County properly supported summary judgment affidavits to establish breach of contract claim against garbage franchise holder

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Hernandez v County of Zapata, 04-19-00507-CV  (Tex. App. – San Antonino, July 8, 2020).

This is a breach of contract/garbage collection case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals upheld an order granting the County’s summary judgment against Hernandez.

The County of Zapata and Hernandez entered into a one-year written contract, granting Hernandez an exclusive franchise to provide garbage collection services to Zapata County residents. Hernandez agreed to pay Zapata a percentage of the sums he collected from Zapata County residents for his garbage collection services. When a dispute arose, the County of Zapata sued Hernandez for breach of contract.  The County filed a traditional motion for summary judgment, which was granted. Hernandez appealed. [Comment: this opinion is helpful mainly to litigators who deal with standards for admission of evidence].

A party opposing a motion for summary judgment may file a response “not later than seven days prior to the day of” the summary judgment hearing.  Hernandez failed to timely file a response and failed to establish the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion to file a late response. Hernandez’s motion was unsupported by any probative evidence establishing good cause for the failure. The lack of factual support and explanation regarding counsel’s alleged mistakes, “leav[es] the trial court without any means of determining whether an excusable accident or mistake had in fact occurred.”

In comparison, the County’s affidavits in support of its summary judgment were properly supported and included the underlying facts to justify the conclusions asserted in the affidavits. For example, the affidavit of the County auditor provided support by stating 1) His primary duties are to oversee financial record-keeping for the county and to assure that all expenditures comply with the county budget, 2)  He has continuous access to all county books and financial records and conducts a detailed review of all county financial operations, 3) He has general oversight of all books and records of all county officials and is charged with strictly enforcing laws governing county finance, 4)  After reviewing bank statements from Hernandez’s business and comparing with county records and the cross-checking corresponding franchise fee percentage owed by Hernandez pursuant to the contract, that the amount Hernandez owed Zapata was $361,439.07. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Hernandez’s objections to the County’s affidavits.

The trial court also did not abuse its discretion in overruling the objection to bank statements based on hearsay.  Under the Texas Rules of Evidence, a statement by an opposing party is not hearsay if the statement is offered against the opposing party and “is one the party manifested that it adopted or believed to be true.” Hernandez admitted that he produced the bank statements in discovery. By producing the bank statements and by adopting the bank statements as his own, Hernandez manifested an adoption or belief in their truth.  The evidence is sufficient to conclusively establish the existence of a valid contract,  that Zapata performed under the contract, and that Hernandez breached the agreement.  Aside from the first-year payment, it is undisputed Hernandez did not pay Zapata the contracted percentages of the total gross receipts for the years 2011 to 2016. As a result, the trial court was within its discretion to grant the summary judgment.  Finally, the record supports an award of attorney’s fees.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Justices Martinez, Rios and Watkins.  Opinion by Justice Martinez.

BOA appeal deadline of 10 days applies to Open Meetings, declaratory judgment, and as-applied constitutional claims, holds Dallas Court of Appeals

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Tejas Motel, LLC v City of Mesquite, by and through its Board of Adjustment, 05-19-00667-CV (Tex. Civ. App. – Dallas, June 4, 2020).

This is an appeal from a Board of Adjustment decision regarding non-conforming status in which the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

The City of Mesquite had two zoning categories of lodging facilities within the City and placed conditions on their uses — Limited Services and General Services, neither of which Tejas Motel (“Tejas”) qualified under. Although the Tejas Motel had been nonconforming since 1997, the City did not specifically address that nonconformance until 2018, when the City passed an ordinance changing the manner in which the City’s Board of Adjustment could amortize nonconforming properties. The BOA held public hearings and scheduled a date for all non-conforming properties to become compliant, including Tejas. The City introduced evidence that the nonconforming use would adversely affect nearby properties.  Tejas then announced an agreement for a May 1, 2019 compliance date and the BOA approved that as a compliance date. Tejas, however, denied receiving a written copy after the BOA decision, which the BOA insists was mailed. Tejas then sued the BOA to invalidate the compliance date. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.

The requirement that one timely file a petition for writ of certiorari to challenge a zoning board decision is part of an administrative remedy, which is provided by the Texas Local Government Code and must be exhausted before board decisions may be challenged in court. Under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §211.011 Tejas had ten days from the date the decision was filed to challenge the decision. The Board’s July 31 written “Decision and Order” triggered the statutory deadline. Tejas did not file by the deadline, thereby precluding the court from obtaining jurisdiction. This included challenges brought under the Texas Open Meetings Act, declaratory judgment claim and as-applied constitutional challenges.  Tejas also failed to state any viable federal claims. Although a city is not immune from federal constitutional claims, a trial court may grant a plea to the jurisdiction if a constitutional claim is not viable. Tejas had no constitutionally protected, vested due process interest in continuing to use the property in violation of the city’s ordinances, especially when it acquired the property knowing the restrictions.  As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Molberg, Carlyle, and Evans.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Carlyle.

Possible suspension of officer’s license does not toll the statute of limitations for Sec. 1983 claims against an officer

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Haule  v.  Travis County and Spinner, No.  03-19-00250-CV (Tex.App.–Austin May 28, 2020) (mem. op.).

[Special guest summary author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs, Texas]

This case involves claims under §1983 and state law claims based on Haule’s attempt to report a crime to Travis County Officer Michael Spinner.  The court of appeals held that the statute of limitations had run against all of Haule’s claims.

Haule attempted to file a criminal complaint against the Caldwell County District Attorney based on a previous prosecution.  She called the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, claiming that the District Attorney had told her that he would put her in jail if she complained to the State Bar of Texas.  The Sheriff’s Office sent Officer Spinner to take her statement.  In his report, Officer Spinner referred to Haule as potentially mentally ill and intoxicated.  After Haule complained about Officer Spinner’s report, the Sheriff’s Office responded to Haule’s complaint in a letter stating that: (1) her claim was not sustained; (2) that the Travis County Sheriff’s Office did not have authority over the Caldwell County District Attorney; and (3) that she should contact the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office or the Attorney General’s Office.  Seven years after receiving the letter from Travis County, Haule filed suit in Travis County District Court, alleging Section 1983 claims and general state law claims that appeared to include negligence, fraud, malicious prosecution, and defamation against Travis County and Officer Spinner.  The County filed a motion for summary judgment that the claims were frivolous, and the district court granted the motion.  Haule appealed.

The court of appeals reviewed all of the claims under each statute of limitations to determine whether any of the claims, even if substantiated, remained viable.  The court first discussed Haule’s briefing and noted that it was unclear that Haule’s claims were able to be pursued.  However, based on the information provided, the court reviewed the statute of limitations for §1983 claims, fraud, defamation, and others and determined that all of the statute of limitations had passed.  Haule argued that the statute limitations should be tolled because: (1) the report stating that she was mentally ill and/or intoxicated was “ongoing” and (2) Officer Spinner’s license was suspended during the period in question.   The court stated that the report was not ongoing and that even if Officer Spinner’s license had been suspended, it would not toll the statute of limitations. The district court’s judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Rose, Justices Baker and Triana.

13th Court of Appeals holds it does not have interlocutory jurisdiction to hear 2nd motion which is nothing more than reconsideration of first plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Elsa, Texas v. Jesse Diaz, 13-19-00109-CV, (Tex. App – Corpus Christi – Edinburg, April 2, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal (2nd for the case) in a contractual immunity case where the 13th Court of Appeals held the City’s summary judgment was merely a motion to reconsider the already denied plea to the jurisdiction, so the appellate court lacked interlocutory jurisdiction.

Diaz was appointed as interim police chief but emails stated if not selected for the permanent position, he would resume his role as the warrants officer. Later, a new city manager removed Diaz from the chief position but terminated his employment. Diaz sued for breach of contract. The City first filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted.  However, the 13th Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. On remand, the City filed separate no-evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment, each reasserting that the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the city council did not formally approve the contract. The motions were denied and the City took this interlocutory appeal.

Although § 54.014(a) does not expressly limit a party to one interlocutory appeal, the right to successive interlocutory appeals is not without limits. When a second motion/plea constitutes nothing more than a motion to reconsider, without any new or distinct evidence or arguments, the appellate court lacks interlocutory jurisdiction. In making this determination, courts of appeals should compare both the substance and procedural nature of the two challenges.  The court held, in this case, the original plea and the motions for summary judgment, were substantively and procedurally identical. The only change is the  City added an affidavit which implicitly refutes evidence considered in Diaz I regarding the authority to enter into the contract by the City Manager. Since the second set of motions do not contain “new and distinct” challenges to the trial court’s jurisdiction, they are mere reconsiderations. The court of appeals, therefore, dismissed the appeal for lack of interlocutory jurisdiction.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Benavides, Longoria, and Perkes. Dismissed – Want of Jurisdiction. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Perkes. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

 

First Court of Appeals holds service on pro se of MSJ via email address on file with court was proper service

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Glenn Herbert Johnson v. Harris County, et al., 01-18-00783-CV, (Tex. App – Hou [1st Dist.], Feb. 27, 2020)

This is an inverse condemnation case where the First Court of Appeals affirmed the granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. However, it will be of interest mostly to litigators as the central issue is proper service on a pro se by email during litigation.

Johnson (pro se) alleged that Harris County’s tax sale of his property constituted a taking. The County filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment, to which Johnson did not respond. The trial court granted the motion. Johnson filed a post-judgment motion arguing that he did not receive notice of the MSJ or hearing, but listed a different email address for notice. The County submitted evidence it served Johnson via the electronic filing email he had on file with the court.  The trial court denied Johnson’s post-judgment motion and Johnson appealed.

The court first noted that Johnson failed to provide a single citation to the record in his brief and therefore waived any arguments. When an appellate issue is unsupported by argument or lacks citation to the record or legal authority, nothing is presented for review.  However, the court went on to say that even if he had cited to the record, he could not prevail.  The County’s MSJ was filed twenty-eight days before the date of submission and was therefore timely filed.  A nonmovant has the right to minimum notice of the summary judgment hearing. Id. “Proper notice to the nonmovant of the summary judgment hearing is a prerequisite to summary judgment.” Rule 21a deals with service and notice requirements for pleadings, including motions for summary judgment.  Pro se litigants are not required to participate in the electronic service program.  However, the Rule also states that if no email address is on file with the electronic filing manager, the document “may be served in person, mail, by commercial delivery service, by fax, by email, or by such other manner as the court in its discretion may direct.” “A certificate by a party or an attorney of record . . . shall be prima facie evidence of the fact of service.” Notice properly sent pursuant to Rule 21a raises a presumption that notice was received.  No evidence in the record indicates Johnson attempted to change the email address on file with the court or to the attorney in charge for the County. Pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 57, Johnson was required to designate an email address if he had one.  Harris County used the designated email address and Johnson presented no evidence of a change. Therefore, Johnson did not overcome the presumption that Harris County properly served him and that he received Harris County’s motion and notice via email service.   Finally, to defeat a no-evidence MSJ, a non-movant must file a response. Here, Johnson did not.  The MSJ was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Lloyd, Kelly, and Landau. Reversed and Remanded. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Lloyd. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds defendant entitled to designate responsible third-party even after statute of limitations expires

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In re: Mobil Mini, Inc., 18-1200 (Tex. March 13, 2020)

This is a mandamus case that will be of interest mainly to litigators. The Texas Supreme Court granted mandamus and ordered the trial court to allow the designation of a responsible third party even though the statute of limitations had expired.

Covarrubias’s pinky finger was injured when a wind gust blew the door of a construction trailer closed on his hand. Mobile Mini owned the trailer, but had leased it to Nolana Self Storage, LLC, the owner of the construction site.  Covarrubias sued Mobile Mini just before the statute of limitations expired, but did not sue Nolana. Mobile Mini’s discovery responses identified Nolana as a potentially responsible third party. Mobile Mini filed a motion to designate Nolana as a responsible third party, but no hearing was set immediately. Meanwhile, Nolana (who had been brought in) obtained a summary judgment that claims against it were time-barred and it was dismissed. Covarrubias later objected to Mobile Mini’s attempt to designate Nolana as a responsible third-party given the time bar.  The trial court refused to allow Mobile Mini to designate Nolana. The court of appeals denied Mobile Mini’s mandamus petition without substantive comment.  Mobile Mini brought this mandamus action in the Texas Supreme Court.

The Court went through a lengthy analysis of Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.  The Court held Mobile Mini’s disclosure was timely because under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, it was not obligated to disclose potentially responsible third parties until its discovery responses were due. Because Covarrubias waited almost two years to sue Mobile Mini, the response deadline for the disclosures fell after limitations expired. Mobile Mini did not engage in any dilatory or stall tactics to game the system, but instead filed the discovery response when it was due.  Such are deemed a timely designation. Placing the onus on a defendant to respond before the Rules of Civil Procedure obligate it to do so not only contravenes section 33.004(d)’s express language but would also be unfairly prejudicial to defendants. Covarrubias’s second argument that Nolana was “substantively” dismissed was rejected as missing a statute of limitations in this case was procedural in nature. Under the proportionate-responsibility statute, “responsibility” is not equated with “liability.” Finally, an adequate appellate remedy is ordinarily lacking because allowing a case to proceed to trial without a properly requested responsible-third-party designation “would skew the proceedings, potentially affect the outcome of the litigation, and compromise the presentation of the relator’s defense in ways unlikely to be apparent in the appellate record.”  As a result, the trial court had a required duty to allow the designation. The Court granted the writ of mandamus ordering Nolana be designated as a responsible third-party.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  The docket page can be found here.

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

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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 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.

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

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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.

U.S 5th Circuit holds Plaintiffs had a duty of diligence to inquire about the status of their case – emails mistakenly going to a spam folder was not excusable neglect

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Trevino v City of Fort Worth, 19-10414 (U.S. 5th Cir. December 10, 2019)

This is a custodial death case brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  However, the opinion is one of procedure and excusable neglect in not responding to a motion.

City police stopped Alfredo Cortez and his girlfriend Alisha Trevino for an inoperable brake light. Trevino ingested two baggies of methamphetamine that she had hidden in her pants before the officers could view her in the car. She died later that night. Plaintiffs filed suit against the City and the officers involved in Trevino’s arrest. The officers were dismissed.  The City then filed a motion to dismiss to which the Plaintiffs did not respond, citing computer difficulties in receiving court notices. After the motion was granted Plaintiffs filed a motion for new trial which was denied. Plaintiffs appealed.

Plaintiffs’ counsel failed to register with the court’s electronic filing system, in violation of local rules, which is why he did not receive the notice. The Plaintiffs also concede that the failure to file was within Plaintiffs’ counsel’s “reasonable control.”  Plaintiffs had a duty of diligence to inquire about the status of their case. The fact that the case was not on Plaintiffs’ counsel’s “radar for active cases” does not free Plaintiffs of this duty.  Failure to file a response to a motion to dismiss is not a manifest error of law or fact. Rule 60(b)(1) allows for relief from judgment for “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.” The Supreme Court has explained that the determination of what sorts of neglect will be considered excusable is “an equitable one, taking account of all relevant circumstances surrounding the party’s omission.”  However, “[g]ross carelessness, ignorance of the rules, or ignorance of the law are insufficient bases for 60(b)(1) relief.” In fact, a court would abuse its discretion if it were to reopen a case when the reason is one attributable solely to counsel’s carelessness.  Further, emails mistakenly going to a spam folder do not merit Rule 60(b) relief. Judgment affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Owen, and Justices Southwick and Willett.  Per curiam opinion. The attorney listed for Trevino is Jeffrey M. Wise.  The attorney listed for the City is Lynn Winter.

Texas Supreme Court holds no-evidence MSJ proper to challenge jurisdiction; TOMA waiver of immunity does not include declaratory judgment claims

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Town of Shady Shores v Swanson, 18-0413 (Tex. Dec. 13, 2019)

This is an employment case, but the focus on the opinion is a procedural one.  Importantly, the Texas Supreme Court held 1) a no-evidence motion for summary judgment was proper to raise a jurisdictional challenge and 2) the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) did not waive immunity for declaratory relief, only mandamus and injunctive relief.

Swanson was the former Town Secretary for Shady Shores. She brought claims asserting she was wrongfully discharged. The Town filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted as to the Sabine Pilot and Whistleblower claims. The  Town later filed traditional and no-evidence summary judgment motions (on immunity grounds) as to the Texas Open Meetings Act declaratory judgment claims, which the trial court denied.  The Town took an interlocutory appeal, but Swanson kept filing motions. The trial court granted Swanson leave to file a motion for a permissive interlocutory appeal as Swanson asserted she filed her notice of appeal (for the plea to the jurisdiction) within 14 days of the Town’s notice of appeal for the summary judgments. When Swanson attempted to hold further proceedings and obtain an order on the permissive appeal the Town filed a separate mandamus action (which was consolidated for purposes of appeal). The court of appeals declined to issue the mandamus noting the trial court did not actually sign any orders and noted Swanson did not timely file an appeal and was not granted a permissive appeal. Court of appeals summary found here.

The court of appeals held allowing a jurisdictional challenge on immunity grounds via a no-evidence motion would improperly shift a plaintiff’s initial burden by requiring a plaintiff to “marshal evidence showing jurisdiction” before the governmental entity has produced evidence negating it.  It also held the entity must negate the existence of jurisdictional facts. After recognizing a split in the appellate courts, the Texas Supreme Court rejected the reasoning noting in both traditional and no-evidence motions, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.  Because the plaintiff must establish jurisdiction, the court could “see no reason to allow jurisdictional challenges via traditional motions for summary judgment but to foreclose such challenges via no-evidence motions.”  Thus, when a challenge to jurisdiction that implicates the merits is properly made and supported, whether by a plea to the jurisdiction or by a traditional or no-evidence motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff will be required to present sufficient evidence on the merits of her claims to create a genuine issue of material fact.  Such a challenge is proper using a no-evidence summary judgment motion.  Next, the Court held  the UDJA does not contain a general waiver of immunity, providing only a limited waiver for challenges to the validity of an ordinance or statute.  UDJA claims requesting other types of declaratory relief are barred absent a legislative waiver of immunity with respect to the underlying action. Under  TOMA, immunity is waived only “to the express relief provided” therein—injunctive and mandamus relief—and the scope does not extend to the declaratory relief sought. Thus, TOMA’s clear and unambiguous waiver of immunity does not extend to suits for declaratory relief against the entity. However, Swanson did seek mandamus and injunctive relief as well, which were not addressed by the court of appeals, even though argued by the Town. As a result, such claims are remanded to the court of appeals to address.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with attorney information is found here.

Former Employee Failed to Brief and ID Records Establishing Causation or Pretext in Employment Case

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Orlando Toldson v. Denton Independent School District, 02-18-00394-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Nov. 21, 2019)

This is a sexual harassment/retaliation claim where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Toldson worked for Denton Independent School District (DISD) as a paraprofessional teacher’s aide off and on from 2009 until he was terminated in February 2015. In 2014 Toldson served as an aide in the special education department at Ryan High School (RHS). Toldson complained to the assistance principle several times that the teacher (Ms. Winrow) was overly demanding and that Toldson did not know what was expected of him in the classroom. Toldson made no allegations during these meetings that Winrow had sexually harassed him.  These complaints continued for several months until Toldson eventually did mention what he felt was inappropriate sexual comments. DISD offered to move Toldson to a different classroom while investigating his complaints. The principle interviewed five witnesses,  did not find any who corroborated Toldson’s allegations of sexual harassment.  The principle concluded the investigation and offered to move Toldson to another teacher, to which Toldson objected. Toldson complained to the DISD HR department and asserted his immediate supervisors began retaliating against him by requiring him to be at department meetings where Winrow would be present. Toldson followed the grievance procedures up the process, but with no resolution he would accept. During this entire time, Toldson’s job performance at RHS was an issue including often arriving late for work, he often left early, and he was often absent, all without providing proper notification to his superiors. He also took longer breaks than allowed, as well as unauthorized breaks that left students unsupervised. Toldson was reassigned to a different campus.  While there, the record reflects Toldson sexually harassed a female teacher. Upon learning of the incidents, DISD terminated Toldson. Toldson sued for sexual harassment and retaliation. The DISD filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. Toldson appealed.

Regarding his retaliation claim, the court noted no evidence was identified by Toldson establishing causation. While Toldson asserts an email present somewhere in the record constitutes direct evidence of causation, Toldson failed to identify, cite, or adequately brief the email for the court. Toldson bears the burden of supporting his contentions with appropriate citations to the record. Failing that, Toldson fails to meet his burdens.  Further, the court agreed DISD presented evidence of a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for terminating Toldson’s employment. Toldson failed to demonstrate a fact issue exists regarding pretext. The court likewise had difficulty finding Toldson had properly briefed and identified arguments and issues regarding the sexual harassment claim. The court noted the summary judgment record in this case exceeds 2,000 pages. Of the nineteen sentences of alleged facts Toldson relies upon to show a fact issue the sexual harassment charge, eight contain no citation to the record whatsoever and the rest do not explain how they are related to any form of harassment.  Toldson provided no reference to a specific place in the record where any exhibits exist, so he failed to brief his issues. The summary judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justices Womack and  Wallach. The attorney listed for the district is Thomas P. Brandt.  The attorney listed for Toldson is Anthony Hamilton Green.

Firefighter’s claims against City dismissed since no adverse employment actions occurred; only minor internal decisions

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Billy Fratus v. The City of Beaumont, 09-18-00294-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Oct. 10, 2019).

This is an employment discrimination/retaliation/firefighter case where the Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Fratus was a firefighter who sued for 1) free speech equitable relief and 2) race discrimination and 3) retaliation under Chapter 21 of the Labor Code.  Fratus asserted the Fire Chief, Huff, did not like Fratus was Hispanic and excluded him from meetings, denied him discretionary perks of the job, spoke bad about him, interfered with Fratus’ relationship with his physician while on disability leave, and a host of other assertions centering on personality slights. Fratus also alleged that the City retaliated against him for speaking out against what he believed was Chief Huff’s sexual harassment of another employee, and for disagreeing with Chief Huff’s firing of one employee. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. Fratus appealed.

Fratus’ claims for declaratory relief centered only on past allegations.  As a result, it is actually a claim for monetary damages for which the City is immune. Further, claims for equitable relief for constitutional violations “cannot be brought against the state, which retains immunity, but must be brought against the state actors in their official capacity.” Since Fratus did not sue any individuals, the equitable relief claims are dismissed. To prevail on a retaliation claim based on protected free speech Fratus has to establish, among other things, he spoke out on a matter of public concern. Speech made privately between a speaker and his employer rather than in the context of public debate is generally not of public concern. The record shows Fratus made criticisms to other co-workers, which does not qualify. A retaliation claim is related to but distinct from a discrimination claim, and it focuses upon the employer’s response to the employee’s protected activity. The TCHRA addresses only “ultimate employment decisions” and does not address “every decision made by employers that arguably might have some tangential effect upon employment decisions.”  Actionable adverse employment actions do not include disciplinary filings, supervisor’s reprimands, poor performance reviews, hostility from fellow employees, verbal threats to fire, criticism of the employee’s work, or negative employment evaluations.  The pleadings and record reflect Fratus did not allege any adverse employment decisions, only petty disagreements and internal rifts. Fratus failed to plead a prima facie claim. Fratus’s appellate brief states that he also has an issue under the Texas Open Meetings Act.  However, such does not meet briefing requirements because it lacks citations to the record or to applicable authority and therefore presents nothing for review. As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justices Kreger and Johnson. Opinion by Justice Johnson.  The attorney listed for Fratus is Laurence Watts.  The attorneys listed for the City are Tyrone Cooper and Sharae Reed.

12th Court of Appeals holds a regulatory civil enforcement suit did not constitute a taking by a conservation district

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Neches and Trinity Valleys Groundwater Conservation District v. Mountain Pure TX, LLC  12-19-00172-CV (Tex. App. – Tyler, September 18, 2019).

This is a regulatory takings/compliance enforcement case where the Tyler Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a conservation district’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the property owner’s counterclaims.

The District adopted  rules requiring all persons owning a groundwater well to obtain permits to drill and operate the well unless exempt. Mountain Pure owns a spring water bottling plant in Palestine, Texas. Mountain Pure refused to acknowledge that it owns or operates a water well, refused to apply for a permit to operate a water well, failed to file quarterly production reports or pay quarterly production fees and overall refused to acknowledge the District’s authority. Mountain Pure took the position its water came from an “underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth.”  Therefore, the District has no authority to regulate spring water. The District filed a compliance suit against Mountain Pure to which Mountain Pure counter-claimed for tortious interference with their lucrative operating contracts and also asserted a takings claim.  The District filed a plea to the jurisdiction as to the counterclaims which was denied. The District appealed.

Governments must sometimes impose restrictions on and regulations affecting the use of private property in order to secure the safety, health, and general welfare of its citizens.  Although those restrictions and regulations sometimes result in inconvenience to owners, the government is not generally required to compensate for accompanying loss.  However, if regulations go too far, they will be recognized as a taking.

A civil enforcement procedure alone cannot serve as the basis of a regulatory takings claim. A denial of access is compensable if the denial of access is substantial and material. Mountain Pure does not contend that the District’s rules and regulations it seeks to enforce are unconstitutional or otherwise invalid. But it maintains that the District is wrongfully attempting to apply them to its property. The record shows that Mountain Pure’s Palestine plant, after the government action, retains a value of $4,090,000. Mountain Pure cannot contend that the District’s action renders its property valueless. The loss of anticipated gains or future profits is not usually considered in a regulatory takings analysis. “The existing and permitted uses of the property constitute the ‘primary expectation’ of the landowner affected by regulation.”  There is no pleading or evidence which show that the application of the groundwater rules, should they be held to apply, will interfere with production and sale of bottled water from the property. If the District is successful, the enforcement of the production reporting rules would represent a restriction on the property’s use. There is no pleading that the imposition of a three cent per 1000 gallons fee will be so onerous as to affect the present use of the property or significantly diminish its economic viability.  Neither a diminution in property value nor a “substantial reduction of the attractiveness of the property to potential purchasers’ will suffice to establish that a taking has occurred.” Neither the District’s rules nor its attempt at their enforcement has deprived Mountain Pure of any reasonable investment backed expectation for bottling water.  There is no showing that the enforcement of the reporting rules and the accompanying fee will affect production. Mountain Pure’s pleadings do not contain facts that allege a compensable denial of access, nor do they show how the District’s suit forced a cessation of operation. The operating lessee’s termination of its lease purchase operating agreement may have been influenced by the District’s civil enforcement suit. But there are no facts pleaded to show it was required by the District’s action. The District’s suit neither denied access to the spring nor prevented its operation. The court held “[i]t is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Mountain Pure’s inverse condemnation claim is no more that its dismissed tortious interference claim thinly disguised as a taking.”  However, no taking has occurred under the facts. No waiver of immunity exists and the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Worthen, C.J., Hoyle, J., and Bass, Retired, J., Opinion issued by Justice Bass.  The attorney listed for the district is  John D. Stover.  The attorneys listed for Mountain Pure are Danny R. Crabtree and Jeffrey L. Coe.

Since interlocutory appeal by individual officials stayed proceedings, trial court had no authority to grant or deny City’s plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Brownsville, et al.,  v. Brownsville GMS, 13-19-00467-CV (Tex.App. – Corpus Christi, September 27, 2019).

This is a governmental immunity/contract case where a temporary injunction was sought.  The Corpus Christi court out of Edinburg held the trial court’s failure to rule on the City’s plea to the jurisdiction was not a denial of the City’s plea because a simultaneous separate interlocutory appeal was filed, staying the proceedings.

Brownsville GMS, Ltd. (GMS) sued the City of Brownsville (City), the Mayor, and the city commission members complaining of the manner in which the City awarded its waste-disposal contract.  GMS obtained a temporary injunction to preclude the City from acting on the award and an order for expedited discovery.  The individuals filed motions to dismiss based on Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.06(e). The City also filed two pleas to the jurisdiction asserting immunity. The trial court scheduled multiple motions to be heard on August 13, 2019. The trial court denied the motions to dismiss during the hearing. The individuals filed an interlocutory appeal during the hearing for the denial. The trial court did not rule on any other motions during the hearing, as the proceedings were stayed.

The City also appealed and argued that the trial court’s refusal to rule on its pleas to the jurisdiction invokes the implicit ruling doctrine and cites Thomas v. Long, 207 S.W.3d 334  (Tex. 2006). In Thomas, the implicit ruling was predicated on the trial court’s grant of affirmative relief to Long while at the same time failing to rule on Thomas’s plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court did not have authority to grant the relief Long sought unless it affirmatively determined that it had jurisdiction. Here, the trial court became aware that DeLeon filed an instantaneous interlocutory appeal, thereby staying all proceedings. The trial court correctly recognized it did not have the power to rule on the pleas and adjourned the hearing. Because the trial court had no authority to rule on the pleas, it did not implicitly deny the pleas. The appellate court therefore lacks jurisdiction to hear the  City’s appeal.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Benavides, Longoria and Perkes. Memorandum opinion by Justice Benavides.