San Antonio Court of Appeals reforms judgement for attorney fees awarded against a complainant for filing a frivolous ethics complaint

Lakshmana Viswanath v. The City of Laredo, 04-21-00413-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, Aug. 24, 2022).

This is the second appeal arising from the City of Laredo’s ethics commission decision.  In this case, the San Antonio Court of Appeals reformed an award of attorney’s fees in favor of the City.

Viswanath is the founder of a government watchdog group known as Our Laredo, who ran for city council and was defeated.  Viswanath filed several ethics complaints against various individuals at the City over the course of a year. One complaint was filed against the then-co-city managers arguing they were required to “ensure” that a certain councilmember forfeit his seat due to an alleged conflict of interest.  The City’s ethics commission dismissed the complaint holding it did not allege a violation of the ethics code and imposed a sanction of attorney’s fees for filing a frivolous complaint. The San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the frivolous finding in the first appeal. (Summary found here).  The case was remanded for a determination of attorney’s fees, which the trial court ruled upon.  This appeal deals only with the imposition of the sanction of attorney’s fees.

Viswanath’s argument asserts that the City could only consider evidence submitted during the ethics commission hearing, not evidence submitted afterward. However, the Ethics Code does not require evidence during the hearing to uphold the award. Instead, the Code directs a reviewing court to review the record of the hearing before the Ethics Commission. Logically, the record of the hearing might include evidence to support an award of attorney fees because the Ethics Commission’s attorney cannot invoice his services until after the hearing and after completing legal services.  However, importantly for the court, the record submitted after remand does not show the full extent of the fees were “part of the record of the hearing before the Ethics Commission.”  The full fees totaled $7,900.68.  During the hearing, the Ethics Commission attorney advised he had expended an estimated $4,500 in legal services to date but that did not include the costs for the hearing. The City argued in the alternative that if the record did not support the full award, the appellate court should reform the judgment to be the estimate given at the hearing. Because the court has the authority to reform a judgment of attorney fees if reformed the judgment to award $4,500 in attorney fees and affirmed the judgment as reformed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez, Justices Chapa and Valenzuela.