Three recent cases illustrate a little known aspect of Texas law – administrative law and how it works, and doesn’t work. Although the cases don’t directly affect mineral owners, they show how different the Texas Railroad Commission’s administrative process is from other agencies’.
Many disputes in Texas are resolved not in trial courts but by administrative hearings. In many cases, the law that governs those hearings is the Administrative Procedure Act, found at Chapter 2001 of Texas’ Government Code. The hearings are held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) who works for the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). If two parties get into a dispute in which the law requires adjudication by an administrative hearing, an evidentiary hearing is held before an ALJ who hears testimony, takes evidence, and prepares a Proposal for Decision (PFD). The PFD then goes before the board of the responsible agency, which either adopts the PFD or makes changes, and issues a final order. That order can then be appealed to a state district court in Travis County. The district court acts as an appellate body, and must uphold the decision if it is supported by “substantial evidence” in the record from the administrative hearing and otherwise complies with the governing law.
The APA limits the grounds on which an agency can change a PFD and requires the agency to explain its reasons for doing so. APA section 2001.058(e) provides:
A state agency may change a finding of fact or conclusion of law made by the administrative law judge, or may vacate or modify an order issued by the administrative judge, only if the agency determines:
(1) that the administrative law judge did not properly apply or interpret applicable law, agency rules, written policies provided under Subsection (c), or prior administrative decisions;
(2) that a prior administrative decision on which the administrative law judge relied is incorrect or should be changed; or
(3) that a technical error in a finding of fact should be changed.
The agency shall state in writing the specific reason and legal basis for a change made under this subsection.
Two cases, both from the Austin Court of Appeals, are appeals of orders by administrative agencies. Hyundai Motor America v. New World Car Imports San Antonio, Inc., No. 03-17-00761-CV, is an appeal of a decision by the Board of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The case involves the obscure laws that govern the relationships between car manufacturers and their dealers. Continue reading →