition, dropping all claims except his action for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. In a second amended petition, Ferrell expressly eliminated any request for money damages but sought an additional declaration that he was entitled to service credit in HMEPS for his time in the Houston Police Academy. Subsequently, in a first supplemental petition, 29 Houston police officers joined Ferrell’s action for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. Specifically, they sought a declaration that they were entitled to service credit in HMEPS for the time they spent as cadets in the Houston Police Academy, from May 1977 to September 1977, and an order directing the board to credit their retirement service accounts accordingly. In a supplemental motion to dismiss, HMEPS again asserted it was immune from suit and contended the actions brought by Ferrell and the 29 additional plaintiffs were not ripe, because HMEPS had not yet determined whether they were entitled to service credit for their time spent in the police academy. HMEPS also asserted the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Ferrell’s claim for service credit for the years of his employment as a police officer, because a declaratory judgment in his favor would entitle him to pension benefits exceeding the maximum jurisdictional limit of the trial court. The trial court denied HMEPS’ plea to the jurisdiction solely on the basis of HMEPS’ assertion that it was immune from suit. HMEPS appealed to the 1st Court of Appeals which, holding “the doctrine of exclusive jurisdiction does not apply in the context of this action for declaratory judgment,” affirmed the trial court’s denial of HMEPS’ plea to the jurisdiction. HMEPS then timely filed an appeal. HOLDING:Reversed and dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. A party may contest a trial court’s subject-matter jurisdiction by filing a plea to the jurisdiction, the court stated. In the 1st Court, HMEPS argued it had sovereign immunity from Ferrell’s claims and the claims of the additional 29 plaintiffs. However, HMEPS no longer asserted immunity with respect to the 29 plaintiffs. Rather, HMEPS asserted sovereign immunity only with respect to Ferrell’s claims, arguing that he had not pleaded a valid claim for declaratory relief. Ferrell, HMEPS contended, merely recharacterized his suit for monetary damages as a declaratory judgment action. Ferrell’s nonsuit, if the court was to accept it, would nullify HMEPS’ contention that Ferrell failed to plead a valid claim for declaratory relief. HMEPS argued that the court should not accept Ferrell’s nonsuit. For support, HMEPS pointed to Singleton v. Pennington, the 1978 opinion by what was then the Texas Court of Civil Appeals in Dallas. In Singleton, the plaintiff sought a nonsuit after the court of appeals issued an opinion in the plaintiff’s favor and the defendant filed a motion for rehearing. The court of appeals “had already reached a decision on the motion for rehearing and had completed the first draft of an opinion on that motion.” As the court of appeals explained, dismissal of the cause at that stage of the proceedings would have left the appeals court’s original opinion outstanding without any indication of whether the court of appeals’ views had changed. In this case, the court stated that its act of permitting Ferrell’s nonsuit did not change the fact that the Singleton court’s opinion still provided the rule of law in Ferrell’s case. Under the Texas Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston v. Estate of Blackmon, Ferrell had an absolute right to take a nonsuit before the Texas Supreme Court, because he took it before he presented all his evidence and rested his case in chief. As such, the court accepted Ferrell’s nonsuit, noting that it mooted his case, not merely his appeal. Accordingly, the court vacated the 1st Court’s judgment as to Ferrell and the trial court’s orders to the extent that they affected Ferrell’s claims and dismissed Ferrell’s case. The court therefore needed to only consider HMEPS’ appeal as it concerned the claims of the additional 29 plaintiffs. The 1st Court, the court noted, analyzed Art. 6243h and HMEPS’ appeal under the doctrine of exclusive jurisdiction. When the Legislature grants an administrative agency sole authority to make an initial determination in a matter, the agency has exclusive jurisdiction over the matter, the court stated. Only after exhaustion has occurred may a plaintiff seek judicial review of the administrative decision, and then he may do so “only at the time and in the manner designated by statute,” the court wrote. In this case, the 29 plaintiffs claim to have exhausted all of their administrative remedies. Article 6243h, the court stated, provides that “[t]he determination of any fact by the pension board and the pension board’s interpretation of this Act are final and binding on any interested party.” The 29 plaintiffs argued that they sought an interpretation of Art. 6243h for the narrow purpose of declaring whether the statute authorizes a trial court to review the pension board’s action. If indeed the plaintiffs seek only an declaration of whether a trial court can review the pension board’s decisions, then the trial court would have jurisdiction to interpret the statute and make such a declaration. Courts always have jurisdiction to determine their own jurisdiction. But Art. 6243h, the court stated, does not give the trial court jurisdiction to review any pension board decision regarding the 29 plaintiffs’ request for retirement service credit. As HMEPS argues and the 29 plaintiffs’ petition indicated, the plaintiffs’ suit did not merely seek a declaratory judgment announcing whether Article 6243h gives jurisdiction to the trial court to review a pension board decision. The petition seeks “declaratory relief that establishes . . . entitlement to Pension Benefits,” asking the trial court to hold that the statute requires the pension board to credit each plaintiff’s retirement account with time served while in the police academy and that the pension board was violating the law by refusing to grant such credit. Such relief, whether labeled a declaratory judgment or review of a pension board decision, exceeds the power of the trial court as limited by the “final and binding” language of Article 6243h. Because the Legislature has not authorized the trial court to grant the relief sought, the trial court lacks jurisdiction over the case. Thus, the trial court should have granted HMEPS’ plea to the jurisdiction. OPINION:Green, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jefferson, C.J., and Hecht, O’Neill, Wainwright, Brister, Medina and Johnson, JJ., joined. Willett, J., did not participate in the decision. CONCURRENCE:Brister, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which O’Neill, J., joined. “Our legislators having decided they wish to be the final (and frequent) arbiter of disputes about how these pension systems should be run, we must leave them to it, as the Texas Constitution expressly allows the Legislature to grant jurisdiction to administrative bodies rather than the courts. “A different case might be presented if the plaintiffs alleged the board was clearly violating some provision of the statute.”

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