Austin Court of Appeals grants TABC plea to the jurisdiction in PIA lawsuit by requestor

McLane Company, Inc. v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, et al., No.03-16-00415-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, February 1, 2017).

This is a Texas Public Information Act (“PIA”) request lawsuit where the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of several pleas to the jurisdiction by a state official and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (“TABC”).

In 2015 McLane Company, Inc. (“McLane”) submitted a PIA request to the TABC. The TABC sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s Office under the PIA procedures. The AG determined most of the information must be released, but allowed two exceptions. The TABC filed suit against the AG and McLane intervened. McLane seeks a writ of mandamus ordering TABC to produce the requested information. McLane also seeks declarations under the Texas Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (“UDJA”). It further sued Sherry Cook, TABC’s Chief Administrative Officer and Officer for Public Information asserting her failure to release the information as an ultra-vires activity. TABC filed a plea to the jurisdiction contending sovereign immunity deprived the trial court of jurisdiction over McLane’s UDJA and ultra-vires claims. Cook also filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting that sovereign immunity barred McLane’s suit against her. The trial court granted the pleas and McLane appealed.

The Texas Supreme Court has explained that “the UDJA does not enlarge the trial court’s jurisdiction but is ‘merely a procedural device for deciding cases already within a court’s jurisdiction.’” Texas Dep’t of Transp. v. Sefzik, 355 S.W.3d 618, 621–22 (Tex. 2011) (per curiam).  To the extent McLane’s petition seeks the trial court to order “the PIA requires the TABC and Cook to promptly search for and produce” responsive documents, and the method in which they are to search, such a suit falls outside of the confines of the declaratory judgment action authorized by the PIA. Instead, such relief seeks a declaration of McLane’s rights under the statute.  As articulated in the Sefzik case, immunity is not waived under the UDJA except where the invalidity of an ordinance or statute is at play. The UDJA does not waive sovereign immunity for “bare statutory construction” claims. As a result, the UDJA claims raised in the plea were properly dismissed. Further, while sovereign immunity does not bar a true ultra-vires claim against a public official, McLane’s claims stem from the belief Cook was not performing a reasonably comprehensive search. The PIA does not authorize a declaration as to the search performed. Further, even if a proper ultra-vires claim was factually pled, the redundant remedies doctrine precludes McLane pursuing it.  The legislature created an explicit waiver of sovereign immunity in the PIA, and neither TABC nor Cook has challenged McLane’s right to intervene in the underlying PIA suit. McLane has a right of potential recovery under the PIA and therefore cannot sue for the same thing under an ultra-vires theory. As a result, the trial court property granted the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The Panel Includes Chief Justice Rose, Justice Field, and Justice Bourland. Justice Field delivered the opinion of the court. Click here for the docket page to see the representatives for the parties.