14th Court of Appeals holds waiver of immunity in TCEQ SOAH hearing need not be by express statutory language

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Hyde v Harrison County, 14-18-00628-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.], July 30, 2020)

Harrison County (the “County”) owns and operates underground storage tanks at its road and bridge department and at its airport. A Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (the “Commission”) investigator determined the County violated the Texas Water Code by not providing a release detection for the pressurized piping. The Commission initiated an administrative enforcement action against the County. The Commission sought an administrative penalty of $5,626 against the County. At the contested case hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (“SOAH”) the SOAH judge assessed an administrative penalty against the County. The County timely filed a petition in district court and argued the SOAH judge did not have jurisdiction over the County. The trial court agreed with the County and vacated the SOAH order. The Commission appealed.

The Court first held no express statutory waiver of immunity exists for the administrative proceedings or penalties in the Water Code. However, the court noted that there are limited circumstances where waiver need not be statutorily expressed. The Water Code requires such tanks comply with Commission requirements for pressurized piping release detection equipment. When a statutory context in which a statute defines “person” to include governmental entities, a statute imposes liability on a “person,” and construing the statute not to waive immunity would make part of the statutory scheme meaningless, the court may find a waiver. The court further noted that  § 7.051 allows the Commission to lower a penalty if the owner contributes to supplemental projects, but notes non-governmental entities cannot use this option if the project is necessary to bring the owner into compliance.  The Commission is also required to develop a policy to prevent “regulated entities” from avoiding compliance through the use of such supplemental projects. These provisions would be useless if governmental entities were not subject to regulation and penalties. The court concluded “…that applying the statutory definition of ‘person’ from Government Code section 311.005 to Water Code section 7.051 shows clear legislative intent to waive governmental immunity against assessment of an administrative penalty under section 7.051 because the context of section 7.051 affords no other reasonable construction.” As a result, the trial court erred in vacating the SOAH order.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost, Justices Wise and Hassan. Opinion by Chief Justice Frost.

 

Austin Court of Appeals holds junior college could not withhold school transcripts of two employees under the Texas Public Information Act

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Del Mar College District v Ken Paxton, 03-19-00094-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, July 1, 2020)

This is a Texas Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed an order requiring the release of certain information possessed by the college district.

The Del Mar College District (“District”), a junior college district,  received a request for the personnel files of two professors.  The files contained their college transcripts. The District timely requested an opinion from the Attorney General’s office. The AG opined certain information could be withheld, but determined other information must be released, including the college transcripts. The District filed suit against the AG and the trial court heard opposing summary judgment motions. The trial court granted the AG’s motion and ordered the release of the transcripts. The District appealed.

The court listed a narrow legal question – was the junior college a “public school” for purposes of the PIA exception under §552.102(b)(which exempts such transcripts). The court held the proper inquiry was into the meaning of the phrase “public school,” which has its own generally accepted meaning, referring to the elementary and secondary educational system funded by the state. Junior colleges, in contrast, are part of the higher education system and charge tuition to their students. See Tex. Educ. Code § 130.084(b). “Public Education,” governs the State’s free elementary and secondary schools, while “Higher Education,” governs the State’s university and college system. The court acknowledged that junior colleges have been held to be integral to the Texas education system and could be a public school for other purposes, but noted it was not a “free” public school. Section 552.102(b) is part of the Public Information Act, not the Education Code, and is not part of the “general law governing the establishment, management, and control of independent school districts.” So, while the District is a public entity and a school subject to the PIA, it is not a “public school” for purposes of Section 552.102(b).  As a result, the college transcripts must be released.

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

Texas Supreme Court holds contractor entitled to derivative immunity for conspiracy claims, but not fraud claims

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GTECH Corp v. Steele, et al, 18-0158 (Tex. June 12, 2020).

In this case, the Texas Supreme Court held a contractor providing certain functions of the Texas Lottery Commission was not entitled to derivative sovereign immunity.

GTECH provided instant ticket manufacturing and services to the Texas Lottery Commission.  GTECH was sued by multiple plaintiffs (in multiple suits alter consolidated on appeal) alleging that the instructions on a scratch-off lottery ticket were misleading, causing them to believe they had winning tickets when they did not.  GTECH created draft tickets, which the TLC commented on and made changes, but ultimately approved after the back-and-forth concluded. After several complaints, the TLC shut down the game within 60 days of its release.  The plaintiffs asserted claims for fraud, fraud by nondisclosure, aiding and abetting fraud and conspiracy.  GTECH filed pleas to the jurisdiction, asserting it was entitled to the same immunity held by the Lottery Commission. Due to the multitude of suits, some pleas were granted, some denied, but all ended up on appeal.

The Court first noted it had not yet had the opportunity to address whether a Texas government agency’s immunity from suit might extend to its private contractors and if so under what circumstances. In the instances of derivative immunity, it only applies  to a private company operating “solely upon the direction” of a government, and exercising “no discretion in its activities,” was “not distinguishable” from the entity such that “a lawsuit against one [was] a lawsuit against the other.”  Here, the contract required GTECH to provide suggested game designs. After receiving approval from the Lottery Commission, GTECH provided drafts and received comments. GTECH’s role also included crafting, designing, and choosing wording. The Commission’s instant product coordinator testified he would expect GTECH to notify the Commission if it saw concerns with a game, including misleading instructions.  Based on the contract and other evidence in the record, the Court held GTECH had some discretion with regard to the conduct at issue.  The Court held that close supervision and final approval of work over which a contractor has discretion are not the same as the government specifying the manner in which a task is to be performed. Importantly, the Court stated “[t]hus, even if we recognized derivative sovereign immunity for contractors, GTECH would not be entitled to immunity from suit on the fraud claims under the control standard.”  This seems to indicate the issue of derivative immunity for contracts with state agencies remains an open question. The Court also stated “[a] challenge to an element of a plaintiff’s claim by a defendant who lacks immunity from suit does not implicate the jurisdiction of the court; it should be raised in a motion for summary judgment rather than a plea to the jurisdiction.”  Finally, the majority held that extending immunity to contractors for fraud could not further the purpose of immunity.   However, the Court did say that GTECH WAS entitled to derivative immunity from the allegation of conspiracy and aiding and abetting because such claims require a finding of the underlying fraud claim being viable against the TLC.  Since the TLC has immunity from fraud claims, the conspiracy and aiding and abetting claims cannot be sustained against GTECH.

Chief Justice Hecht’s concurring in part and dissenting in part opinion notes that he believes since the ultimate decision and approval of the final ticket form rested with the Commission that GTECH should have been provided immunity as to the fraud claims. He stated “Today’s lesson is that if the government acts only through its own employees, it is immune from suit, but if it consults experts before it acts, it is still immune from suit but the experts are not, except that the experts are immune from suit for helping the government defraud but not for giving the government advice that it uses to defraud. And there you have it.”  He agreed GTECH was immune from the conspiracy and aiding and abetting claims.

Justice Boyd’s opinion essentially stated his opinion is that “the simple and logical conclusion” is simply that sovereign immunity only protects the sovereign, no one else. He clarified that this does not affect his opinion on official or qualified immunity which applies to individuals.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Busby. Chief Justice Hecht delivered an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Boyd delivered an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

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.

City allowed to appeal civil service order since hearing examiner performed her own Internet search on medication side-effects

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City of Fort Worth v. Shea O’Neill, 02-18-00131-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Jan. 23, 2020).

The Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part a trial court order regarding whether the court had jurisdiction over an appeal from a hearing examiner’s decision under the Civil Service Act.

Shea O’Neill was indefinitely suspended as a firefighter with the City.  O’Neill, while on work-related leave, struck a 70-year-old fellow parent at a football scrimmage. The parent alleged he sustained facial injuries, several cracked and broken teeth, and a bloody nose.   The fire chief found that O’Neill had violated several fire-department rules and regulations and imposed the suspension.  O’Neill appealed and a hearing examiner reversed the suspension. The City appealed to the district court, which granted O’Neill’s plea to the jurisdiction holding it had no jurisdiction over the hearing examiner’s decision. The City appealed.

The City asserts the district court had jurisdiction to consider the appeal for two reasons: (1) the hearing examiner’s decision was procured by unlawful means because she considered evidence not admitted at the hearing and (2) the hearing examiner exceeded her jurisdiction because she concluded that the fire department’s due-process violations compelled her to reinstate O’Neill.  The Civil Service Act mandates that a decision be made on evidence submitted at the hearing. A hearing examiner’s decision is “final and binding on all parties.” An appeal is permitted only if the hearing examiner was without jurisdiction or exceeded his/her jurisdiction or that the order was procured by fraud, collusion, or other unlawful means. It is undisputed the hearing examiner conducted her own independent Internet research on the side effects of certain drugs. O’Neill counters the search results were not “procured” through unlawful means. In ordinary usage, “procure” means to “to cause to happen or be done” and to “bring about.”  The hearing examiner found the “slap” was defensive in nature and unlikely to have caused the broken teeth or bones and dismissed the nosebleed as being caused by the slap. The court held a fact issue exists regarding the side-effects evidence and whether it led the hearing examiner to decide that the evidence overall did not support the fire chief’s findings and conclusions.  Such was improper and was procured through an unlawful means as the medication issue was not submitted during the hearing as evidence.  As a result, the “procured through unlawful means” ground entitled the City to reversal of the order granting the plea and a remand for further proceedings. However, the hearing examiner also determined that the department did not fully investigate the facts and allegations and did not give O’Neill an adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations. Such is within her discretion. Nothing in the Civil Service Act prohibits hearing examiners from reinstating a firefighter based on a finding that the department did not give due process during the disciplinary process. That ground was overruled by the court, even though it still remanded the case.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Gabriel, Justice Kerr, Visiting Justice Massengale.  Memorandum opinion from Justice Kerr. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Austin Court of Appeals holds Austin’s short-term rental regulations unconstitutional (assembly clause also declared fundamental right entitled to strict scrutiny)

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Ahmad Zaatari v City of Austin, 03-17-00812-CV (Tex. App. —  Austin, Nov. 27, 2019).

This is a dispute regarding the City of Austin’s regulation on short-term rental properties. The Austin Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part the City’s plea to the jurisdiction. [Comment: This is a 43-page opinion and 18-page dissent. So, the summary is a bit longer than normal]

In 2012, Austin adopted an ordinance amending its zoning and land-development codes to regulate Austinites’ ability to rent their properties as short-term rentals.  Several other amendments occurred at different times adjusting the definitions and scope of the codes until, in 2016, Property Owners sued the City for declaratory and injunctive relief to declare the regulations unconstitutional. The Property Owners (which also included the State of Texas as a party) moved for summary judgment while the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a no-evidence motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the Property Owner’s MSJ, denied the City’s plea, but granted the City’s summary judgment.  Everyone appealed.

The City’s plea to the jurisdiction challenges the State’s standing to intervene in this dispute, the Property Owners’ standing to bring claims on behalf of tenants, and the ripeness of the underlying claims. The court held  the State’s standing to intervene in this matter is  unambiguously conferred by the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act which states when the validity of a statute or ordinance is brought, the attorney general of the state must also be served with a copy of the proceeding and is entitled to be heard. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 37.006(b).  The court next held the underlying matters were ripe because some provisions of the 2016 ordinance took effect immediately, while others were not effective until 2022. Facial challenges to ordinances are “ripe upon enactment because at that moment the ‘permissible uses of the property [were] known to a reasonable degree of certainty.’” The court held  the City’s alleged constitutional overreach itself is an injury from which the Property Owners and the State seek relief.  Further, governmental immunity does not shield the City from viable claims for relief from unconstitutional acts. As a result, the plea was properly denied.

The court next determined the trial court erred in several evidentiary rulings, which mainly deal with the public dispute over short-term rentals. The State and the Property Owners filed traditional motions for summary judgment on their claims regarding the constitutionality of the ordinance. The Texas Constitution prohibits retroactive laws. The State contends that the ordinance provision terminating all type-2 operating licenses is retroactive because it “tak[es] away th[e] fundamental and settled property right” to lease one’s real estate under the most desirable terms. While disagreeing on the effect, the City conceded the ordinance retroactively cancels existing leases. Not all retroactive laws are unconstitutional. The Court held the regulation operates to eliminate well-established and settled property rights that existed before the ordinance’s adoption.  Upon reviewing the record the court held the City made no findings to justify the ordinance’s ban on type-2 rentals and its stated public interest was slight. Nothing in the record demonstrates this ban would address or prevent any listed concerns, including preventing strangers in the neighborhood, noise complaints, and illegal parking. In fact, many of the concerns cited by the City are the types of problems that can be and already are prohibited by state law or by City ordinances banning such practices. Further, for four years the City did not issue a single citation to a licensed short-term rental owner or guest for violating the City’s noise, trash, or parking ordinances. The purported public interest served by the ordinance’s ban on type-2 short-term rentals cannot be considered compelling. Private property ownership is a fundamental right. The ability to lease property is a fundamental privilege of property ownership. Granted, the right to lease property for a profit can be subject to restriction or regulation under certain circumstances, but the right to lease is nevertheless plainly an established one.  Based on the practices performed in Austin over the years, short-term rentals have a settled interest and place in the City. The City’s ordinance eliminates the right to rent property short term if the property owner does not occupy the property. As a result, the regulations are unconstitutionally retroactive.

The court then addressed the Property Owner’s claim the regulations violated their right to assembly under the Texas Constitution. After a lengthy analysis, the court held the Texas Constitution’s assembly clause is not limited to protecting only petition-related assemblies and the judicially created “right of association” does not subsume the Texas Constitution’s assembly clause in its entirety.  The right is a “fundamental right” for constitutional analysis purposes and must be examined under a strict scrutiny analysis. The regulation sections challenged limited the number of persons at a rental at any one time, the hours of the day a rental could be used,  number of permitted leaseholders, and various other congregation related activities. The City already has various nuisance ordinances in place to address the negative effects of short-term rentals on neighbors. As a result, the City failed to establish a compelling interest that justifies a different ordinance which is not narrowly tailored. The City has not provided any evidence of a serious burden on neighboring properties sufficient to justify the additional regulations, which therefore violate the assembly clause of the Texas Constitution.

The court reversed that part of the district court’s judgment granting the City’s no-evidence motion for summary judgment and denying the Property Owners’ and the State’s motions for summary judgment. It rendered judgment declaring specific sections of the City Code void.

Justice Kelly  dissented asserting 1) the sections were not unconstitutionally retroactive (with analysis), 2) the Assembly Clause assures Texans the fundamental right to peaceably gather for purposes of meaningful civic discourse without fear of retribution – not to have short-term rentals (which are assembly-neutral zoning regulations that have a rational basis), 3) loud noise, obstructing infrastructure, flouting law enforcement, public disturbances, threats to public safety- all these may make an assembly non-peaceable and can be regulated, and 4) the majority opinion is also out of step with Texas “fundamental right” precedent (i.e. declaring rights fundamental, and thus beyond ordinary democratic give-and-take, is a weighty matter, unjustified in this case).

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Rose, Justices Goodwin and Kelly.  Opinion by Chief Justice Rose.  Dissenting Opinion by Justice Kelly found here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Beaumont Court of Appeals holds firefighter’s last-chance agreement in collective bargaining city deprived trial court of jurisdiction to hear appeal of indefinite suspension

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Michael Scott Nix v. City of Beaumont, 09-18-00407-CV (Tex. App. -Beaumont – Oct. 3, 2019)\

This is an interlocutory appeal in a firefighter suspension case where the Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Nix filed a petition seeking declaratory and equitable relief against the City based on his indefinite suspension from his position as a firefighter. He asserted the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) was invalid because the City allegedly failed to comply with the Texas Open Meeting Act (“TOMA”) requirements when the CBA was negotiated.  He also asserts the “last chance” agreement he entered into with the Fire Chief was invalid. Nix’s last-chance agreement probated part of the suspension, but noted he could be terminated if he violated any terms of the agreement.  Nix’s suspension in 2015 resulted in the last-chance agreement and the Chief determined he violated the sick leave policy in 2017 resulting in an indefinite suspension. Nix asserts in the absence of a valid contract, the suspensions were invalid, depriving him of due process of law and a protected property interest. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.  Nix appealed.

TOMA has a limited waiver of immunity. An action taken in violation of TOMA is voidable, not void. When a department head suspends a firefighter for violating a civil service rule, the suspension may be for a reasonable period not to exceed fifteen calendar days or for an indefinite period. Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code Ann. § 143.052(b). The firefighter may accept the suspension or appeal to the Civil Service Commission. If the firefighter disagrees with the Commission, the employee may file suit in district court. The question of whether the City posted the CBA 2012-2015 negotiations in accordance with TOMA is not relevant because it is the CBA 2015-2020 CBA applicable to his underlying challenge to his indefinite suspension in 2017.  The City provided evidence showing proper postings for the negotiation of the 2015-2020 CBA.  When Nix accepted the last-chance agreement in 2015, he had the opportunity to refuse the Chief’s offer and appeal his suspension to the Commission; however, Nix agreed to waive his right to appeal, including the right to appeal the Chief’s 2017 decision determining that Nix had violated the Agreement. Nix waived all rights he may have to file suit against the City as to any issue directly or indirectly related to the last-chance agreement or to his indefinite suspension.  As a result, the trial court properly granted the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justice Horton and Justice Johnson.  Opinion delivered by Chief Justice McKeithen. The attorneys listed for Nix are Melissa Azadeh and Laurence Watts.  The attorneys listed for the City are Sharae Reed and Tyrone Cooper.

3rd Court of Appeals holds PIA appeal deadline for entity to challenge AG opinion is jurisdictional

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San Jacinto River Authority v. Ken Paxton,  03-18-00 547-CV (Austin, Aug. 22. 2019) 

This is the Public Information Act (PIA) case where the Austin Court of Appeals held an entity must file suit to appeal an AG opinion within the jurisdictional time limit. 

San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) received PIA requests from McFarland and Fuchs for communications discussing a specific release of water. It submitted a request for both on the same day.  The AG issued an opinion on the McFarland request opining SJRA could withhold information, but SJRA did not timely submit an opinion request regarding Fuchs and the information must be released. The opinion had language SJRA asserts was an indicated to seek reconsideration. SJRA attempted to seek a reconsideration but was told, by AG letter, the PIA does not allow such. They filed suit to appeal the decision, but it was outside the time frame for appeal of the opinion. SJRA asserted the non-reconsideration letter was the proper trigger point. The AG filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. SJRA appealed. 

The court analyzed the statutory section regarding an entities ability to file suit to challenge an AG opinion. It held filing suit within the 30 day time period was jurisdictional. The non-reconsideration letter cannot reasonably be characterized as “the decision determining that the requested information must be disclosed” because it did not make any reference to disclosure of the information. It is merely a post-decision correspondence informing SJRA it was prohibited from asking for a reconsideration. The opinion also held the separate declaratory judgment claims were redundant and no jurisdiction existed for it.  SJRA asserted the AG should be estopped from using the jurisdictional arguments because it invited reconsideration, causing delay past the deadline. However, the court held estoppel cannot convey jurisdiction. Finally, regardless of SJRA’s “compelling reason” for withholding the information, the trial I court lacks jurisdiction to hear them since SJRA missed the deadline. The plea is affirmed. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Triana. Memorandum opinion by Justice Baker. 

Texas Supreme Court holds “good faith” efforts clause to seek future Board approval in contract is unenforceable. Also, damages would be consequential so Board retains immunity

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Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Board v Vizant Technologies, 18-0059, (Tex. May 17, 2019).

This is a governmental immunity defense in a breach of contract case where the Texas Supreme Court held Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code did not waive immunity for the specific relief required under the contract.

The Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Board (“Board”) retained Vizant Technologies (“Visant”) by contract to provide recommendations on how the airport could reduce payment-processing costs. The contract contained provisions where the Board would pay Vizant a percentage of savings and/or refunds based on its advice. The contract stated the cap on payments shall not exceed $50,000. The Court commented in a footnote the appearance this was done to avoid competitive bidding limits or authorizations by delegation to staff without Board approval. However, the contract also contained a provision that in the event Vizant’s fee exceeds this cap the Board “will make a good faith effort to receive board authorization to increase the compensation,” and “if approved,” the parties would amend the contract to reflect the higher amount. The Board’s staff paid the $50,000 and ultimately asked the Board to approve an increase to $330,000, but the Board denied that request. Vizant sued.  Vizant asserts its fees should have exceeded $300,000, but the airport failed to use a good faith effort to obtain Board approval. The Board filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied, but the court of appeals reversed and dismissed. Vizant filed its petition for review.

The Court first held the Board was acting in a governmental not proprietary capacity. the legislature has unambiguously declared that the “maintenance, operation, [and] regulation” of an airport and the “exercise of any other power granted” for that purpose, whether exercised “severally or jointly” by local governments, “are public and governmental functions, exercised for a public purpose, and matters of public necessity.”  As a result, the Board is immune absent a waiver.

Contract waivers are primarily found in Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code. While it has a waiver of immunity, it has limiting language as to the types of damages allowed and contractual approvals which apply. The “good faith” effort language becomes pivotal for this analysis. A contractual duty to act in good faith does not create a new obligation or independent cause of action; instead, it merely governs the conduct by which the party must fulfill the contractual obligation to which it applies. Under the written terms of the contract, read literally, the Board promised to make a good-faith effort to obtain its own authorization for the higher payments. The parties agreed the Board’s staff negotiated based on delegated authority and executed the contract on the Board’s behalf, with the Board’s authority but without the Board’s express approval. Under these circumstances, the Court held it was reasonable to construe the clause as a promise by the Board’s staff to make a good-faith effort to obtain the Board’s authorization for any higher payment. The staff had no authority to contractually obligate the Board to pay anything more than $50,000. To the extent the staff agreed to make a good-faith effort, that promise is not enforceable against the Board—and even if it were, the remedy could never be to require the Board to pay more than it authorized to staff to negotiate. To the extent the Board made any form of agreement, the Board merely promised to make an effort to agree to the higher payment, but to do so in good faith. “In this sense, its promise was the equivalent of a promise to negotiate towards a future bargain in good faith.”  Agreements to negotiate toward a future contract are not legally enforceable.  However, even if such were enforceable, the listed measure of damages constitutes consequential damages incurred as a result of the defendant’s failure to act in good faith, not as a result of the defendant’s failure to perform under the anticipated contract. And since §271.153 expressly excludes this type of consequential damages, the Board retains immunity.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Boyd.  The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds navigation district retains immunity from suit by State, but ultra vires claims against commissioners can proceed to trial

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Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District, et al. vs. State of Texas, 17-0365 (Tex. May 10, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a sovereign immunity/regulatory control case where the Texas Supreme Court held the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District (“District”) retained immunity from suit against the claims brought by the State of Texas. However, the District’s commissioners were not immune from the ultra vires claims.

The District leased part of a navigation stream to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, LLC (“STORM”) for specific oyster production. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (“Department”) asserted the Department had exclusive authority to regulate oyster production in Texas and sued the District to invalidate a lease issued to STORM.  In the 1950s, the State of Texas conveyed more than 23,000 acres of submerged land to the District, which has become prime for oyster cultivation. After the lease was issued to STORM, the company sent no-trespass notices to holders of any oyster-production permits. These permits authorize a holder to “plant oysters and make private beds in public waters.”  STORM claimed exclusive use of the leased submerged land. While the District agrees the water above the submerged land belongs to the State, it asserts it owns the fee simple in the land and can lease its exclusive use. The Department sued the District to invalidate the lease and individual District commissioners for ultra vires acts associated with the lease. The Department also sought monetary damages for “restitution.” The District and commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was partially denied.

The Court first addressed the Department’s claim for monetary damages. It held that Under §311.034 of the Government Code (Texas Code Construction Act), the use of the term “person” in a statute does not waive immunity.  And while the Parks and Wildlife Code allows the Department certain rule-making authority, the Department cannot waive immunity by rule which is not contained within the statute.  Since nothing in the applicable Parks and Wildlife Code waives immunity, no waiver for declaratory and monetary claims exists. The Department cannot circumvent the immunity by labeling a claim for monetary damages as “restitution.”    Next, the Court held an ultra vires claim cannot be brought against the District. However, it can be brought against the commissioners. The Court held the Department properly pleaded that the commissioners acted beyond their lawful authority by entering into the lease. The statute creating the District provided it with “rights, privileges and functions” but only those conferred by law. Unlike a home-rule municipality, which gets its power from the Texas Constitution, the District is a creature of statute and must look to the Legislature for its authority. Considering the entire regulatory system as a whole, the Court held the powers of the District are limited to navigation. While the statute allows the District to lease land and regulate marine commerce, the question of whether oyster cultivation qualifies may be precluded when comparing the exclusive power granted to the Department. The Department shall regulate the taking and conservation of fish, oysters, and other marine life. The ultra vires claims against the commissioners to prospectively enjoin the lease are permitted to go forward.  However, the Court was careful to explain that its holding only allows the State’s claims to go to trial, not whether the State will ultimately win on the present facts.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here.  Opinion by Justice Blacklock. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds plaintiff in red-light challenge lawsuit was required to exhaust administrative remedies before filing for injunctive relief

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Garcia v City of Willis, et al., 17-0713 (Tex. May 3, 2019)

In this constitutional challenge to red-light camera case, the Texas Supreme Court held the plaintiff was required to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing his constitutional-takings claim.

Luis Garcia sued the City of Willis on behalf of himself and “others similarly situated” who paid a civil penalty for violating a city ordinance for red-light infractions caught on camera. He sought the invalidation of the ordinance, a refund, or a takings claim. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied by the trial court, but granted by the court of appeals. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the State filed an amicus brief, arguing additional authority in support of the City.

While the City did not initially challenge Garcia’s standing to bring suit, the State’s amicus brief raised the issue, and the Court felt it was required to address that first. After receiving notice from the City of his red-light violation, Garcia paid the requisite civil fine. He has no outstanding fines and does not assert that he plans to violate red-light laws in the future. And for standing purposes, we “assume that [plaintiffs] will conduct their activities within the law,” barring some stated intent otherwise. Because no pending charges exist, Garcia lacks standing for prospective injunctive relief and could not be a class member of others similarly situated who have not paid the fine.  However, he does have standing to seek a refund of his past payment. In this context, immunity is waived only if Garcia paid the fine under duress.  Here, Garcia chose to voluntarily pay a fine and forgo administrative remedies that would have entitled him to an automatic stay of the enforcement of his fine under TEX. TRANSP. CODE § 707.014(a).  Because Garcia could have invoked this automatic reprieve from payment and challenged the notice of violation administratively — but chose not to — he cannot now claim he paid his fine under duress.  Therefore, the City maintains its immunity.

Garcia additionally argues the fine imposed on him amounts to an unconstitutional taking, because the underlying is unconstitutional and because the City failed to conduct the statutorily required engineering study.  He asserts he could not challenge the constitutionality of the fine in the administrative hearing. However, the fact remains that the hearing officer might have ruled in his favor for other reasons that would moot his constitutional arguments. As a result, he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here.  Justice Brown delivered the opinion of the Court.  The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds entity not required to show risk of harm to a specific individual in order to except records from PIA release

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Texas Department of Criminal Justice v Levin, 17-0552 (Tex. April 12, 2019)

This is a Public Information Act (PIA) case in which the Texas Supreme Court held the PIA must yield to protecting information that, if released, would create a substantial threat of physical harm to the source’s employees and others.

The Levin plaintiffs (Levin) represent capital defendants on death row. Concerned with the possibility of mismanaged executions by lethal injection, Levin made a PIA request of the Department, which included a list of drugs used for lethal injections and their source. The Department did not release the specific identity of the pharmacy or pharmacist that compounded the drugs (i.e., “source”) and requested an Attorney-General opinion. The AG agreed with the Department that the PIA has a common-law exception where release would create a substantial risk of harm. Levin appealed. While on appeal, the Legislature amended the PIA to create a statutory exception for the source of drugs used for executions.

In prior court and AG opinions, a threat to a specific party was required in order to take advantage of the common-law exception. Here, no one but the Department and the pharmacy itself knows the identity of the source that supplies the lethal injection drugs to the State of Texas. There is no evidence of a history of specific threats to that particular pharmacist or pharmacy, because the source’s identity has been kept confidential. The Court noted, however, that the word “substantial” as used in prior opinions does not refer to the degree to which harm is likely to occur, but rather, the degree of the potential threat of harm itself. Courts should focus on the connection between the requested information, on the one hand, and the potential threat and magnitude of such harm, on the other. The Court found, based on the summary judgment evidence, that the Department properly established release of the information potentially would create substantial physical harm which does not currently focus on an identified person, including evidence of what happened to other pharmacies when release of similar information became public. (Note: some but not all of the evidence was considered relevant). As a result, the Department must withhold the information requested.

If you wish to read this opinion, click here. Justice Green delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with the attorney information is found here.

13th Court of Appeals holds building and standards commission order was final, so could not be collaterally attacked under TOMA

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Harker Heights Condominiums, LLC v. City of Harker Heights, Texas, 13-17-00234-CV (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi, March 28, 2019).

In this case the 13th Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City of Harker Heights’ plea to the jurisdiction dismissing a claim for injunctive relief to prevent the demolition of a building.

Harker Heights Condominiums (HHC) owns property on which thirty-three condominium units sit and that are leased to low income residents in need of housing. The City inspected the property, found defects and ordered repair.  The inspector found substandard conditions rising to such a level as to pose substantial danger to life, health and property.  The City’s Building and Standards Commission ordered certain properties repaired within ninety days or be demolished. HHC was able to bring one unit up to code, but was not able to timely repair the remaining units. After the City awarded a demolition contract, HHC sued to prevent destruction of the units. An initial temporary injunction was granted. After HHC added a claim for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. HHC appealed.

Texas law permits municipalities to establish commissions to consider violations of ordinances related to public safety. The local government code provides for judicial review of any decision of a building and standards commission panel, but the “district court’s review shall be limited to a hearing under the substantial evidence rule.” To appeal an order of a building and standards commission, an aggrieved party must file a verified petition in district court within thirty days of the commission’s order.  HHC waited eighty days. HHC asserted the “decision” was actually the City Council decision to award the demolition contract, not the Commission’s decision. However, the City’s award was merely the granting of a contract, not an order outlined in Chapter 214 of the Local Government Code. The court noted that even if the HHC injunctive relief were interpreted to be a proper petition for review under Chapter 214, it was nonetheless untimely. This untimely filing also means HHC’s TOMA suit is untimely as holding otherwise would subject the commission order to impermissible collateral attack. The plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras, Justice Hinojosa and Visiting Judge Dorsey. Memorandum Opinion by Visiting Judge Dorsey. The attorneys listed for the City are Charles D. Olson, Charles Alfred Mackenzie and Burk A. Roberts.  The attorneys listed for HHC are Brandy Wingate Voss,  Ryan D. V. Greene and  G. Alan Waldrop.

Fort Worth Court of Appeals hold EDC is not a governmental unit for immunity and contract purposes

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Haltom City Economic Development Corporation v. Kent Flynn,  02-18-00145-CV, (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, March 21, 2019).

This is a breach of contract case where the Fort Worth Court of appeals upheld the denial of an EDC’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Haltom City Economic Development Corporation (HCEDC) and Flynn entered into an contract for services.  When Flynn believed the HCEDC did not properly pay the amounts owed under the contract, he sued. The HCEDC filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The HCEDC appealed.

The HCEDC is a Type B economic development corporation. Section 505.106(b) of the Texas Local Government Code provides that for purposes of the Texas Tort Claims Act, a Type B EDC “is a governmental unit and the corporation’s actions are governmental functions.” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 505.106(b). Section 505.106(a) provides that EDCs “are not liable for damages arising from the performance of a governmental function of a Type B [EDC] or the authorizing municipality.” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 505.106(a). The Local Government Code specifically prohibits a municipality from “delegate[ing] to [an EDC] any of the [municipality’s] attributes of sovereignty, including the power to tax, the power of eminent domain, and the police power.” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 501.010. The statute specifies that an EDC “is not a political subdivision . . . for purposes of the laws of this state.” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 501.055(b).  Citing to Rosenberg Development Corp. v. Imperial Performing Arts, Inc., (summary found here) the Court held that EDCs “are not governmental entities in their own right and therefore are not entitled to governmental immunity.”  Essentially, they may only get liability protection in relation to tort claims, not contract claims. As a result, the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Pittman and Justice Bassel. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Pittman. The attorney listed for the EDC is Fredrick ‘Fritz’ Quast.  The attorneys listed for Kent are Stephen L. Tatum and David Fielding.

Texas Supreme Court holds Type B economic development corporations are not entitled to immunity for breach of contract claims

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Rosenberg Development Corp. v. Imperial Performing Arts, Inc., No. 17-0660 (Tex. – March 9, 2019).

The Texas Supreme Court holds Type -B EDCs are not entitled to governmental immunity in breach of contract cases.

Rosenberg Development Corporation (RDC) is a Type B economic development corporation created by the City of Rosenberg. RDC executed a contract with Imperial Performing Arts, Inc. (Imperial), a nonprofit organization for performance and visual art activities, including reopening a local arts center and theater. However, the reopening and renovations exceed the agreed amounts by over ten fold. RDC and Imperial filed suit and counterclaims. The immunity issue addressed the breach of contract claims. RDC filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied as to Imperial’s contract claim, and was affirmed by the court of appeals. RDC filed for discretionary review.

The threshold issue for the Court was whether RDC—a municipality’s statutorily authorized corporate creation—is immune from suit under the common law even though RDC is neither a sovereign entity nor a political subdivision of the state. The Development Corporation Act (Title 12, Subtitle C1 of the Local Government Code) authorizes municipalities to create such EDC corporations. The Court analyzed the Act, its purpose, and its language. The Court noted that for the purpose of interlocutory appeals, the RDC qualifies given the specific definition in the Texas Tort Claims Act.  The Court then noted the Development Corporation Act does not speak to governmental immunity directly, but in §505.106, the Legislature has declared that (1) a Type B corporation is “not liable for damages arising from the performance of a governmental function of a Type B corporation or the authorizing municipality,” and (2) “[f]or purposes of Chapter 101, Civil Practice and Remedies Code, a Type B corporation is a governmental unit and the corporation’s actions are governmental functions.” Notably, however, an economic development corporation “is not a political subdivision or a political corporation for purposes of the laws of this state …” and the Legislature has forbidden authorizing municipalities from bestowing on the corporation any “attributes of sovereignty.”   As to the RDC’s argument it obtains statutory immunity from suit and liability, the Court held “[b]ecause section 505.106 merely purports to limit the remedies available when economic development corporations perform governmental functions, we need not consider whether the Legislature can confer immunity by statute or only waive it.”  Where the governing statutory authority demonstrates legislative intent to grant an entity the “nature, purposes, and powers” of an “arm of the State government,” that entity is a government unit unto itself and is entitled to assert immunity in its own right. The Court analyzed cases where governmental self-insurance risk pools have been determined to be governmental entities and determined what is required to qualify as a governmental unit unto itself. While promoting and developing business enterprises and job training is a public purpose merely engaging in such an act does not, ipso facto, make the actor a governmental unit. The common-law rule of immunity is exclusively for the judiciary to define, and in doing so, the Court does not just consider whether the entity performs governmental functions, but also the “nature and purposes of immunity.” Granting immunity to an EDC is not necessary to satisfy the political, pecuniary, and pragmatic policies underlying our immunity doctrines. Further, the Legislature simply did not grant these entities “powers of government” to perform essential governmental functions or activities. Also, since the Act already limits liability and damage’s exposure, the fiscal analysis used to determine if an entity is governmental is not applicable. Ultimately, the Court held “that the Legislature did not authorize municipalities to create economic development corporations as distinct governmental entities entitled to assert immunity in their own right.”

Chief Justice Hecht wrote separately only to point out the highly unusual features of a Type B municipally-created economic development corporation. While he agreed an EDC is not a governmental unit by itself, an EDC is not liable for damages arising from the performance of its governmental functions for purposes of the Texas Tort Claims Act. Since the TTCA only waives immunity, he opines an EDC has immunity from suit and liability for tort claims. In dicta, the Chief Justice noted that since an EDC’s expenditures must be approved by its municipality, a judgment against an EDC in any circumstance may not be enforceable.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Guzman delivered the opinion of the court.  Chief Justice Hecht filed a concurring opinion, found here.  The docket page with attorney information can be found here.