14th Court of Appeals reverses jury award in excessive force case against County, but upholds portion against deputy

Quote

Harris County, et al, v Coats, et.al, 14-17-00732-CV, (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.], February 6, 2020)

This is a § 1983/wrongful death case where the 14th Court of Appeals reversed in part a jury award against the County and its deputy. [Comment: this is a 49-page opinion].

Jamail and his girlfriend were using cocaine when Jamail felt ill.  Jamail exited through a window and called 9-1-1 from a public phone. However, when the EMTs arrived, Jamail ran from the area to a nearby Burger King. Deputy Saintes arrived after a disturbance call, handcuffed Jamail and walked him to the ambulance. When they neared the ambulance, Jamail became combative and attempted to run. Multiple deputies arrived and assisted Saints to subdue Jamail. EMTs gave Jamail an injection of a sedative. Jamail was seen breathing normally. The parties dispute whether Deputy Vailes’ boot was on Jamail’s nose and mouth at the time.  However, after a short while, he could not be roused. He was transported to a nearby hospital where he died. The family sued. Multiple individuals and parties settled out or were dismissed based on immunity.  A jury trial was held against the County and Deputy Vailes. The jury found for Jamail’s family. The County and Deputy Vailes appealed.

The court first determined no policy, custom, or practice of the County existed to establish § 1983 liability on the entity. Normally, single incidents cannot create a policy, custom, or practice. As far as constable’s go, the fact a constable’s jurisdictional reach is throughout the county does not support the trial court’s conclusion that the Precinct Four Constable is a law enforcement final policymaker for Harris County. Jamail’s burden was to identify a final policymaker who speaks on law enforcement matters for the local government unit at issue—Harris County, not simply a precinct.  As to Deputy Vailes, the court held some evidence existed that Deputy Vailes placed his boot on Jamail’s face when he was already handcuffed. The law was sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand (as did those who testified) that stepping on the nose and mouth of someone who is lying on the ground, likely sedated, handcuffed, and unresponsive, with enough force that the person’s neck touches the ground, would constitute an excessive-force violation. Therefore, Vailes was not entitled to qualified immunity on that claim. However, the evidence was insufficient Vailes’ actions caused Jamail’s death.  Deputy Vailes argues that Jamail died because of acute cocaine toxicity, as the medical examiner concluded following Jamail’s autopsy. In cases alleging medical injury or death, expert testimony regarding causation is generally the norm and Jamail’s family did not produce any regarding the cause of death.  The fact Vailes’ boot was placed on Jamail, when he was already non-responsive is insufficient to justify the jury award against Vailes as to Jamail’s death. Because of the alterations to the judgment, the court remanded for a reconsideration of the attorney fee award.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Christopher Justice Wise, and Justice Jewel. Opinion by Justice Jewel.

Texas Supreme Court holds supervisor’s order to use tear-gas gun was “use” under TTCA, but riot exception preserved immunity

Quote

Texas Dept. Crim. Justice v Cesar Rangel, 18-0721, (Tex. Feb. 7, 2020)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Texas Supreme Court held the Department of Criminal Justice (“Department”) retained immunity for hitting an inmate with a tear-gas shell.

Two groups of inmates were threatening each other in  The Pam Lychner State Jail.  The groups totaled approximately thirty (30) inmates. After giving orders to cease hostilities for almost an hour, which were ignored, Department officials ordered a guard to fire tear-gas (including a skat shell) at the groups.  A “skat shell” launches five pyrotechnic submunitions that are designed to deliver chemical agents at a range of up to eighty meters. The shell hit Rangel, injuring him. Rangel sued.  The Department conducted an internal use-of-force review that “revealed several mistakes” as to how the incident was handled, noting that the skat shell was “designed for outdoor areas” only and “that chemical agents should have been administered through the door rather than in the middle of the housing area.” The official who authorized the use indoors was disciplined. The Department filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Texas Supreme Court held the supervisor’s order to use the tear-gas gun was a “use of tangible personal property” under the TTCA. It was not the use by the individual guard following orders, but was a “use” by the supervisor who authorized an order the gun be put into play. The distinguishing factor is the order by the supervisor specifically to use the weapon, and not merely making the weapon available to the guard with no direction. [Comment: the Court spent multiple pages in the opinion on this distinction.] This also had an interplay with the court of appeals opinion on the intentional tort exceptions. However, the immunity waiver does not apply to a claim “based on an injury or death connected with any act or omission arising out of civil disobedience, riot, insurrection, or rebellion.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 101.057(1). Rangel argued that the circumstances did not constitute a riot or there was a fact issue as to whether a riot existed. Using the plain and ordinary meaning of the term “riot” also includes how the term is used in other statutes, including the Penal Code. The Penal Code defines “riot” in part as “the assemblage of seven or more persons resulting in conduct” that “creates an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons.” TEX. PENAL CODE § 42.02(a). While not identical, that definition is in line with the ordinary meaning of “riot,” emphasizing not only the size of assemblage and nature of the events but also the immediate danger.  As a result, the undisputed facts of the case constitute a riot as a matter of law. As a result, no waiver of immunity exists and the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Lehrmann.  Docket page found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds a party sufficiently preserves an issue for review by arguing the issue’s substance, even if the party does not call the issue by name.

St. John Missionary Baptist  Church, et al, v Merle Flakes, et al, 18-0228, (Tex. Feb. 7, 2020).

The Texas Supreme Court held in this case, which will be of interest to litigators and appellate practitioners, that the courts of appeals have authority to order additional briefing on issues that were not raised in the principal briefs.

This is a dispute over church assets. St. John Missionary Baptist Church held a conference and terminated pastor Bertrain Bailey’s contract. Both Bailey and the chairman of St. John’s trustee board, Merle Flakes, were notified of the vote, but Bailey refused to step down and Flakes continued to pay him. The Church began selling off assets to keep payments. St. John members sued Flake and Bailey. Flakes filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on lack of standing and the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine. The trial court granted Flakes’s motion but did not specify whether its decision rested on the standing issue, the ecclesiastical abstention issue, or both. St. John appealed, but its appellate brief only expressly addressed the standing issue. The court of appeals, sitting en banc, affirmed in a divided decision holding the court of appeals was bound to affirm the trial court’s judgment because St. John failed to challenge all possible bases for the decision.

St. John contends that Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 38.9 authorizes courts of appeals to order additional briefing when an appellant fails to brief all possible grounds for the trial court’s decision. Flakes responds that although Rule 38.9 gives courts of appeals discretion to order additional briefing, the court properly exercised that discretion here by declining to order supplemental briefing. The Texas Supreme Court held, generally, Rule 38.1 provides that an issue statement “will be treated as covering every subsidiary question that is fairly included.” However, a party sufficiently preserves an issue for review by arguing the issue’s substance, even if the party does not call the issue by name. Here, the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine was not an independent basis for affirming the trial court’s judgment apart from the standing issue. Rather, based on the record before us, it appears that the standing and ecclesiastical-abstention issues are “so inextricably entwined that one cannot be mentioned without automatically directing attention to the other.” At the trial court level, Flake’s motion listed both. During a hearing on Flakes’s motion, the overlap between the standing and ecclesiastical abstention issues became even more apparent. On this record, then, the standing issue “fairly included” the ecclesiastical-abstention issue, and St. John’s purported omission did not require the court of appeals to affirm based on a lack of inclusive identification. St. John’s briefing was “sufficient to put the court of appeals on notice” of the ecclesiastical-abstention issues in the case and “invite[d] the court of appeals to correct any error of law” as to that issue. The opinion is reversed and remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per Curiam opinion. Docket page found here.

14th Court of Appeals holds flooded property owners’ claims lack jurisdiction in district court

Quote

San Jacinto River Authority v. Reba Ogletree, et al., 14-18-00043-CV, (Tex App – Hou [14th dist.], Jan 28, 2020)

In this inverse condemnation case the Fourteenth Court of Appeals dismissed the homeowner’s claims for lack of jurisdiction.

Homeowners, whose properties allegedly flooded when water was released from Lake Conroe in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, sued the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) and the Texas Water Development Board in a Harris County district court. SJRA filed a plea to the jurisdiction and the TWB filed a Rule 91a motion. The trial court denied the plea but granted TWB’s motion. SJRA and the Homeowners appealed.

SJRA and the Texas Water Board contend on appeal that Texas Government Code section 25.1032(c) imbues the county civil courts at law with exclusive jurisdiction over all inverse condemnation claims filed in Harris County. Generally, Texas district courts and county courts at law have concurrent jurisdiction in eminent-domain cases, but section 25.1032(c) creates an exception for certain cases filed in Harris County.  Inverse condemnation claims and statutory condemnation claims are distinct categories of eminent-domain proceedings. The homeowners also raised substantive and procedural due process claims. The court concluded that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the purported substantive and procedural due process claims because, as pled, they are necessarily dependent upon the viability of the inverse-condemnation claims over which the district court lacks jurisdiction.  When the homeowners requested the ability to amend their petitions, the court noted it lacked authority to lift the legislatively mandated stay in section 51.014(b) [interlocutory appeal provision], even for a limited purpose. Further, in this situation, the homeowners’ live pleading affirmatively negates the district court’s jurisdiction; hence, the homeowners are not entitled to a remand to plead new claims.  All of the homeowner’s claims should have been dismissed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost, and Justices Jewell and Bourliot. Opinion by Justice Bourliot. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Under PIA common-law privacy only applies to a person’s private affairs, not events related to discrimination charges

Quote

Stetson Roane v. Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas; and Seguin Independent School District, 14-18-00264-CV, (Tex App – Hou [14th dist.], Jan 28, 2020)

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) lawsuit where the Fourteenth Court of Appeals agreed with the Attorney General that certain records must be released.

Roane served as superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District (“the District”) who had a sexual harassment charge filed against him.  After he had left the District, it received several PIA requests which included information on the complaint. Roane was notified he could file a third-party objection, which he did asserting common law privacy to withhold the information. While the Attorney General (“AG”) allowed the District to withhold other responsive information, it opined the complaint information was subject to release. Roane filed suit to prevent the release and filed a motion for summary judgment. The AG also filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the AG’s motion and denied Roane’s motion. Roane appealed.

The common-law right to privacy protects information from disclosure when “(1) the information contains highly intimate or embarrassing facts the publication of which would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person, and (2) the information is not of legitimate concern to the public.” However, the highly intimate or embarrassing facts must be “about a person’s private affairs.”  The summary judgment record failed to demonstrate that the information involved matters relating to Roane’s “private affairs.” Matters of workplace harassment, discrimination, and policy violations in a governmental body are, by their very nature, generally do not qualify. The court noted the complainant’s name and other individuals’ names have been redacted from the information ordered to be disclosed by the AG’s opinion.  As a result, all that remains are public matters. Therefore, the trial court ruled properly regarding the competing motions.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Wise, Zimmerer, and Spain. Affirmed. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Zimmerer. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Trial court’s denial of plea after evidentiary hearing was proper given the trial court decides disputed facts unrelated to merits of underlying claims

Quote

City of San Antonio v. Pedro J. Arciniega, 04-19-00467-CV, (Tex. App – San Antonio, Jan 15, 2020)

This is an employment discrimination case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Arciniega sued the City alleging a claim for age discrimination after his employment was terminated. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting Arciniega failed to timely file his administrative complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days after the date he was terminated. Arciniega asserted he filed it within 180 days after receiving the  City’s letter notifying him of his termination. When the hearing was held on the plea the City asserted it should be an evidentiary hearing on exactly when Arciniega received notice and Arciniegra’s attorney asserted his affidavit was sufficient to create a fact issue. The City’s attorney responded the trial court was required to hear evidence and resolve fact issues regarding jurisdiction when the challenged jurisdictional facts are not intertwined with the merits of the case.  The court allowed an evidentiary hearing at which witnesses were presented. After the testimony, the court denied the plea.

Legally, the 180-day period “begins when the employee is informed of the allegedly discriminatory employment decision.” A trial court “must not proceed on the merits of a case until legitimate challenges to its jurisdiction have been decided.”  When a defendant asserts and supports with evidence that the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and the facts underlying the merits and subject matter jurisdiction are intertwined, a plaintiff is only required to show that there is a disputed material fact regarding the jurisdictional issue. A different standard applies, however, when a jurisdictional issue is not intertwined with the merits of a plaintiff’s claim. In that situation, “disputed fact issues are resolved by the court, not the jury.” Based on the applicable standard of a review the court found that the denial of the plea, was an implicit finding Arciniega timely filed his administrative complaint with the TWC.  Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court’s finding, Arciniega’s testimony supported that finding. As a result, the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Affirmed. Panel consists of Justices Alvarez, Rios, and Watkins. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rios. Docket page with attorney information found here.

City allowed to appeal civil service order since hearing examiner performed her own Internet search on medication side-effects

Quote

City of Fort Worth v. Shea O’Neill, 02-18-00131-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Jan. 23, 2020).

The Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part a trial court order regarding whether the court had jurisdiction over an appeal from a hearing examiner’s decision under the Civil Service Act.

Shea O’Neill was indefinitely suspended as a firefighter with the City.  O’Neill, while on work-related leave, struck a 70-year-old fellow parent at a football scrimmage. The parent alleged he sustained facial injuries, several cracked and broken teeth, and a bloody nose.   The fire chief found that O’Neill had violated several fire-department rules and regulations and imposed the suspension.  O’Neill appealed and a hearing examiner reversed the suspension. The City appealed to the district court, which granted O’Neill’s plea to the jurisdiction holding it had no jurisdiction over the hearing examiner’s decision. The City appealed.

The City asserts the district court had jurisdiction to consider the appeal for two reasons: (1) the hearing examiner’s decision was procured by unlawful means because she considered evidence not admitted at the hearing and (2) the hearing examiner exceeded her jurisdiction because she concluded that the fire department’s due-process violations compelled her to reinstate O’Neill.  The Civil Service Act mandates that a decision be made on evidence submitted at the hearing. A hearing examiner’s decision is “final and binding on all parties.” An appeal is permitted only if the hearing examiner was without jurisdiction or exceeded his/her jurisdiction or that the order was procured by fraud, collusion, or other unlawful means. It is undisputed the hearing examiner conducted her own independent Internet research on the side effects of certain drugs. O’Neill counters the search results were not “procured” through unlawful means. In ordinary usage, “procure” means to “to cause to happen or be done” and to “bring about.”  The hearing examiner found the “slap” was defensive in nature and unlikely to have caused the broken teeth or bones and dismissed the nosebleed as being caused by the slap. The court held a fact issue exists regarding the side-effects evidence and whether it led the hearing examiner to decide that the evidence overall did not support the fire chief’s findings and conclusions.  Such was improper and was procured through an unlawful means as the medication issue was not submitted during the hearing as evidence.  As a result, the “procured through unlawful means” ground entitled the City to reversal of the order granting the plea and a remand for further proceedings. However, the hearing examiner also determined that the department did not fully investigate the facts and allegations and did not give O’Neill an adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations. Such is within her discretion. Nothing in the Civil Service Act prohibits hearing examiners from reinstating a firefighter based on a finding that the department did not give due process during the disciplinary process. That ground was overruled by the court, even though it still remanded the case.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Gabriel, Justice Kerr, Visiting Justice Massengale.  Memorandum opinion from Justice Kerr. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Knowledge of a hypothetical hazard is insufficient to waive immunity under the TTCA for premise defects says 1st Court of Appeals

Quote

The City of Houston v. Bobby Terry, 01-19-00197-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], Jan. 23, 2020).

This is a Texas Tort Claim Act (TTCA) case where the First District Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the case.

Terry was electrocuted while performing maintenance on a communication tower leased by the  City. Terry was employed by a contractor at the time, but he was accompanied by a City employee (Hunter) at the site. Before having Terry climb the tower to replace a lightbulb, Hunter was to remove the control box faceplate, which theoretically should cut the power.  However, when Terry touched the lightbulb which needed replacing 300 feet up the tower, he was shocked. Hunter testified that he did not know the source of the electricity. Hunter maintained that the power was off because (1) power immediately stops running to the tower when the control box’s faceplate is removed and (2) Terry’s injuries would have been far more severe had the power been on. However, evidence existed several capacitors were near the control box and could have retained a charge for a short while. Terry brought claims under the TTCA for injuries resulting from both the use of tangible personal property and for premise defects. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  The trial court granted the plea as to the negligent use of personal property but denied it as to the premise defect.

The court held a claim for premises liability is distinct from a claim for general negligence. The Tort Claims Act’s premises liability provision imposes heightened requirements for liability, and they cannot be avoided by recasting a premises defect claim as one for general negligence. Under a premise defect theory, the City only owed a duty to warn of dangers it had actual knowledge existed. Failing to turn off the electricity does not fall under a premise defect theory, but is a general negligence theory. Premises liability instead concerns nonfeasance theories of liability based on the failure to take measures to make the property safe. Any fact issue relating to Hunter’s alleged failure to turn off the electricity to the tower is immaterial to the premise defect analysis. Under a premise defect theory, Terry did not establish a waiver. It is undisputed that any residual electricity stored in the capacitors should have dissipated about a minute or two after the power was turned off.  Given that it took Terry at least 30 minutes to climb the tower and reach the lightbulb where he was electrocuted, Hunter’s awareness that these capacitors carried a short-term charge does not rise to the level of actual knowledge of a dangerous condition. At most, Hunter’s testimony about the tower’s capacitors raises an inference that he may have been aware of a hypothetical hazard. That is not enough. Assuming that the tower’s capacitors were the source of the electricity that injured Terry, any power they stored was present because that is how the capacitors operate. Hunter, however, did not know they posed a danger.  As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Lloyd, Justice Goodman, and Justice Landau.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Goodman. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Fort Worth Court says under premise defect claim plaintiff paid for use of the property even though she was using public sidewalk

Quote

The City of Fort Worth, Texas v. Dianne Posey, 02-19-00351-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, Jan. 16, 2020)

This is a premise liability/Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held a fact question exists as to Posey’s payment for use of the premises so the plea to the jurisdiction was properly denied.

Posey attended a Christmas gift market put on by the Junior League of Fort Worth at the Will Rogers Memorial Center (“WRMC”). Posey asserts she paid for entry to the  Coliseum. The City asserts Posey purchased the entry ticket to enter the gift market from the Junior League and not the City.  After the market event, Posey walked down the public sidewalk to return to her car and tripped over an unknown metal object located in the concrete sidewalk. Posey fell and suffered injuries. Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, the City owes Posey a duty “that a private person owes to a licensee on private property, unless the claimant pays for use of the premises.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.022(a). If Posey paid for the use of the premises, she is an invitee; if not, she is a mere licensee.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on lack of actual knowledge required of a licensee. The plea was denied and the City appealed.

If Posey was a licensee, she must show that the City had actual knowledge of the unreasonable risk of harm created by the obstruction. If she was an invitee, she need only show that the City should have known of the risk—i.e., constructive knowledge. Posey asserts she paid a fee to park at the coliseum, and it is undisputed that the parking fee went directly to the City. Second, Posey offered evidence that she paid a $12 fee to enter Junior League’s gift fair, and Junior League, in turn, paid the City to rent the premises. However, the City asserts Posey fell on a public sidewalk for which she did not have to make any payment. One line of cases would agree with the City that the standard should be “but for” the payment, the claimant would not have access to the area. However, because of the text of the TTCA, the court held Posey “paid for the use of the premises” and the fact others could access the same area without paying is immaterial for statutory construction principles. Further, the statute does not say that the claimant must pay for exclusive or nonpublic use of the premises. Posey introduced multiple forms of evidence—including a contract and testimony from the City’s own representative—showing that the payments also endowed her with the express right to use the walkway to travel between the parking lot and the gift fair. As a result, a fact question exists as to whether Posey is considered an invitee or licensee. The plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Affirmed. Panel consists of Justices Birdwell, Bassel, and Wallach. Opinion by Justice Birdwell. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds no waiver of immunity for declaratory judgment relief against county for competitive bidding violation

Quote

Tarrant County, Texas v. Jeffrey D. Lerner, 02-19-00330-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, Jan. 9, 2020)

This is a declaratory judgment/immunity case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held the County retained immunity for declaratory claims alleging violations of the competitive bidding statute.

The County had a contract with Dispute Resolution Services of North Texas (DRS) to manage the County’s alternative dispute-resolution services and was valued at over $400,000 per year. When renewing the contract, Tarrant County did not seek competitive bids for the contract. A competitor, Lerner, sued asserting after the last renewal the contract was invalid due to the lack of bidding. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied.

The immunity waiver contained in the competitive bidding statute is specific and narrowly drawn – “Any property tax paying citizen of the county may enjoin performance under a contract made by a county in violation of [the Act].” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code Ann. § 262.033. The court held the Legislature intended to waive immunity for injunctive-relief claims arising from violations of the statute. However, that does not waive immunity for attorney’s fees or any other form of relief. As a result, the court found the County retained immunity for Lerner’s declaratory judgment claims. The plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justices Gabriel, and Kerr. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Gabriel. Docket page with attorney information found here.

No waiver of immunity when non-profit sues to invalidate transfer of real property to city

Quote

City of Houston and Keith W. Wade v. Hope for Families, Inc, 01-18-00795-CV, (Tex. App – Houston [1st Dist.], Jan. 9, 2020)

This is a governmental immunity case where the First  Court of Appeals held the contracting non-profit did not establish a waiver of immunity.

Hope for Families, Inc. (HFF) acquired the property for a community development project financed by the City which fell through.  HFF negotiated a transfer of the property to the City in exchange for debt forgiveness. HFF later sued to invalidate the transfer alleging the City’s negotiator, Wade, committed fraud when negotiating. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied and the City appealed.

HFF asserts “A corporation may convey real property of the corporation when authorized by appropriate resolution of the board of directors or members.” Tex. Bus. Org. Code § 22.255, which it did not do. However, that provision does not grant HFF the right to sue to invalidate a transfer and does not waive immunity. HFF also sued Wade as an individual. While Wade is immune individually (as fraud is an intentional tort), the court held HFF should have the opportunity to replead an ultra vires claim.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Keys, Kelly, and Goodman.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Goodman. Docket page with attorney information found here.

El Paso Court of Appeals holds concrete barrier and canal at end of roadway is a special defect

Quote

 

City of El Paso, Texas v. Albert Lopez and Lexby Lopez, 08-19-00056-CV, (Tex. App – El Paso, Dec. 12, 2019)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the El Paso Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Lopez was traveling on his motorcycle at night when the roadway ended with a concrete barrier and canal. There were neither road signs nor any other type of warnings or lighting. Lopez struck the barrier and was killed. The police investigation report noted “the driver . . . failed to stop for the end of the street or roadway and crashed his bike into the canal.” A nearby resident also gave a statement that “there are a lot of cars that crash into the canal” because “[t]here are no warning signs to let you know that the street ends so when people come out the bars they wind up crashing at the canal.”  The investigation listed “lack of signs and illumination” as factors in causing the accident.  Lopez’s family brought a wrongful death claim against the City. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Plaintiffs failed to provide statutory notice of the accident but asserted the City had actual notice of its fault. Citing to the recent Texas Supreme Court case in Worsdale v. City of Killeen, 578 S.W.3d 57 (Tex. 2019), the court held the “critical inquiry is the governmental unit’s actual anticipation of an alleged claim rather than subjective confirmation of its actual liability.” After reviewing the record the court held the  City had actual notice of the claim under the TTCA. Next, the court analyzed whether the concrete barrier was a special defect. Both the canal and the concrete barrier were located on the roadway’s path, neither of which were visible in the dark to ordinary motorists. As a result, the court determined it was a special defect and the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Alley, Justices Rodriguez and Palafox. Opinion by Justice Birdwell. The attorneys listed for the Plaintiffs are Ramon King Jr. and Lloyd Robles.  The attorney listed for the City is Anelisa Benavides.

4th Court of Appeals holds city vendor’s fair maybe proprietary function so trial court properly denied plea to the jurisdiction

Quote

City of Helotes v. Jean Marie Page, 04-19-00437-CV, (Tex. App – San Antonio, Dec. 18, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction in which San Antonio Court of Appeals held the Plaintiff’s injuries were caused during the performance of a potential proprietary function.

A City employee dropped a table while removing it from a parked golf cart. The table allegedly struck the accelerator on the cart, propelling it forward and striking Plaintiff Page. The accident occurred when the City employee was setting up for an event called the “MarketPlace at Old Town Helotes” and is a vendor’s fair where the City rents booths to vendors who sell merchandise and food. The MarketPlace is held on public streets in “Old Town Helotes,” and the streets are closed to traffic. The MarketPlace is sponsored, supervised, regulated, operated, and managed by the City. Page sued the City.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Texas Tort Claims Act  defines proprietary functions as “those functions that a municipality may, in its discretion, perform in the interest of the inhabitants of the municipality.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.0215(b). Proprietary functions are “usually activities ‘that can be, and often are, provided by private persons.’”  Citing to  Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 559 S.W.3d 142 (Tex. 2018) the court of appeals noted it was a factually specific analysis as to whether an activity is proprietary or governmental. A city’s proprietary functions “will often benefit some nonresidents,” but in determining whether the MarketPlace was intended to benefit the general public or the City’s residents, courts focus on whether the activity “primarily benefits one or the other.” The facts demonstrated the primary objective was to assist local businesses by generating community involvement in the Old Town Helotes area which undisputedly “raised funds for the City’s budget.” The revenues were recorded in the MarketPlace budget, and any profits could remain in the MarketPlace line item or be used for other City departments. The City did not provide any evidence the event was necessary for City operations. As a result, “some” evidence exists the MarketPlace may be proprietary.  As a result, the pleadings indicate jurisdiction and the trial court properly denied the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Alvarez, Rios, and Rodriguez.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Alvarez. Docket page with attorney information found here.

U.S. Supreme Court remands statutory campaign limit case noting court of appeals upheld it under the wrong analysis

Quote

Thompson v. Hebdon, 140 S. Ct. 348 (2019)

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court held the court of appeals improperly analyzed Alaska’s statute limiting political contributions as constitutional.

Alaska law limits the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate for political office, or to an election-oriented group other than a political party, to $500 per year. Petitioners challenged the limit as an unconstitutional restriction on their First Amendment rights. The trial court and court of appeals upheld the limit.

The Ninth Circuit upheld the law noting the evidence necessary to justify a legitimate state interest is low: the perceived threat must be merely more than “mere conjecture” and “not . . . illusory.”  Under this analysis, the circuit court held the limit was narrowly tailored and allowed effective campaigning. However, such an analysis ignored the Supreme Court’s opinion in Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U. S. 230 (2006).  “[C]ontribution limits that are too low can . . . harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.” It also ignored several “danger signs” listed in Randall such as lower comparable limits in other states, a failure to adjust for inflation over time (Alaska’s has been the same for 23 years), and the application to different offices. The State failed to provide “any special justification that might warrant a contribution limit so low.”   As a result, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s opinion and remanded for consideration consistent with its opinion.  Justice Ginsburg wrote separately to emphasize that while remand is proper, Alaska has the second smallest legislature in the country and derives 90% of its budget from the oil and gas industry. As a result, the justifications for such a low limit must be analyzed consistent with Alaska’s comparable place in the country.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per curiam opinion.

Supervisor entitled to qualified immunity as to one suspended employees 1st Amendment claim but not the other

Quote

Benfield v. Magee, 18-30932, (U.S. 5th Cir. December 17, 2019)

This is a First Amendment in employment action where the U.S. 5th Circuit reversed the denial of the individual supervisor’s qualified immunity defense and dismissed the claims as to one employee, but not the other.

Warren and Benfield worked in Louisiana as paramedics for the Desoto Parish Emergency Medical Services. Louisiana paramedics must complete annual recertification training, which required the approval of the medical director. Warren asserts he suggested changes to the procedures manual which would prevent Magee, their supervisor, from electronically signing in lieu of the medical director. Warren asserts afterward Magee harassed him (including criticizing Warren’s religious beliefs, denying him a promotion, accusing him of inappropriate relationships.)  When a new co-medical director inquired into the Plaintiff’s recertification, they blamed Magee for telling them to electronically falsify the records. Magee suspended Warren and Benfield for falsification.   Warren and Benfield sued Magee directly, claiming that he suspended them for exercising their First Amendment free-speech and free-association rights.  The trial court denied Magee’s assertion of qualified immunity and he appealed.

Warren’s letter of changes to the procedure’s manual occurred 19 months prior to his suspension. And while a plaintiff can establish a causal connection with other inferences, Warren’s allegations do virtually nothing to establish a chronology or relationship. He states that this harassment occurred sometime after the June 2015 letter, yet provides no further specificity.  Warran would be unable to overcome the qualified immunity defense without stating with specificity when he was harassed.  As a result, his assertions are insufficient to establish a causal connection and such claims are dismissed. However, Magee made no substantive argument for dismissing Benfield’s free-speech claim, believing Benfield raised only a freedom of association claim. As a result, the denial was proper as to Benfield.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Stewart, Clement and Ho.  Opinion by Justice Clement. The attorney listed for Magee is Edwin H. Byrd.  The attorney listed for Warren and Benfield is Bryce J. Denny.