Tyler Court of Appeals holds Tort Claims Act notice must list specific claimants in order to waive immunity

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Leondra Leach v. The City Of Tyler, 12-21-00004-CV (Tex. App. – Tyler June 9, 2021).

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) premise defect case where the Tyler Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing the case for lack of proper notice.

Leach asserts he was injured when a piece of board flew from a City “roll-off” truck as it passed Leach on the roadway. The board struck the truck he was driving and entered the driver’s side window, striking him in the head. Leach’s employer submitted a notice of claim using a Claims Notice form provided by the City, but did not fill in certain fields as to Leach. Leach did not fill out his own form. After Leach filed suit, the City filed a no-evidence motion for summary judgment as to proper notice under the City’s charter and ordinance, which the trial court granted.  Leach appealed.

Ameri-Tex (Leach’s employer) listed itself alone as the “claimant” and omitted Leach’s name from that field. Section 101.101(a) speaks to the governmental unit’s entitlement to receive a notice of a claim along with the damage or injury claimed. Ameri-Tex listed only its property damages under the provision for the amount of claim. The court noted that had Ameri-Tex made some reference to Leach’s damages in the “amount of claim” section, even if such damages were described as “unknown at this time,” its earlier omission of Leach as a “claimant” would be less critical. However, part of the purpose behind the notice provision is that the entity has an awareness of its fault as ultimately alleged and an incentive to investigate the allegations to assess its exposure to liability because it no longer is protected by the shield of immunity.  Without knowledge of the identity of a potential claimant and the knowledge this additional claimant will make personal injury claims as opposed to merely property damage claims, the entity does not have the same incentive. Notice which does not convey the “perceived peril” that would serve the notice requirement’s purpose is insufficient.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Worthen, and Justices Hoyle and Neeley.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Neeley.

 

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds oral pronouncements from bench cannot be considered when appealing a written order granting Town’s plea to the jurisdiction

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John Artuso v. Town of Trophy Club, Texas, 02-20-00377-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, May 13, 2021)

This is a negligence, taking,  and declaratory judgment action where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the Town’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Artuso sued the Town of Trophy Club for negligence and gross negligence with regard to his home’s placement in the Town’s Public Improvement District No. 1 (PID) and the special assessments imposed in the district. Artuso asserted he timely paid all assessments and even overpaid. He requested the Town credit his account for previously over-assessed amounts, which he characterized as a taking. He claimed that the manner in which the Town apportioned the PID costs was arbitrary and capricious, amounting to a violation of his due process rights, and he complained that the Town had not responded to his assessment-reduction petition. The Town filed two pleas to the jurisdiction, which were granted. Artuso appealed.

Artuso’s argument that the trial court’s oral statements about the grounds for granting the plea were improper. The trial court’s signed order listed no grounds.  The appellate court asserted it could not look to the oral statements in the record, only to the wording of the actual written order. By applying this policy, the courts and parties are relieved of the obligation to “parse statements made in letters to the parties, at hearings on motions for summary judgment, on docket notations, and/or in other places in the record.” Because Artuso has failed to challenge all of the grounds upon which the Town’s motion could have been granted, and failed to brief all grounds, the court of appeals affirmed the granting of the dispositive motions.

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

Termination of as needed contract did not result in any damages under chapter 271, so no waiver of immunity exists

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Heath v. Robert Williamson d/b/a PCNETSYS, No. 05-20-00685-CV (Tex. App.—Dallas, May 3, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this interlocutory appeal from a trial court’s holding denying a city’s plea to the jurisdiction on a contract claim, the Fifth Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and dismissed the case because damages falling under Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code were not part of the claim as an as-needed services contract.

The plaintiff sued the city after his contract with the city for IT services was terminated early.  The agreement provided that the plaintiff would be paid a monthly retainer for IT services “as may be required by the City.”  The agreement was set to terminate in October 2021, but the city terminated the agreement effective April 30, 2019.  Both parties agreed that the plaintiff had been paid for all services already provided.  The plaintiff sued the city for breach of contract arguing that he was owed lost profits and “loss of the benefit/expectation of the contract.”  The city argued that the contract was not properly executed and created an unconstitutional debt.  The trial court denied the city’s plea to the jurisdiction related to the claim and the city appealed.

Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code waives a city’s immunity when there is a claim for certain types of damages related to a written contract including the “balance due and owed”.  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §A271.153.  Immunity is not waived for consequential damages.  The court of appeals held that there was no claim for recoverable damages because there was no balance due and owing as the plaintiff had already been paid for all services rendered.  Thus, immunity had not been waived.  The court also held there was no reason to allow further discovery or allow repleading because the parties were in agreement that all services had been paid for and it was only future payments that the plaintiff was seeking.

The court of appeals vacated the trial court’s denial of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction because no damages that waive contractual immunity had been pled or existed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Reichek, Schenck, and Carlyle.  Opinion by Justice Amanda L. Reichek.

Eastland Court of Appeals holds City failed to obtain ruling on special exceptions, therefore it could not complain about a lack of factual specificity in the pleadings within its plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Odessa, Texas v. AIM Media Texas, LLC d/b/a The Odessa American, 11-20-00229-CV  (Tex. App. – Eastland, May 13, 2021).

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the Eastland Court of Appeals held the Plaintiff had properly fallen under the jurisdiction of the PIA.

AIM Media, a newspaper company, sued the City for mandamus under the PIA asserting the City failed to timely provide the information requested and improperly redacted information. The City asserted it provided all information and that AIM Media plead conclusory allegations only, with no facts. The City asserts it filed special exceptions to the bare pleadings then filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed.

The court noted the City challenged the pleadings only, so the pleadings were taken as true for purposes of the plea. The PIA allows a requestor to sue for mandamus.  While the court appeared to acknowledge that a lack of factual allegations can be grounds for a plea, the court held the City failed to obtain a ruling on their special exceptions. As a result, whether the special exceptions properly put AIM Media on notice of any jurisdictional defects was not before the court. Taking the pleadings as true, the court held AIM Media pled the minimum jurisdictional requirements.  The plea was therefore properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey, Justice Trotter and Justice Williams. Opinion by Chief Justice Bailey.

Dallas Court of Appeals holds malfunctioning 911 system did not proximately cause plaintiff’s death

The City of Dallas v. Estate of Yolanda Jeanne Webber, et al., 05-20-00669-CV (Tex. App. – Dallas, April 22, 2021).

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Dallas Court of Appeals held the City was immune from suit.

Yolanda Webber began experiencing shortness of breath while riding in a car with her family.  Despite constant attempts by family and later bystanders to reach the 9-1-1 operator, none were able to get through. While paramedics from a nearby fire station were able to eventually arrive, Webber passed away shortly afterward.  The family brought suit against the City asserting the negligent use of tangible personal property was the proximate cause of her death. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed.

Under the TTCA, immunity is not waived if the property’s condition or use does not proximately cause the injury or death. The Webbers allege the various components of the City’s 9-1-1 system caused Yolanda’s death by preventing her from receiving timely medical attention.  However, a mere delay in treatment resulting from a malfunctioning 9-1-1 system is not a proximate cause of a claimant’s injuries for purposes of immunity waiver. Proximate causation requires that the condition or use of the property must actually have caused the injury.  Property that simply hinders or delays treatment falls short. The plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Burns, Justice Myers and Justice Carlyle. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Carlyle

Texas Supreme Court holds ratepayer has standing to sue to challenge electric rate increase

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Data Foundry, Inc. v City of Austin, 19-0475 (Tex. April 9, 2021)

This is a utility rate challenge case. However, the issue considered by the Texas Supreme Court is whether the company purchasing electricity has standing to sue. The Court held it does have standing.

Data Foundry is an internet service provider that operates data centers in Austin. The City owns and operates Austin Energy, an electric utility system. In 2016, Austin Energy proposed to change the retail rates it was charging for electric services. The City hired a hearing examiner to conduct a review of the proposed new rates. Several ratepayers, including Data Foundry, intervened and participated in the hearing process. Ratepayers were permitted to conduct discovery, provide testimony, and cross-examine witnesses at a public hearing. Data Foundry submitted briefs in which it argued, as it does in this case, that Austin Energy’s proposed rate structure would result in rates that were unreasonable, unlawful, and confiscatory.  The Austin City Council passed an ordinance establishing new base rates and pass-through rates. Data Foundry sued in district court to hold the ordinance invalid. The City filed a motion to dismiss all of Data Foundry’s claims under Rule 91a. The trial court granted the motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.

The threshold inquiry into standing “in no way depends on the merits of the [plaintiff’s] contention that particular conduct is illegal.” To maintain standing, a plaintiff must show: (1) an injury in fact that is both concrete and particularized and actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged action; and (3) that it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.  In the context of lawsuits filed by ratepayers to challenge utility rates charged by a municipality, the Court has not required an individual plaintiff to allege its injury is distinct from injuries other ratepayers may suffer. An injury is “particularized” for standing purposes if it “affect[s] the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.” Data Foundry thus alleges an injury that is particularized to it—Data Foundry suffers financial harm because it must pay Austin Energy a particular sum of money that exceeds what Data Foundry contends it should have to pay and that the rate is discriminatory. The fact that the City’s actions may also injure other residents does not preclude a finding that Data Foundry has alleged a sufficiently particularized injury. Being forced to part with one’s money to pay an excessive electric rate is an injury that is personal and individual, even though others may suffer the same injury. The Court held several cases holding that a utility ratepayer cannot establish standing to sue unless it alleges an injury different from that of other ratepayers, beyond its personal obligation to pay a rate that it claims is improper, are disapproved of as inconsistent with Texas standing jurisprudence. The Court remanded to determine the remaining issues under PURA as such determinations are not based on standing, which was the only ground upon which the trial court ruled.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. JUSTICE HUDDLE delivered the opinion of the Court.

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds city ethics commission properly ruled complainant’s filing was frivolous and could award sanctions

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Lakshmana Viswanath v. The City of Laredo, 04-20-00152-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, April 14, 2021)
This is an appeal from a city ethics commission determination where the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the commission’s finding but reversed the award of attorney’s fees.
Viswanath is the founder of a government watchdog group known as Our Laredo, who ran for city council and was defeated by Councilman Martinez in 2018. In 2019, a member of Our Laredo, Victor Gomez, filed an ethics complaint with the City’s Ethics Commission against the Co-City Managers arguing they were required to “ensure” that Councilman Martinez forfeit his seat due to an alleged conflict of interest. They did not file a complaint against Martinez, but against the Co-Managers. Viswanath filed an additional ethics complaint against the Co-City Managers arguing they unfairly advanced the private interest of certain developers at the expense of the general population by recommending that City Council pass two ordinances. The Commission dismissed both complaints, concluding they did not allege violations of the Laredo Ethics Code and therefore did not invoke the Commission’s jurisdiction. After finding both complaints frivolous, the Commission publicly admonished Gomez and ordered Viswanath to pay the maximum civil fine—$500.00—plus $7,900.68 in attorney’s fees to the Commission’s conflicts counsel. Viswanath filed a verified petition in district court appealing the Commission’s decision and seeking a declaratory judgment. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Viswanath appealed.
The court of appeals first held that the City’s ethics code allows an appeal to district court and requires a suit against the City. It, therefore, waived the City’s immunity from suit, but only for the limited purposes spelled out in the Ethics Code and that the proper mechanism for that is the UDJA. Under this mechanism, the trial court must review the Commission’s decision under the substantial evidence rule. At the initial hearing, Viswanath testified he was involved in filing both the complaint about Councilman Martinez and the complaint about the ordinances. Viswanath testified that the objection he raised was that the Co-City Managers “made the wrong recommendation”—a recommendation which was ultimately accepted by City Council. He was informed by several city officials that city management could not conduct the investigation he requested or provided the remedy he sought. Based on this evidence, the Commission could have reasonably determined that Viswanath was aware the Co-City Managers lacked authority to perform the investigation or grant the relief he requested, yet still filed his complaint in a groundless and harassing action. Substantial evidence supported the Commission’s decision, so the trial court was required to affirm it as a matter of law. The court also determined that the Commission was authorized to require a complainant who files a frivolous complaint to pay a civil penalty, the respondent’s fees, and any other sanction authorized by law. As a result, the Commission has the authority to aware the Commission’s attorney’s fees be paid as an “other sanction” allowed by law. However, the record does not show what evidence was presented to substantiate the fee amount. As a result, that portion is reversed and remanded for the trial court to determine a proper award amount.
If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez, Justice Chapa and Justice Watkins. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Watkins.

U.S. Fifth Circuit holds court can dismiss claims sua sponte when party has had ample opportunity to amend deficient pleadings

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Anokwuru v. City of Houston, et al., No. 20-20295 (5th Cir. March 16, 2021)

This is a racial discrimination/§1983 case where the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.

The Houston Police Department was investigating an alleged “gang rape.” The victim identified three suspects, one named “Idris” and the other two with nicknames “Jay” and “CheChe.” The suspect “Jay” provided a statement, naming Anokwuru by his first name of “Chidera” as being involved in the incident. Based on the statements of the victim and “Jay,” the Houston Police Officer M. Francis decided to proceed with charging Anokwuru with the incident. Following indictment, the victim definitively responded that Anokwuru was not one of the three assailants and the case was dismissed by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Via an original complaint, a series of amended complaints, and multiple motions for leave to amend, Anokwuru filed a §1983 claim against the City of Houston and Officer Francis, claiming false/wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and that the City had a policy of “failing to train, supervise, and discipline its employees.” The City filed an original (and amended) Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. The trial court dismissed Anokwuru’s claim but did so without granting the City’s motion. Anokwuru appealed.

The Fifth Circuit first addressed Anokwuru’s substantive claims. The false arrest, equal protection, malicious prosecution, and “failure to train” claims were all dismissed due to Anokwuru’s failure to properly allege the required elements for each respective alleged violation. Addressing the procedural arguments, the Fifth Circuit’s decision to deny Anokwuru’s fourth request to amend his complaint was not an abuse of discretion when his proposed amendment presented no new allegations or claims. Finally, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s sua sponte decision to dismiss Anokwuru’s claims because Anokwuru had multiple opportunities to put forth his best case, he filed multiple responses to the City’s arguments, and was even given notice of the magistrate judge’s recommendation to dismiss his claims – to which Anokwuru responded – before the district court dismissed his claims.  Such is within the trial court’s discretion.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Circuit Judges Stewart, Higginson, and Wilson. Opinion by Circuit Judge Wilson.

The emergency exception to the Tort Claims Act preserves immunity from car accident damages and injuries caused by a fire hose falling from a fire truck en route to a fire.   

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Nathan White v. City of Houston, No. 01-20-00415-CV (Tex. App.—Houston  March 25, 2021).

In this appeal from a trial court’s holding that the city retained immunity under the emergency exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act, the First Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because the use of a fire hose on a fire truck headed to an emergency began when the truck left for the emergency invoking both the Texas Tort Claims Act and its emergency exception.

The plaintiff sued the city after his car was damaged and he was injured by a fire hose dragging behind a fire truck en route to an emergency.  The plaintiff sued the city arguing that the dragging hose was missing an integral safety component because there is equipment available that could have ensured that the hose did not fall off the truck while it was in motion.  The plaintiff also argued that because the hose was en route it was in use at the time of the dragging, but was not actually being used in the emergency, so the emergency exception did not apply.  The city argued that because the fire truck was en route that the emergency exception to the Tort Claims Act applied and preserved immunity.  The trial court granted the city’s plea to the jurisdiction m and the plaintiff appealed.

The Texas Tort Claims Act waives a city’s immunity when there are injuries or damages caused by the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle and motor-driven equipment.  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021.  Immunity is not waived for non-use of property.  Once a waiver is established due to use of property, the governmental entity can retain its immunity if the use was during an emergency and the action was “not taken with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Id. § 101.055(2).  The court of appeals held that if the hose being on the truck was sufficient to invoke use under the Tort Claims Act, that use was related to the emergency where the truck carrying the hose was headed.  The court also held there was no evidence of conscious indifference or reckless disregard. The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Goodman, Landau, and Guerra.  Opinion by Justice Gordon Goodman.

U.S. Supreme Court holds officers “seized” suspect by shooting her even if the suspect was still able to flee and escape.

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Torres v Madrid, et al., No. 19–292. (U.S. March 25, 2021)

This is an excessive force/§1983 case where the U.S. Supreme Court held the proper inquiry into a “seizure” by excessive force (i.e. gunshots) is whether the challenged conduct objectively manifests an intent to restrain as opposed to force applied by accident or for some other purpose.

Four New Mexico State Police officers arrived at an apartment complex in Albuquerque to execute an arrest warrant for a woman accused of white-collar crimes. They approached Torres in her vehicle, but she did not notice them until one attempted to open the door. Torres testified she only saw individuals had guns and believed they were carjackers. She drove off at an accelerated rate, but the officers shot at her thirteen times. She was temporarily paralyzed. She plead no contest to aggravated fleeing and other related charges. She later sued two of the officers for excessive force under §1983. The District Court granted summary judgment to the officers, and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.  They relied on Circuit precedent providing that “no seizure can occur unless there is physical touch or a show of authority,” and that “such physical touch (or force) must terminate the suspect’s movement” or otherwise give rise to physical control over the suspect. Torres appealed.

The Court performed a detailed analysis of the term “seizure.”  The Court held a seizure requires the use of force with intent to restrain. Accidental force will not qualify.  It stated “… the appropriate inquiry is whether the challenged conduct objectively manifests an intent to restrain, for we rarely probe the subjective motivations of police officers in the Fourth Amendment context.” The seizure does not depend on the subjective perceptions of the seized person.  The Court held the application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued.  The Court emphasized this rule is narrow. There is a distinction between seizures by control and seizures by force. A seizure by acquisition of control involves either voluntary submission to a show of authority or the termination of freedom of movement. Seizure by force is the application of force with intent to restrain (viewed from an objective standard). However, not all seizures are unreasonable, so the Court remanded the case back for a reasonableness determination.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined. BARRETT, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Dallas Court of Appeals holds grading of land for sports facility is proprietary in specific situation with land lease

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The City Carrollton, Texas v. Weir Brothers Contracting, LLC, 05-20-00714-CV (Tex App. – Dallas, March 22, 2021)

This is a contractual immunity case where the Dallas Court of Appeals held the City’s lease of certain land was a proprietary function, therefore immunity did not apply.

The City advertised for proposals to bid on purchasing or leasing several acres of City owned land.  The City then executed a land lease with Blue Sky Sports Center of Carrollton, LP (“Blue Sky”) for 30 acres to “operate a multi-use sports, recreational, entertainment, and related service facility.” Blue Sky was required to use the leased premises “solely for the purpose of constructing, maintaining, and operating the Facilities.”  Blue Sky was allowed to enter into sublease agreements for the provision of food and refreshments, a pro shop, an arcade, and several other services. The Lease required the facilities to be open to the public “during reasonable times as is customary for [Blue Sky’s] type of business.” Blue Sky was further permitted to charge fees for use of the facilities. Shortly less than a year later the City and Arthur James, Inc. (“AJI”) entered into a contract for the grading of several acres which included the 30 acres that had been leased to Blue Sky. As compensation, AJI would receive 6.27 acres of the tract. However, during the grading, AJI’s contractor dug into a capped landfill. All work stopped until the City could develop a solution. The City terminated its agreement with AJI due to work not being completed within the specified time period. The City refused to pay the contractor, Weir. Weir obtained an assignment from AJI and sued the City for breach of contract, quantum meruit, promissory estoppel, and tortious interference with contract. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. The City appealed.

The court held the true nature of the dispute revolves around the City’s lease of property for the recreation facility and not the mere grading of a road. Recreational facilities are listed as governmental functions, but Blue Sky’s construction and operation of the facility is not a function of the City or on the City’s behalf. Although the extent to which the bidder’s use of the property would “complement” a nearby public recreational facility owned and managed by the City, nothing in the record suggests the lease with Blue Sky was essential to the City’s operation of that public facility so as to render the act governmental. As a result, the court held the actions were proprietary. The City does not enjoy immunity from suit and the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of e Justices Molberg, Reichek, and Nowell. Opinion by Justice Reichek.

U.S. Fifth Circuit holds former police officer failed to establish same-sex sexual harassment by supervisor even under recent Bostock decision

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Brandy Newbury v City of Windcrest, Texas, 20-50067 (5th Cir. March 22, 2021)

This is an employment discrimination case where the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s motion for summary judgment.

Brandy Newbury was a police officer within her first year of employment with the City. Newbury asserted during the first year she was sexually harassed by a female supervisor, Officer Jaime because Jaime was rude to her and confrontational. The City hired an outside investigator who determined Jaime was rude, but the actions did not constitute sexual harassment. Later on, during the first year, Newbury asserted she heard a rumor another officer was following her trying to catch her violating City policy. She reported her belief that was occurring, but nothing was done.  Finally, Newbury asserts the City was secretly recording her in her home by remotely activating her body-worn camera. While the manufacturer testified the cameras could not be remotely activated that way, Newbury continued to assert a §1983 claim for invasion of privacy. However, Newbury admitted she never saw a recording of herself taken and based her belief on the fact a red light on her camera would come on by itself.   Newbury asserted the treatment was so bad she felt forced to resign, but then later asserted she was terminated. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. Newbury appealed.

The Fifth Circuit started by noting Title VII is not a general civility code for the American workplace.  Contrary to Newbury’s assertions, the panel distinguished this case from the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion of Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020) holding that while the Bostock decision “expanded the groups of individuals protected by Title VII, it in no way altered the preexisting legal standard for sexual harassment.” The panel held Newbury did not receive an adverse personnel action as a supervisor’s “rudeness” was insufficient to constitute an adverse action. Additionally, the rude actions complained of did not rise to that “greater degree of harassment” that would cause a reasonable person to resign. Additionally, a shift-change, even one which has an officer on it the plaintiff does not like, is not an actionable claim. Newbury failed to provide sufficient evidence that comparable men and women were treated differently.  Newbury failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation since no adverse employment action occurred.  Further, the evidence demonstrated she resigned and was not terminated. Therefore, all of her Title VII claims failed.  Finally, Newbury failed to establish the body-worn cameras actually recorded her or that, even if she had produced recordings, there was a policy, custom, or practice which would have caused the recordings.  As a result, the trial court properly granted the City’s summary judgment motion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Jones, Smith and Elrod. Opinion by Justice Smith.

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds receipt of payment or exclusive use of premises are not substantial factors to determine invitee status under TTCA for premise defect case

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City of San Antonio v. Nadine Realme, 04-20-00119-CV (Tex.App.—San Antonio, March 17, 2021)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Plaintiff alleges a premises defect claim against the City. The Court of Appeals reviewed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction, ultimately affirming the denial.

Plaintiff Realme paid to participate in a 5K run/walk that took place on the City’s streets and sidewalks. The event itself was sponsored by private entities and Realme’s participation fee was directed to the private entities. She followed the pre-designated route and, along that route, between the sidewalk and the street, she tripped on a metal object protruding from the ground, causing bodily injury. She sued the City.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and argued that Realme was not an invitee, but rather a licensee under premise defect standards. As a result, the City had to have actual knowledge of the dangerous defect. The crux of the City’s argument was two-fold: that the City did not receive payment for Realme’s use of the premises, that other – nonpaying – members of the public also had access to the area and, therefore, Realme was not an invitee under the TTCA. The trial court denied the City’s plea to the jurisdiction, which the City then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The specific TTCA provision that the Court of Appeals focused upon states that the City owes to Realme “only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property unless the claimant pays for the use of the premises.” The Court of Appeals overruled the City’s argument after analyzing the plain language of that provision to come to the conclusion that the language makes no distinction between who received payment for use of the premises or even whether the payment was for the exclusive use of the premises. The fact that the City did not receive payment is immaterial.  On appeal, the City also raised a new issue that Realme’s claim is barred by immunity under the Recreational Use Statute. However, the Court of Appeals found that the City did not provide Realme the opportunity to develop the record or conduct discovery on the Recreational Use argument at the trial level, nor show how Realme would be unable to demonstrate jurisdiction through that avenue even if given the opportunity. The Court of Appeals refused to address for the first time on appeal. In construing Realme’s pleadings in her favor and considering the evidence admitted, the Court of Appeals found there was a material fact issue on the question of immunity, affirmed the denial, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

If you would like to read this Memorandum Opinion, click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez and Justices Alvarez and Rios. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rios.

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds City’s “Paid Sick Leave” ordinance was preempted by state law

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Washington et al. v. Associated Builders & Contractors of South Texas, Inc., et al., 04-20-00004-CV (Tex. App.—San Antonio, March 10, 2021).

In this case, the Fourth Court of Appeals considered the legality of San Antonio’s paid sick leave (PSL) ordinance. The Court held the PSL ordinance was unconstitutional because it established a minimum wage and is inconsistent with Texas Minimum Wage Act (TMWA).

In 2018, various advocacy groups and non-profits initiated a petition to adopt what was labeled the “Paid Sick Leave Ordinance.”  One of the most critical components of the PSL ordinance was that it would require many San Antonio employers to provide paid leave to their employees for sick days, doctor appointments, and for other specifically enumerated reasons.  Under the ordinance, a business’s failure to comply with the provision of paid time off could result in fines.   Instead of sending the ordinance to the electorate under the city charter, the City Council decided to adopt the PSL ordinance verbatim as submitted in the petition. In response, multiple businesses and business associations sought and obtained temporary and permanent injunctions to prevent its enforcement.  The City appealed.

While there were numerous claims asserted the court’s primary focus was to analyze whether the PSL ordinance established a minimum wage, thereby causing the ordinance to be preempted by the TMWA and/or unconstitutional.  The court’s decision turned on whether paid sick leave constitutes a “wage” under the TMWA. The court relied on dictionary definitions and the common meaning of words within the ordinance.  Ultimately, the court held the PSL ordinance was in fact a “wage” and wage regulations are governed by the TMWA. The ordinance was therefore preempted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Opinion by Justice Alvarez. Panel consists of Justices Alvarez, Rios, and Watkins. For more information on San Antonio’s Sick & Safe Leave ordinance and other related items, click here.

 

Fourth Court holds plaintiff’s premise defect claims cannot be brought as tangible personal property claims

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City of San Antonio v. Nolan Anderson, 04-20-00320-CV (Tex.App.—San Antonio, March 10, 2021)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims with prejudice.

Plaintiff Anderson was on crutches and exiting a terminal at the San Antonio International Airport. There was deposition testimony that it was raining that day. He stated that he noticed a rubber mat outside the terminal door, that the ground was wet when he moved his crutches forward and fell, injuring himself. Anderson alleged both a condition/use of tangible personal property (by failing to use a slip-preventing mat) and, alternatively, a defective condition of the premises (because the City should have known it was raining and needed to have made safe an area where one would not expect to find water). During Anderson’s deposition, when asked if he had any reason to believe anyone from the City knew about the water before he fell, replied: “Not that I know of, no, sir.” The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a no-evidence motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted the summary judgment but denied the plea to the jurisdiction. The City then appealed the denial.

The Court of Appeals focused on Anderson’s apparent attempt to couch a premises defect claim as a tangible personal property claim. The TTCA clearly delineates between the two claims such that one claim cannot be both a condition/use of personal property and a premises defect. The former claim was succinctly dismissed because Anderson expressly alleges it is attributed to a failure to use a certain type of mat, which is not a valid claim under the TTCA. As to the latter, none of Anderson’s testimony created a fact issue as to whether City had any knowledge or notice of the water on the ground or mat, which is one required element for bringing forth a premises defect claim. As a result, the denial of the plea to the jurisdiction was reversed and Anderson’s claims were dismissed with prejudice.

If you would like to read this memorandum opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Chapa, Rodriguez, and Valenzuela. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Valenzuela.