County potentially liable for Texas Open Meetings Act violations

Riley v. Commissioners Court of Blanco County, NO. 03-11-00276-CV, (Tex. App. – Austin May 23, 2013)

This is a Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”) violation case. The Blanco County Commissioners’ Court held three closed meetings which were tape recorded, after which the Commissioners met in open session and adopted a resolution authorizing the purchase of property. Riley was unsuccessful at obtaining copies of the recordings under the Texas Public Information Act and therefore filed suit alleging violations under TOMA seeking declarations, requesting mandamus and injunctive relief, and asking for copies of the recordings. The Commissioners and the County filed a plea to the jurisdiction for all claims which the trial court granted and Riley appealed.

The County asserted that the claims against it were barred by sovereign immunity because Riley alleged violations of law, which were ultra-vires acts and barred by City of El Paso v. Heinrich, 284 S.W.3d 366 (Tex. 2009). The Third Court of Appeals disagreed holding that the legislature waived immunity of the County via TOMA. The court then held that Riley’s declaratory judgment claims were redundant to the valid TOMA claims, so such claims were properly dismissed.  The County then asserted that the TOMA and mandamus claims were barred because they were not submitted to the County prior to filing suit under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code Ann. § 89.004. The court determined that since Riley was not asserting a claim for monetary damages, §89.004 does not apply.  It also noted that a claim for attorney’s fees (which Riley did not seek) does not necessarily equate to a claim for monetary damages under that section.  The court reversed in part and affirmed in part.

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