home health care worker Home health care worker. Photo: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock.com

The Texas Constitution prohibits a government agency from misleading a Texan on her rights and then blaming her for not knowing better, said a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling.

“The history of this case gives Texans little reason to trust their government agencies, but hopefully the court’s decision today helps to reinforce their trust in the constitution,” wrote Justice Jimmy Blacklock in a concurring opinion in Mosley v. Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

A team of lawyers from Baker Botts put in many pro bono hours to represent petitioner Patricia Mosley in the trial, appellate court and high court to win the appeal, which answers questions about proper appeals procedure for administrative law cases, and explains a great deal about how state agencies must grant due process to the people of Texas.

In the beginning, it was an ordinary pro bono case for the Baker Botts attorneys who wanted Mosley, a nurse and home aide, to have proper representation to protect her livelihood, noted Baker Botts senior associate Stephanie Cagniart. The case changed when the state argued the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the case.

“That was deeply troubling,” said Cagniart.

Stephanie Cagniart Stephanie Cagniart, senior associate with Baker Botts in Austin. Courtesy photo.

The majority opinion explained that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services investigates reports of abuse or neglect of disabled or elderly people and maintains a registry of employees who committed reportable conduct. Facilities can’t hire people on the registry. The department investigated Mosley’s care of a group-home resident, found reportable conduct and recommended Mosley for the registry. At a hearing, an administrative law judge sustained the determination. The judge’s letter to her about how to appeal relied on a repealed agency rule about the appeals process, misleading Mosely down a wrong procedural path.

When Mosley did file a petition in district court, the agency argued the trial court lacked jurisdiction since she had never filed a motion for rehearing.

“The notice to Mosley—the letter and regulation on which it relies—effectively said her career would be over unless she filed for judicial review within thirty days. It failed to state the need to first file a motion for rehearing and affirmatively misrepresented that filing a petition for judicial review was the appropriate and necessary next course of action,” Brown wrote. “Mosley did exactly as the letter and rule directed—she filed for judicial review within thirty days—only to be informed that in so doing she had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies and was not entitled to judicial review.”

The high court ruled that the proper procedure would have been seeking rehearing before the administrative law judge, before she appealed to a district court. Yet here, the misleading letter deprived her of due process.

The high court ruled that the agency must reopen Mosley’s case to give her a chance to file her motion for rehearing.

In his concurring opinion, Blacklock, joined by Justices John Devine and Brett Busby, called administrative procedures a “minefield” that non-lawyers like Mosley must navigate to obtain their rights to due process. It’s so hard that many don’t bother, yet Mosley pressed forward. Then she got a “friendly letter” from the agency that explained the process and showed her how to avoid the landmines.

“Instead of helping Mosley avoid the procedural mines, it turns out the government’s letter–and its rule–instructed her to step right on top of one,” wrote Blacklock.

No one with the press office of the Texas Office of the Attorney General, which represented the state agencies, immediately returned a call or email seeking comment.

Read the concurring opinion.