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Air Force spouse wins case against Texas after it refused to transfer her professional licenses

Joe Gratz | https://bit.ly/3wUgDDn

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Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed legislation that changes the professional licensure process for military families. Under a provision of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), licenses must be portable across state lines when certain conditions are met.

Air Force spouse Hannah Magee Portée filed suit in May after relocating to Del Rio because of her husband’s military orders. Texas education officials refused to honor her school counseling licenses from Missouri and Ohio. In her initial complaint to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Portée alleged that state licensing authorities told her that the new SCRA law “would not apply to Texas.”

In order for licenses to be portable, the SCRA, requires that a military spouse has actively used the license during the two years preceding the relocation. But under the Texas regulatory framework, individuals seeking reciprocity need to demonstrate that they had two years of full-time wage-earning experience in their occupation before their move.

Portée had a master’s degree and a year of professional counseling experience, but could not meet the Texas licensing authority’s requirement.

“She really did nothing wrong here,” said Brandon Grable, Portée’s attorney. “She's a military spouse. She didn't ask to come to Texas. She, I think, is overqualified. She has two licenses — and so it didn't make sense that Texas was telling her no.”

The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, as it was the first legal test of the SCRA’s license portability provision.

“This federal law is in place to help military spouses maintain their careers and financial security while enduring already stressful life changes,” said U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza for the Western District of Texas.

In July, a federal judge granted Portée an preliminary injunction which allowed her to continue her career as a licensed counselor in Texas while her case was pending. Not long after, Texas education officials issued her a partial, temporary license. But while it responded to Portée’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the state never responded in court to Portée’s actual suit.

That’s highly unusual, according to Grable.

“The only thing I can surmise from that — just my opinion, because I don't know if it was a strategy or not — is when you have Governor Abbott taking the position that Texas is a national leader in supporting our military by removing barriers, it seemed contrary for the Texas defendants in this case to argue the other way,” he said.

This week’s ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman says Texas can’t use its two-year rule to deny Portée a school counseling license. It also gives Portée the opportunity to recoup attorney’s fees and other costs.

Grable isn’t sure if the state will appeal, and doesn’t know if Portée’s temporary school counseling license will be upgraded. But he said Portée is encouraged by the ruling because of the precedent it sets for military spouses trying to maintain careers.

“I think that's really why she [Portée] wanted to pursue this fight,” Grable added. “She recognized that she was not the only military spouse that was going to have to deal with this. So it means something personally to her, but she also recognizes the contribution to military spouses across the country.”

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.