Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirms trial court’s authority under Civil Service Act to vacate a hearing examiner award, remand for a rehearing, and require a separate hearing examiner

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Shea O’Neill v. City of Fort Worth, 02-21-00214-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Feb 3, 2022)

This is a civil service case (which has already gone up and down the appellate ladder) where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ability to order a substituted hearing examiner in an appeal from an indefinite suspension. [Comment: Note, this is a 38-page opinion].

O’Neill was a firefighter for the City and was indefinitely suspended after being involved in a physical altercation with a citizen at a TCU football scrimmage.  He appealed to a hearing examiner who found for O’Neill. An appeal resulted to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals, which remanded the issue to decide if the hearing examiner improperly considered outside evidence. On remand, the court (specifically Judge Fitzpatrick) held the hearing examiner (Guttshall) violated the Civil Service Act (Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §§143.010(g) and 143.053(d)) by considering evidence that was not presented in the final hearing.  The trial court vacated the examiner’s decision and ordered a rehearing. When the City recognized that the same hearing examiner (Guttshall) was set to preside over the rehearing, the City objected and filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which Guttshall denied. The City then filed suit (that resulted in the present appeal) under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA) to hold Guttshall could not preside over the rehearing. The trial court held a trial on the merits under the UDJA claims and found Guttshall had exhibited bias, was no longer independent and ruled for the City. O’Neill appealed.

O’Neill argued the City’s declaratory-judgment lawsuit was barred by res judicata or collateral estoppel. The main issue presented to the trial court was whether Guttshall could preside over the rehearing regarding O’Neill’s appeal of his indefinite suspension. While O’Neill asserted the court failed to make the findings of fact on the issues he requested (so the findings entered could not be used in evaluating the appeal), the trial court, as the trier-of-fact has no duty to make additional or amended findings that are unnecessary or contrary to its judgment. O’Neill next asserted the City requested a rehearing when appealing Guttshall’s opinion to Judge Fitzpatrick so the issue of a hearing examiner was already addressed. Hence, his argument goes, since Judge Fitzpatrick did not expressly grant relief for a separate hearing examiner, only a rehearing, the issue was fully litigated. However, when an appellate court remands a case and limits a subsequent trial to a particular issue, the trial court may only determine that particular issue. Because of the remand, Judge Fitzpatrick was therefore constrained to decide only the City’s procured-by-unlawful-means claim and nothing provided for her to determine whether Guttshall had exhibited bias and was thus no longer an independent or impartial hearing examiner. As a result, res judicata and collateral estoppel are not triggered. Next, O’Neill asserted that since Guttshall denied the City’s plea, the issue was already addressed and the City cannot appeal. However, if the denial were considered the same as an arbitrator’s award (which O’Neill argued it was), such an award is appealable. But more importantly, the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and declaratory-judgment action accomplished separate purposes. The City’s plea was an objection to Guttshall presiding over the rehearing, which was a requirement to preserve the issue.  The UDJA claim went beyond mere preservation and sought express relief on the uncertainty of the issue under the wording of Chapter 143 (which does not expressly address this situation). Next, O’Neill argued the trial court erred by impliedly finding that subject-matter jurisdiction exists even though the City failed to exhaust its administrative remedies.  However, since the declarations sought are strictly limited to statutory interpretations, they are questions of law that do not require exhaustion. Next O’Neill argued that the trial court erred by fashioning a remedy not expressly authorized by the Civil Service Act, i.e., allowing a rehearing before a new hearing examiner. The trial court used guidance by referring to the Texas Arbitration Act (TAA) in interpreting/applying the Civil Service Act. The sections of the Civil Service Act make no provision for a scenario in which the district court vacates the hearing examiner’s award and remands the case for a rehearing. The court noted that the Texas Supreme Court has looked to the TAA in prior opinions to fill in the gaps when the Civil Service Act is silent.  Turning to the TAA concerning the issue here, it has a specific section dedicated to rehearings after an arbitration award is vacated. The Civil Service Act states in multiple locations that a hearing examiner must be independent and therefore neutral. When a hearing examiner is found to have developed bias against one party, they are not independent. To allow a biased hearing examiner to preside over the rehearing merely because the Civil Service Act is completely silent regarding rehearings is against the purpose of the Act. The trial court, following the Texas Supreme Court’s example for crafting remedies when the Civil Service Act provides none, is permitted to look to the TAA for guidance.  As a result, the trial court’s order is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Bassel and Justice Walker. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Bassel.

Beaumont Court of Appeals reinstates arbitrator award for City in civil service termination.

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City of Beaumont, Texas v. James Mathews, 09-20-00053-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Feb. 3, 2022)

This is a civil service/collective bargaining/arbitrator appeal (which has gone up and down the court of appeals route already) where the Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order and reinstated the arbitrator’s award. [Comment: warning, this is a 38-page opinion].

Firefighter Mathews was discharged from the City of Beaumont Fire Department after a formal investigation into a rear-end collision involving Mathews occurred. Driver Freeman apparently rear-ended the vehicle driven by Mathews, causing Mathews to exit his vehicle and strike Freeman one or more times. The incident occurred while Mathews was off-duty, but the department’s rules and regulations apply certain standards of conduct regardless of duty status. The arbitrator admitted a statement from Freeman asserting such, which was corroborated by other evidence. Mathews appealed the termination to an arbitrator, who ultimately ruled in favor of the City, confirming Mathews’ termination. Mathews appealed to the district court, which reversed the arbitrator’s award, holding the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction and exceeded his jurisdiction. The City appealed.

The court found that Mathews timely filed an appeal of the termination, selected to proceed before an arbitrator and that Mathews signed the appeal letter.  By doing so, he triggered the arbitrator procedure. Mathews argued the notice of dismissal Chief Huff gave him failed to advise him he had the right under the Act to appeal before either the Commission or a neutral arbitrator. But the question is whether the lack of that information is jurisdictional when the record shows the firefighter was aware of the options that were available to him under the Act. Mathews never testified he was unaware he could select arbitration or civil service commission as an appeal forum. Likewise, Chief Huff never testified that she told Mathews he could appeal only to a neutral arbitrator. Mathews’ appeal letter cited the exact sections in the Act that provide firefighters with options in choosing the forum where they may appeal.  In fact, the evidence shows just the opposite, as the live pleadings indicate it was because of the Union’s distrust of the Beaumont civil service commission that Mathews selected the arbitrator. While Chief Huff’s notice does not contain clear and unambiguous language regarding the options it did notify Mathews that he should look to the Collective Bargaining Agreement to decide how to proceed.  Here, the record conclusively proves that Mathews decided after seeking advice from his union that it was in his best interest to demand his appeal be heard by a neutral arbitrator rather than going before a Commission. As a result, the arbitrator’s jurisdiction was properly triggered. Next, under the Act, neutral arbitrators exceed their jurisdiction when they conduct the proceedings in a manner “not authorized by the Act or [a manner that is] contrary to it, or when they invade the policy-setting realm protected by the nondelegation doctrine.” The City filed pretrial motions with attached evidence and the arbitrator denied the motions. During the evidentiary hearing, the City submitted some of the same evidence, which was admitted by the arbitrator. Mathews argued the arbitrator improperly considered evidence submitted through the pretrial motion procedure instead of exclusively at the evidentiary hearing. The district court held the arbitrator could not consider pretrial evidence or motions. However, the Act allows the parties to file pretrial motions and expressly states it is not a violation of the Act as long as copies of the filings are served on the opposing party. Thus, the City did nothing wrong by filing a pretrial motion since the certificate of service states the City served the motion on Mathews’ legal representative and Mathews never raised a lack of service. In turn, the arbitrator did not violate the Act by conducting a hearing on the City’s motion. Next, the court held that the record does not demonstrate the arbitrator considered evidence that was not admitted during the evidentiary hearing. As factfinders, neutral arbitrators are the sole judges of the admissibility of the evidence and the weight and credibility to be given the evidence admitted during a final hearing. Comparing the arbitrator’s findings of fact and conclusions with the evidence presented during the hearing, the court determined the arbitrator relied upon the evidence admitted at the final hearing. The district court conducted a factual and legal sufficiency review of the evidence, but that is not authorized by the Act. District court’s appellate review of arbitrator decisions are restricted to jurisdictional grounds and claims the award was procured by fraud, collusion, or through the use of other unlawful means. As a matter of law, the record present does not allow the district court to reverse the arbitrator’s decision. The district court’s order and final judgment have deprived the City of the statutory benefit of an efficient and speedy resolution through the Act. As a result, the district court’s order was reversed and the arbitrator’s decision was reinstated.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Golemon, Justice Kreger and Justice Horton.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Horton

 

Lubbock Court of Appeals affirmed board of adjustment condition to re-evaluate variance request after a set number of years

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MVP Raider Park Garage, LLC. V Zoning Board of Adjustment of City of Lubbock, et al, 07-20-00261-CV (Tex. App. – Lubbock, Jan. 12, 2022)

This is a board of adjustment case where the Lubbock Court of Appeals affirmed the BOA’s denial of a variance request.

Raider Park owns a parking garage that provides student parking for Texas Tech University. Under the City of Lubbock’s Code of Ordinances, not more than ten percent of any wall may be devoted to wall signs in the zoning district. Raider Park sought a variance to allow 35 percent of all walls to be used for signage. The BOA ultimately conditionally granted the variance but required stipulations, including a seven-year review and revision requirement of the variance. At the seven-year review, the BOA denied the request to continue the variance permit. Raider Park sued. Both parties filed opposing motions for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of the BOA. Raider Park appealed.

The court first noted the BOA had the authority to require a review and to treat the request to reauthorize the variance as a new request. The City’s ordinances specifically authorize this type of condition. When the Board granted the requested variance in 2012, it did so “subject to” conditions that were expressly stated on the Board’s decision form. The Board referred to the condition as an “experiment” to see if this type of review process worked better and allowed actual data and public reaction to be evaluated. The Board created an opportunity to revisit whether 35 percent coverage was “too much” and if the increase was determined to be unworkable, then the Board could adjust it in the future. The original variance was specifically designed to allow the Board to revisit and revise. The court noted the Board had the discretion to treat the review as a new request and hold public hearings to gauge public reaction. Further, the review process was never challenged as invalid. The court next determined the original variance was not a temporary variance but a variance subject to conditions. If the owner had a problem with the condition, the owner could have appealed the decision. Further, Raider Park points to no authority prohibiting the imposition of such a condition.  As a result, the trial court order is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Pirtle, Justice Parker and Justice Doss. Memorandum opinion by Justice Parker.

Fourth Court of Appeals upholds injunction preventing Governor from prohibiting ordinances regulating face masks – Governor’s authority does not extent to local health and safety regulations with separate grants of authority

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Greg Abbott, in his Official Capacity as Governor of Texas, and State of Texas v. City of San Antonio and County of Bexar, 04-21-00342-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonino, November 10, 2021).

This is a COVID-19 declaratory judgment (ultra vires) action brought against Texas Governor Gregg Abbott where the Fourth Court of Appeals held the Governor does not have the power to prevent certain local regulations during a disaster.

Bexar County and the City of San Antonio sued Governor Abbott after the Governor signed Executive Order GA-38, which provides, with some exceptions, that: “No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district, and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face-covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering . . . .”  The local entities sued asserting the order exceeded the Governor’s authority. The trial court issued a temporary injunction order enjoining the enforcement of certain provisions of Executive Order GA-38 disallowing local governmental entities from requiring individuals to wear face coverings. The Governor filed an interlocutory appeal.

The City and County’s ultra vires claim requires construction of the Texas Disaster Act.  The entities have different powers, but both have the ability to adopt reasonable rules and regulations to protect public health. These powers are granted to the entities at all times and are especially relevant during times of disaster. The Governor invoked § 418.016(a) of the Texas Government Code as support for his authority. Under the section, the Governor may “suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business or the orders or rules of a state agency if strict compliance with the provisions, orders, or rules would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”  After analyzing the language the Fourth Court held the statutes the Governor purports to suspend are not “regulatory statutes,” subject to suspension under the Act.  Regulatory statutes “prescribe the procedures” for the conduct of state business, such as procedures for the proper return of mail-in ballots.  The statutes do not address state-level procedure or business; instead, they are “grant-of-authority statute[s] giving local authorities the leeway to act in their best independent judgment within the confines of their own jurisdictions.”  Further, the Governor may only suspend regulatory statutes proscribing procedures for state business. The health and safety laws at issue are not procedural but  grant authority to local governments to act on matters of local public health and do not pertain to “state business.” It would “strain credulity to suppose the Legislature intended to abdicate its legislative prerogative, beyond the narrow regulatory and procedural matters specified, and permit the Governor to suspend all legislated grants of local authority on matters of public health without stating so directly.”  The court then examined the injury elements in the interim, the status quo elements of an injunction, and standing of the local entities. In the end, the court held the local entities were entitled to legally seek a temporary injunction and such injunction was proper under the standards indicated in the rules.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez, Justice Chapa and Justice Rios. Opinion by Chief Justice Martinez. The docket page can be found here.

 

Dallas Court of Appeals holds trial court had jurisdiction for BOA appeal only, but no monetary or constitutional claims could survive the board’s plea

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City of Dallas, et al v. PDT Holdings, Inc., et al. 05-21-00018-CV  (Tex. App. – Dallas, August 24, 2021).

This is an appeal from a board of adjustment decision where the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.

PDT Holdings, Inc (“PDT”) applied for a permit from the City to build a duplex on its property in Dallas.  PDT submitted building plans, which were approved and began construction. However, a City inspector cited PDT and issued a stop work order on the grounds that the structure did not comply with the thirty-six-foot height restriction. PDT adjusted the plans down to 36 feet, but was then told the actual height restriction was twenty-six feet due to the residential proximity slope (RPS) ordinance after it had completed 90% of the construction.  PDT sought a variance for the height restriction (three story duplex) but the variance was denied by the board of adjustment (“BOA”).  PDT appealed to district court but also sought a variety of monetary damages caused to the project. The matter was temporarily abated by agreement and the parties resubmitted to the BOA (with all new members), which again denied the request. The BOA filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. The BOA appealed.

A district court has subject matter jurisdiction only to decide whether the Board’s decision was illegal under section 211.011.  The BOA argued the original appeal to district court was timely but attempted to assert PDT had to appeal the 2nd denial and failed to do so. The Board cites no authority for this requirement other than the general requirement that a petition for writ of certiorari must be filed within ten days of the Board’s decision. The court held the second BOA decision did not change the substance of the controversy between the parties or the issues before the trial court.  Further, nothing demonstrates the trial court lost jurisdiction over the first decision, over which it would still be allowed to proceed. As a result, the trial court properly denied the plea as to the illegality question only. The court next held that it must evaluate jurisdiction based on each claim. PDT did not specify what cause of action entitled it to recover damages or cite express authority waiving governmental immunity for recovery of damages. The plain language of section 211.011(f) does not authorize an award of damages. Further, there is no implied right of action to recover money damages for violation of the due course-of-law provision of the Texas Constitution. The Texas Constitution authorizes suits for equitable or injunctive relief only. But this limited waiver of immunity exists only to the extent the plaintiff has pleaded a viable constitutional claim. The court agreed with the BOA that PDT  does not have a vested property right in obtaining a variance from the RPS ordinance.  The mere existence of a building permit does not render an ordinance unenforceable. A person does not acquire a vested right in a building permit issued in violation of an ordinance. Here, jurisdiction exists for judicial review of the Board’s decision under section 211.011 only. The plea should have been granted for all other claims.

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

Property owners around lake drained by GBRA had no standing to sue as they possessed no particularized injury

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Jimmy and Cheryl Williams, et al. v. Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and its Officers and Directors, 04-20-00445-CV, (Tex. App. – San Antonio, July 7, 2021)

This is a takings case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals partially reversed and affirmed the trial court’s judgment on Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s (“GBRA”) plea to the jurisdiction in takings suit. The trial court granted GBRA’s plea to all claims except the property owners’ takings claims after GBRA drained lakes around their properties.

Six hydroelectric dams (“Hydro Dams”) were privately constructed between 1928 and 1932 and put in service in the Guadalupe River Valley in Comal, Guadalupe, and Gonzales Counties. Construction of the hydro dams resulted in the formation of six lakes: Meadow, Placid, McQueeney, Dunlap, Wood, and Gonzales. In 1963, GBRA acquired the six hydro dams. Spill gates at two of the hydro dams failed draining both Lake Wood and Lake Dunlap. As a result of the deterioration of the hydro dams and respective spill gates, GBRA announced its intent to perform a “systematic drawdown” of the remaining four lakes, beginning at Lake Gonzales and then moving upstream to Meadow Lake, Lake Placid, and Lake McQueeney. Appellants—owners of properties adjacent to the lakes—sued GBRA (and its officers in their official capacities) for injunctive relief to prevent the announced drawdown, declaratory relief, and damages based on diminished property values.

GBRA asserted that the property owners lacked standing because they could not demonstrate a particularized injury.  Standing requires a plaintiff to establish: (1) the plaintiff’s claimed injury is “both concrete and particularized and actual and imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical”; (2) the injury is “fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged action”; and (3) “it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.”

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of the plea as to the taking claims, finding that the property owners could not demonstrate a particularized injury apart from the community at large absent ownership of a property right in the hydro dams, the lands underneath the lakes, or the water itself. As a result, the Court of Appeals dismissed the sole remaining claim against GBRA.

Panel consists of Justices Alvarez, Chapa, and Valenzuela. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Valenzuela can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Junk vehicle owner failed to establish ownership in municipal court, so was not entitled to sue for taking in later suit

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Jane Vorwerk v. City of Bartlett and John Landry Pack, Mayor, 03-21-00001-CV, (Tex. App – Austin, August 6, 2021)

The Bartlett Municipal Court declaring a 1986 Toyota mobile home to be a junk vehicle. The municipal court found that defendant James Fredrick Hisle was the owner or person in lawful possession of the mobile home, he was properly notified and appeared in person before the court, and he was afforded ample time to remove the mobile home from his property under Ordinance. It was also declared to be a public nuisance. The court ordered removal and if Hisle did not remove it the City could.  Vorwerk filed suit in justice court asserting she owned the vehicle and the City committed a taking. The City’s filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted.

Vorwerk asserted she created a fact issue regarding the ownership of the vehicle. Vorwerk did not submit any evidence that she owned the mobile home at the time of the municipal-court proceeding. Therefore, because the relevant evidence presented by the City and the Mayor was undisputed, that is, that Vorwerk was not the registered owner, and because Vorwerk did not present any evidence that she was the owner of the mobile home at the time of the municipal-court proceeding, the court conclude that she did not raise a fact issue concerning her ownership of the mobile home at the time of the municipal court hearing. The JP properly dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Panel consists of Justices Goodwin, Triana, and Kelly. Affirmed. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Triana can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

 

Amarillo Court of Appeals holds committed individual cannot challenge commitment or conditions through secondary suit

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James Richards v. Marsha McLane, in Her Official Capacity as Director of the Texas Civil Commitment Office, 07-20-00306-CV, (Tex. App – Amarillo, July 6, 2021)

This is a declaratory judgment/ultra vires type case where the Amarillo Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the Director’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Richards sued the director of the Texas Civil Commitment Office involving his commitment orders for being a sexually violent predator. The Director filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. Richards appealed.

Section 841.082 of the Texas Health and Safety Code provides that the court civilly committing someone as a sexually violent predator “retains jurisdiction of the case with respect to a proceeding conducted under . . . subchapter [E of the statute], . . . or to a civil commitment proceeding conducted under Subchapters F and G.” TEX. HEALTH & SAFETY CODE ANN. § 841.082(d) (West Supp. 2020).  The Court examines the claims based on the nature of the facts asserted and not the labels placed upon them by the pleading party. When reviewing the pleadings, the court held Richards actually challenged the legitimacy of his confinement for inpatient services. Richards sought to obtain less restrictive housing and supervision through the suit, thereby countermining the committing court’s jurisdiction. Further, since the housing requirements apply upon the “release” of an individual, and Richards has yet to be released, the challenge is not yet ripe.

Panel consists of Chief Justice Quinn, and Justices Pirtle and Parker. Affirmed. Memorandum Opinion per curiam can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Austin Court of Appeals holds AG established only 6 days of violations by city of concealed handgun prohibitions, not the 500+ asserted

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Ken Paxton, Texas Attorney General v. City of Austin, Mayor Steve Adler, Ora Houston, Delia Garza, Sabino Renteria, Gregorio Casar, Ann Kitchen, Don Zimmerman, Leslie Pool, Ellen Troxclair, Kathie Tovo, and Sheri Gallo, each in their Official Capacity, 03-19-00501-CV, (Tex. App – Austin, July 22, 2021)

This is a handgun notice/AG penalty case against the City of Austin. The Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the imposition of civil penalties against the City of Austin imposed by the trial court and denied the AG’s request for stronger penalties as a matter of law.

In 2015, the Legislature enacted Section 411.209 (“Wrongful Exclusion of Concealed Handgun License Holder”) of the Texas Government Code, which it amended in 2017 and 2019. The section addresses penalties against a City that improperly prohibits the carrying of concealed handguns in certain locations. Under §30.06 of the Texas Penal Code, in order to prohibit a licensed concealed handgun carrier from entering a public building, the City must post a specific sign with specific language. A citizen testified he sent the City notices to remove a pictorial sign and that he was orally told he could not enter.  Under §411.209, the AG filed suit against the City for improperly prohibiting licensed carriers. The trial court dismissed the claims related to the City’s prohibition picture of a gun with a circle and line through it, but held the AG met its burden of proof as to other warnings (including oral warnings) on six separate days. The trial court imposed penalties of $9,000 against the City. The City did not appeal, but the AG did.  AG asserted the City should have been penalized over $5 million due to continuing violations and in dismissing the pictorial violation.

To be a prohibited notice under former Section 411.209(a), the notice must be either “by a communication described by Section 30.06, Penal Code” or “by any sign expressly referring to that law or to a license to carry a handgun.” Former Tex. Gov’t Code § 411.209(a). The City’s pictorial sign is not “a communication described by Section 30.06, Penal Code.” And although the City’s Etching perhaps could be considered a “written communication” in the ordinary and common meaning of that phrase, Section 30.06 expressly defines “written communication” under which the pictorial sign does not qualify. As a result, dismissal of claims related to the pictorial sign was proper. Next, the district court concluded that the Attorney General met his burden to establish a violation of former Section 411.209(a) for six different days in 2016.  However, it failed to prove continuing violations on any other day. When a party attacks the legal sufficiency of an adverse finding on an issue on which it bears the burden of proof, the judgment must be sustained unless the record conclusively establishes all vital facts in support of the issue.  The AG failed to make such a showing. Finally, the Attorney General did not raise any complaint until his appeal regarding the district court’s award of a $1,500 per diem amount rather than the mandatory $10,000 minimum authorized by the statute for subsequent violations.  As a result, the court could not review that issue as it was not preserved.

Panel consists of Justices Goodwin, Kelly, and Smith. Affirmed. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Goodwin can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

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.

Property owner not entitled to de novo review of nuisance determination says Austin Court of Appeals

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Mark Groba v. The City of Taylor, Texas, 03-19-00365-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Feb. 3, 2021)

In this nuisance abatement case, the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Groba, a real property owner, was subject to an enforcement action in the Municipal Court of Taylor, acting in an administrative capacity.  The court conducted a hearing and issued an order granting the City’s application to declare Groba’s property a nuisance under chapter 214 of the Texas Local Government Code. The municipal court later issued an order declaring that Groba failed to comply with its original order to clean up the nuisance. The City then filed a Chapter 54 lawsuit to enforce it’s ordinances and the orders in district court. The City sought injunctive relief related to its nuisance determination, including authorizing the City to demolish the building and charge the costs for doing so to Groba. The City also sought civil penalties.  The trial court issued an injunction order allowing the City to demolish the building, which the City did.  The day after the demolition, Groba filed a counterclaim for declaratory judgment and trespass, arguing that he was entitled to a jury trial on the nuisance determination. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted. Groba appealed.

After receiving a copy of the municipal court order, Groba did not appeal and, thus, did not comply with the jurisdictional prerequisites for judicial review of the nuisance determination.  Groba asserted he was entitled to de novo review of the City’s nuisance determination, and even if he had failed to timely appeal the nuisance determination, the City is estopped from asserting a jurisdictional challenge to his request for a jury trial because the City “misled” him by filing “multiple proceedings” and by dismissing the criminal municipal-court case after he had requested a jury trial. A property owner aggrieved by a municipality’s order under § 214.001 may seek judicial review of that decision by filing a verified petition in district court within thirty days of receipt of the order. A court cannot acquire subject-matter jurisdiction by estoppel. The City’s enforcement of an ordinance may be estopped, but only in exceptional circumstances that are not present. But subject-matter jurisdiction is still not conferred through estoppel.  Further, contrary to Croba’s assertions, the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in City of Dallas v. Stewart, 361 S.W.3d 562 (Tex. 2012) does not give him an unconditional right to de novo review of a nuisance determination. A de novo review is required only when a nuisance determination is appealed, which Croba did not perform.

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

Texas Supreme Court holds Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners’ rules are valid even over objection of the Texas Medical Association

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Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners v Texas Medical Association, 18-1223 (Tex. Jan. 29, 2021)

This case centers on the tension between chiropractors and physicians and several Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners’ rules. The Texas Supreme Court held the Board’s rules were valid.  The analysis is beneficial for government lawyers as 1) it discusses the presumptions of validity and statutory construction and 2) for any lawyers defending personal injury or involved in worker’s compensation systems the scope of the rules can be important.

The line between practicing medicine and practice in the chiropractic profession is not always clear. The Texas Chiropractic Act (the Act) draws part of that line by defining the practice of chiropractic to include evaluating the musculoskeletal system and improving the subluxation complex. The Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners (the Board) has issued rules defining both terms as involving nerves in addition to muscles and bones. Another Board rule authorizes chiropractors to perform an eye-movement test for neurological problems that is known by the acronym VONT. The Texas Medical Association (TMA) asserts that only physicians may perform VONT. The Legislature passed the Medical Practice Act (the MPA) to regulate physicians.  It empowers the Texas Medical Board “to regulate the practice of medicine” in Texas. The Court went through a detailed history of the Act and MPA and the Board and the TMA. The Board adopted what is now Rule 78.1 defining chiropractic practice to include diagnosing and treating neuromusculoskeletal conditions causing an alteration in the biomechanical and/or neuro-physiological reflections. In comments to the Board, TMA opposed the definition of the musculoskeletal system which would include the nervous system and brain.  The Board also allowed chiropractors to perform vestibular-ocular-nystagmus testing or VONT. TMA sued to invalidate the rules as exceeding the scope of chiropractic practice prescribed by the Act. After a bench trial, the court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, holding that the challenged rules are invalid because they exceed the statutory scope of chiropractic practice. The Board appealed. The court of appeals affirmed in part.

The Court first held the TMA had proper authority to sue to invalidate the Board rules because the MPA recognizes that “the practice of medicine is a privilege” reserved to licensed physicians. Obtaining and maintaining the privilege imposes economic costs, and allowing nonphysicians to practice medicine outside the MPA’s control would impair—or at least threaten to impair—that privilege.  The Board rules are presumed valid. Using the principles of statutory construction and this presumption as the starting point, the Court found the trial court failed to afford Rule 78.1 a presumption of validity. TMA argues that the rule’s references to nerves authorize chiropractors to diagnose any neurological condition, which is the practice of medicine. However, the rule’s words cannot be read beyond their context. Nothing in Rule 78.1 suggests that chiropractic practice extends beyond the evaluation and treatment of the musculoskeletal system. The rule merely acknowledges the reality that chiropractors cannot ignore the presence and effect of associated nerves that help shape the musculoskeletal system and allow it to move. The Board’s definition of the musculoskeletal system only includes those nerves “associated” with the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, joints, and tissues “that move the body and maintain its form.” Because chiropractic is carved out of the comprehensive regulation of the practice of medicine under the MPA, its scope under the Act must be limited. Rule 78.1 acknowledges and respects the Act’s boundaries. As a result, TMA has not overcome the definitions’ presumption of validity. With regards to the VONT rule, it is a neurological test that a medical doctor may use to diagnose a problem of the brain, inner ear, or eyes, none of which is a part of the spine. However, the Board also presented evidence that VONT can be used to facilitate chiropractic treatment. A reading of all the Board’s rules together makes it clear that a chiropractor’s proper use of VONT is not for treating a neurological condition, which is certainly outside the scope of chiropractic, but rather for the limited purpose of determining whether and how to treat a patient’s musculoskeletal system.  As a result, both rules retain their presumption of validity.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Hecht delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Guzman, Justice Lehrmann, Justice Devine, Justice Blacklock, and Justice Busby joined in full, and in which Justice Boyd and Justice Bland joined except with respect to Part III(D).

Austin Court of Appeals holds temporary injunction order need not set a specific trial date, but must place the case for trial on the court’s calendar, otherwise the order is void

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Hegar, Comptroller of Public Accounts of State of Texas, et al., v Zertuche Construction, LLC, 03-19-00238-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Jan. 22, 2021).

This is a tax collection case, but the main thrust is the procedural ruling on injunctions where the Austin Court of Appeals held that Zertuche Construction’s temporary injunction order was void due to a lack of trial setting.

The Comptroller audited Zertuche’s sales-and-use tax report, determined it owed additional taxes, and imposed penalties and interest. After a decision upholding an assessment of approximately $2.6 million, Zertuche submitted a written protest letter and followed the procedural steps for challenging the holding. Zertuche filed suit challenging the assessment and seeking an injunction to prohibit the Comptroller from taking action to collect the taxes owed under the assessment. The Comptroller responded by filing a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court conducted a combined hearing on the Comptroller’s plea to the jurisdiction and Zertuche’s application for a temporary injunction to enjoin tax collection. The trial court issued a temporary injunction order prohibiting tax collection, but did not rule on the plea. The Comptroller and AG appealed.

Rule 683, dealing with temporary injunction orders,  requires that an order granting a temporary injunction state the reasons for its issuance and set “the cause for trial on the merits with respect to the ultimate relief sought.” See Tex. R. Civ. P. 683. The trial court’s order stated “[t]he parties will set this matter for trial as soon as possible after the resolution of EBS Solutions [case pending in Texas Supreme Court] if Defendants’ Plea to the Jurisdiction and Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction is denied by this Court.” Thus, rather than set a date for trial, the order provides that the parties will set the matter for trial. Although a specific trial date need not be set in the order, the order must “set the cause for trial on the merits” and that “rule 683 implicitly requires the injunction to order the cause be calendared on the trial court’s docket.” Because the temporary injunction order does not set the cause for trial on the merits the Court of Appeals determined the order was void.

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

U.S. 5th Circuit holds property owner’s federal Clean Water Act claim against Town for improper discharge was proper due to lack of comparable state regulation

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Stringer v. Town of Jonesboro, 20-30192 (5th Cir. Jan. 18, 2021)

In this §1983 taking suit and federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”) case, the U.S. 5th Circuit held the Plaintiff’s §1983 suit for damages due to sewage backup was barred, but not her Clean Water Act claim.

Stringer alleges that, since at least 2011, the Town’s wastewater treatment system has malfunctioned during periods of heavy rain, with chronic failures of a specific pump. She asserts the Town failed to respond to her complaints as political payback she ran against the mayor in an election.  She was also an alderwoman. The Louisiana Department of Health (LDOH) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) were aware of the overtaxed system. LDEQ sent the Town warning letters and issued compliance orders. LDOH also enforced the State Sanitary Code, issued the Town a compliance order imposed mandatory ameliorative measures and assessed a daily fine. Stringer brought a “citizen suit” under the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1365, as well as constitutional takings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She also sued the Mayor asserting he retaliated against her. The Defendants filed a motion to dismiss which the trial court granted. Stringer appealed.

The CWA creates a regime of water pollution regulation that harnesses state and federal power but also allows citizen suits. However, such citizen suits are not permitted if the applicable state is already prosecuting comparable enforcement actions. A state statute is “comparable” to the CWA so long as the state law contains comparable penalty provisions, has the same overall goals, provides interested citizens a meaningful opportunity to participate at significant stages of the decision-making process, and has adequate safeguards. The Louisiana Sanitary Code provides no formal or structured means for interested citizens to become aware of LDOH’s enforcement efforts, nor any mechanism by which they can call for further action. However, LEQA’s enforcement mechanisms provide for interested parties to obtain “periodic notice” of “all violations, compliance orders and penalty assessments,” because it mandates public comment before a proposed settlement is finalized, and because it permits third parties to “intervene in an adjudicatory hearing, or petition for an adjudicatory hearing if none is held.” However, LDEQ was not the focus of the Defendants’ diligent prosecution argument in the district court. Further, whether LDEQ has “diligently” pursued a comparable action under § 1319(g) may be “a fact-intensive question that can only be answered after the proper development of a record.”  As a result, the CWA claims should not have been dismissed. However, Stringer’s §1983 takings claim had a one-year statute of limitations. Stringer’s complaint confirms she was aware of the pertinent underlying facts as early as November 2011. A cause of action accrues when the plaintiff learns the facts giving rise to her injury. As a result, such claims were properly dismissed. Finally, Stringer’s First Amendment retaliation claim was also time-barred.

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