The Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”) was enacted to “provide for the execution of the policies of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its subsequent amendments.” Tex. Lab. Code § 21.001. Accordingly, it is rare for an issue of first impression to arise in the Texas courts. However, in Gantt v. Harris Cnty., the First District for the Houston Court of Appeals analyzed for the first time whether an employee’s discrimination action fell within the Texas Survival Statute and thus survived the employee’s death. Accordingly, this post examines the relationship between the TCHRA and the Texas survivor statute and how other states have applied similar laws.
In Gantt, the employee—Amier Gantt—was terminated from his job at Harris County. Gantt filed suit against Harris County in August 2017, alleging claims of race discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Eventually, the claims were narrowed in August 2018 to race discrimination.
However, in September 2018, Gantt died, and Gantt’s wife became the administrator of Gantt’s estate. In January 2019, Harris County argued that the TCHRA claim did not survive Gantt because there was “no right of survivorship” under the Texas Labor Code for discrimination claims. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the case, and the Estate appealed.
At the outset of the Court of Appeals’ analysis, it noted that “whether a plaintiff’s cause of action under the TCHRA survives [a claimant’s] death” is a matter of first impression. The court noted that the TCHRA does not specify if causes of action survive death and that the Texas general survival statute applies to “personal injury.” Tex. Civ. & Prac. Rem. Code § 71.021, which provides:
- A cause of action for personal injury to the health, reputation, or person of an injured person does not abate because of the death of the injured person or because of the death of a person liable for the injury.
- A personal injury action survives to and in favor of the heirs, legal representatives, and estate of the injured person. The action survives against the liable person and the person’s legal representatives.
- The suit may be instituted and prosecuted as if the liable person were alive.Notably, the survival statute did not create a new cause of action, it merely permitted the injured decedent’s cause of action to survive death.
Harris County argued that the survival statute did not apply to TCHRA because the survival statute was limited to claims for personal injury. The trial court agreed with Harris County regarding TCHRA and dismissed the case. On appeal, the First District Court of Appeals disagreed. In doing so, it examined how the TCHRA’s objectives included to “secure for persons in this state, including persons with disabilities, from discrimination in certain employment transactions, to protect their dignity.” Additionally, the TCHRA allowed for the recovery of mental anguish damages, which Gantt sought to recover based on his emotional pain. Based upon the alleged damages, the appellate court ruled that a “TCHRA cause of action is analogous to the personal injury torts contemplated by the survival statute and that personal injury causes of action do not abate because of the death of the injured person.”
Similar rulings in the federal employment-law context supported the decision. For example, in Hamilton v. Rogers, 573 F. Supp. 452, 453–54 (S.D. Tex. 1983), the plaintiff filed a suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”), and other civil rights statutes alleging racial discrimination. The plaintiff alleged he suffered “mental and emotional distress” that caused high blood pressure and other health problems as a result of the race decision he suffered. While the action was pending in the Southern District of Texas, the plaintiff passed away. The Southern District of Texas determined that the general survival statute discussed above allowed the cause of action to survive the plaintiff’s death. As such, in Texas, employment discrimination claims survive a plaintiff’s death in both the state and federal law contexts.
Other courts throughout the country have made similar rulings interpreting Title VII:
- Small v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 759 F. Supp. 1427, 1431 (W.D. Mo. 1991): Missouri’s survival statute allows for a plaintiff’s Title VII claim to survive the plaintiff’s death;
- Kilgo v. Bowman Transp., Inc., 789 F.2d 859 (11th Cir. 1986): Georgia’s survival statute allows a plaintiff’s Title VII claim to survive a plaintiff’s death;
- Estwick v. U.S.Air Shuttle, 950 F. Supp. 493, 498 (E.D.N.Y. 1996): Although New York law allows a Title VII claim to survive the plaintiff’s death, the plaintiff cannot bring claims for punitive damages because punitive damages are not allowed under New York’s survival statute;
- Maakestad v. Mayo Clinic Arizona, No. CV-04-2183-PHX-DGC, 2006 WL 2307417, at *1 (D. Ariz. Aug. 9, 2006): Using federal common law, the plaintiff’s Title VII claim survives the plaintiff’s claim, unless a claim is penal in nature. Accordingly, the Houston Court of Appeals seems to flow with the tide of case law.
About the Author
Adrian Acosta is an associate in the El Paso, Texas office at Dickinson Wright. He is licensed in both Texas and Michigan and assists clients in all areas of employment litigation, including discrimination, workers’ compensation, and wage and hour. Adrian conducts workplace investigations and provides compliance training to different industries. Adrian can be reached at (915) 541-9326 or at email@example.com. Adrian’s business biography is found here.
No. 01-19-00263-CV, 2023 WL 138619 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Jan. 10, 2023, no pet. h.).