Payday Claim Divides Texas Supreme Court
by Michael Fox
Those who view the Texas Supreme Court as a monolithic force against employees in employment cases might be surprised by the closeness of today's 5-4 decision holding that an untimely Payday Act claim pursued to conclusion through the administrative process bars a timely common law action for breach of contract for the unpaid wages on the ground of res judicata. Igal v. Brightstar Technology Information Group, Inc. (Tx. 12/7/07) [pdf].
Justice Dale Wainwright authored the majority opinion, and was joined by three of his fellow Supreme Court Justices, Green, Willett and Johnson and joined for all but one section by Justice Bob McCoy of the 2nd Court of Appeals sitting by designation for Justice Hecht who was recused.
Justice Brister wrote the dissent, joined by C.J. Jefferson and Justices O'Neill and Medina.
Although all agreed that the 180 day limit for filing a Payday claim is not jurisdictional, they disagreed over whether the finding that the claim was untimely was an adjudication on the merits, which they also seemed to agree was necessary for res judicata.
Although Justice Wainwright's opinion offered two reasons for the preclusive effect, one that the TWC had actually decided the merits (adjudication of disputed fact), that portion was not joined by Justice McCoy so the opinion of the Court is only on the second grounds, "a court’s dismissal of a claim because of a failure to file within the statute of limitations is accorded preclusive effect."
Although a far cry from the rhetoric of Justice Scalia in many of his dissents, Justice Brister's parry of the majority's statement that it was merely prohibiting a plaintiff two bites at the apple -- "this is not about biting apples twice; this is about a man’s wages" -- is fairly unusual in recent years.
The actual impact of this decision (beyond of course a very disappointed Igal) is not likely to be much since the facts will not often occur. My guess is for those who look for such things, the slight divide amongst justices may well be the intriguing aspect.