Agency-level investigation & hearings
Agency investigations may be initiated in response to notice (a complaint, criminal charge, etc.) or on the agency's own initiative. They are equivalent to the pretrial phase of a case. An investigation always results in some kind of agency action; if the action is punitive and the defendant objects, the "contested case" is advanced to an adjudicative body.
A contested case usually goes before the State Office of Administrative Hearings, or SOAH (see the box below this one for more about the SOAH). Some large or highly specialized agencies have their own adjudicative bodies, which have the same authority as the SOAH to hear and rule on cases. Examples of Texas agencies with their own resolution mechanisms include the Texas Ethics Commission, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Workers' Compensation Board, and the Texas State Securities Board.
What is the SOAH?
The Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, or SOAH, provides the equivalent of an impartial judiciary for regulatory hearings. The SOAH has heard most of Texas' regulatory cases since being established in 1991, when it was charged with standardizing and consolidating agency hearing procedures. Its creation took the burden of enforcement off of smaller agencies and ensured equal treatment of cases regardless of the initiating agency's resources.
The SOAH is split into several subject-specific divisions: Administrative License Revocation & Field Enforcement; Alternative Dispute Resolution; Economics; Individuals With Disabilities Education Act; Health Professions Licensing; Natural Resources; Occupational Licensing; Tax; and Utilities. Each division handles cases referred from specific agencies.
The SOAH will conduct mediations, but not settlement negotiations. In addition, it has its own court rules and procedures that must be followed, sometimes specific to the referring agency.
Once a SOAH administrative law judge (ALJ) has heard a case, they issue a Proposal for Decision (PFD), to which both parties may respond. Some licensing agencies have agreed by statute to accept the SOAH decision as final; other agencies are not obligated to accept the proposed decision, but they usually do. A PFD is presumptively binding when its comes to statements of fact and conclusions of law, so agencies must state the reasons if they do not accept those parts of the PFD. However, agencies have wide latitude to impose sanctions on those who have violated rules and an agency does not have to justify deviating from the PFD when it comes to punishment.
Once a PFD is accepted or rejected, the case returns to the agency for final action by its governing board. Technically, the SOAH never makes a final decision on a case - only the initiating agency can do that.
Appeals from a final agency action are only available if enabling statute provides for judicial review or if property or constitutional rights are affected. If no review is authorized, there is no right of appeal through the regular courts. However, most enabling statutes do include a right of appeal to the Travis County District Court, as does the APA. It's very unusual for an appeal to succeed.
Finding SOAH records
The SOAH provides access to many pending cases via its Electronic Case File system; scroll up the page for the option to see public files.
Some agencies publish their own decisions, either final or proposed, on their websites.
In general, it's very hard to find anything before final resolution; sometimes even pending actions don't show up on a license search. Often a public information request is necessary.