Tyler Court of Appeals holds District is immune from sewer backup as 20 year old plastic coupler which failed was not part of the motor system

Quote

Sean Self v. West Cedar Creek Municipal Utility District, 12-20-00082-CV, (Tex. App – Tyler, Jan. 6, 2021)

This is an appeal from the granting of a plea to the jurisdiction in a sewage backup case in which the Tyler Court of Appeals affirmed the order.

Self and his wife Kimberly entered into a contract with the District in 2012  water and sewer services. After sewage backed up into their home in April 2015, the District made some repairs to the vault system. Another backup occurred in 2016 and Sean Self sued the District alleging negligent use of motor-driven equipment, premises defect, unconstitutional taking, non-negligent nuisance, and breach of contract. The District filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. Self appealed.

It is undisputed that a plastic coupler (known as a quick connect) failed causing the backup. Self argued the motors, pipes and couplers are all one system. The court explained in detail how the Self system worked. The coupler gives District employees the ability to remove the pump without cutting pipes. There is no motor in the coupler. It merely assists in disconnecting the pump if it needs to be worked on. If the coupler fails, gravity will cause any sewage coming from a higher-grade property to backfill Self’s property. Self’s expert plumber testified the pumps used can cause high pressure, which could potentially break the coupler, but he did not know that is what occurred in this instance.  However, there was no evidence that the coupler assists in sewage collection other than to the extent it helps maintain the connection between the pump and the discharge line. The evidence shows that, if the coupler breaks, whether the pump is on or not, the sewage in the tank would flow out to the ground or through the line in the tank and back into the house, due to the force of gravity, not the operation or use of motorized equipment. Under a premise defect theory, the duty owed by an owner of premises to an invitee is not that of an insurer. The coupler was placed in 1995. The fact that materials deteriorate over time and may become dangerous does not itself create a dangerous condition, and the actual knowledge required for liability is of the dangerous condition at the time of the accident, not merely of the possibility that a dangerous condition can develop over time. No evidence of actual knowledge existed. In the context of an inverse condemnation claim, “the requisite intent is present when a governmental entity knows that a specific act is causing identifiable harm or knows that the harm is substantially certain to result.” A taking cannot be established by proof of mere negligent conduct. No knowledge of intent is present. While Self alleged a claim for non-negligent nuisance, there is no separate waiver of governmental immunity for nuisance claims. Finally, as to the breach of contract claim, no goods are services were provided to the District, it was the District providing services to Self. As a result, no waiver of immunity exists.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Worthen, and Justices Hoyle and Neeley.  Affirmed. Opinion by Justice Neeley. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Second Court of Appeals holds general law city has inherent power to require solid waste haulers to obtain a license

Quote

Builder Recovery Services LLC v. The Town of Westlake, Texas, 02-20-00051-CV,  (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Jan. 1, 2021)(mem. op.).

This is a declaratory judgment/ordinance invalidation suit brought by a solid waste collector where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the Town’s power to require licenses. [Warning, this is a long opinion at 56 pages].

BRS contracts with home builders in the Town of Westlake to remove the temporary construction waste that the builders generate and place a dumpster on the property during construction. The dumpsters are towed to each site and place as much as 20,000 pounds of weight upon the Town’s roads, with as many as ten visits to each site during construction. BRS initially raised concerns that the Town’s regular solid waste hauler (Republic) could not be the sole hauler for temporary construction waste. The city council delegated the Town’s staff to meet with the builders to discuss amendments to the Town’s ordinances in order to address the issue. The Town eventually passed an ordinance allowing third-party haulers like BRS to obtain licenses for temporary construction waste services in imposed certain regulations on the license. BRS brought suit asserting, among other things, that the license fee was not tied to actual administrative costs, that the ordinance was preempted by state law, and challenging the Town’s authority to pass the ordinance. After a bench trial, the trial judge found largely in favor of the Town but did invalidate the license fee calculation. BRS appealed.

The court first went through a detailed analysis of the power distinctions between general law cities and home rule cities. While the Town is a general law city, the court held it has the power to regulate solid waste collection under §361.113 of the Texas Health and Safety Code. The court rejected BRS’ argument that the section does not empower the Town to issue licenses as a license is an inherent part of the regulatory power.  Licenses are one means for a governmental agency to regulate activities that the Town is empowered to regulate. The court analyzed the various powers of the Town, including inherent powers and noted the power to regulate carries with it all means to accomplish the regulation, including licensing. Further, BRS failed to establish the ordinance was invalid because it failed to negate all conditions which would warrant the ordinance.  Further, such rules do not conflict with the franchise section of the same subtitle of the statute. Franchises and licenses are separate creatures. The court analyzed the wording of the various health and safety code sections and determined the power to license is not preempted by any other portion of the code. It held a “dumpster” is not the same as a “container” as that term is defined under the Solid Waste Disposal Act. The court determined the license fee issue was moot due to an amended ordinance.  However, due to an outstanding issue of attorney’s fees, the court remanded to the trial court for disposition.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Bassel, Justice Womack and Justice Wallach.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Bassell.

The Tenth Court of Appeals held immunity waived for airport lease based on improvements made by tenant

Quote

 

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Cleburne v. RT General, LLC, No. 10-20-00037-CV (Tex. App.—Waco  December 16, 2020) (mem. op.).

This is an interlocutory appeal from a trial court denial of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction on a breach of contract and related claims regarding an airport lease. The Waco Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.

The plaintiff sued the city after the city attempted to evict the plaintiff from the city’s airport under a lease agreement with the plaintiff.  The city and plaintiff entered into a lease agreement for airport facilities where the plaintiff could use the airport facilities at no charge for ten years because the plaintiff had expended over $300,000 in repairing the city’s airport facilities.  After the first ten years, the plaintiff was required to pay rent for use of the facilities.   Three years into the lease, the city sent a letter of eviction to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff sued the city for breach of contract, inverse condemnation, declaratory judgment, and fraud.  The city argued it had immunity from suit because the airport operation is a governmental function and the contract was missing an essential term, the rental payments for the first ten years.  The trial court denied the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Immunity is based on whether a function on which liability is based is a governmental or proprietary function.  Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 559 S.W.3d 142, 146 (Tex. 2018).  Operation of an airport is a governmental function.  Tex. Transp. Code § 22.021(a)(2).  Immunity from a governmental function can be waived by a contract claim if the contract falls within the provisions of Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code including stating the essential terms of the contract.  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 271.152.  While price is an essential term of an agreement, the court of appeals held that past consideration could meet this requirement.  The court of appeals also held that claims for declaratory judgment and inverse condemnation can move forward on the same set of facts because immunity is waived under breach of contract.

Chief Justice Gray dissented by footnote stating that there was insufficient evidence that goods or services were provided to the city under the lease agreement.  Chief Justice Gray would also render judgment on the other claims as they are creative pleading efforts that should be dismissed as attempts to avoid the governmental immunity issue.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice Gray and  Justices Davis and Neill. Opinion by John Neill and Chief Justice Gray dissenting by footnote within the opinion.

 

Third Court of Appeals holds church’s motion for new trial in water rate EDJA case held valid given unique and troubling circumstances in case

Quote

City of Magnolia v Magnolia Bible Church, et al., 03-19-00631-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Dec. 18, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal from an order granting a new trial and denying a plea to the jurisdiction in a water rate case in which the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of new trial and the denial of the City’s plea.

This case involves the interplay between the provisions of the Expedited Declaratory Judgment Act (“EDJA”)(which deals with public securities), the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and the constitutional principles of due process. The City adopted an ordinance relating to the City’s water-system rates. In addition to residential and commercial accounts, the ordinance created a new category of water user, the “Institutional/Non-Profit/Tax-Exempt accounts,” which, among others, covered churches.  The Churches opposed the new category and surcharge as being discriminatory under the Tax Code and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TXRFRA”).  The City preemptively filed a validation suit under the EDJA to validate the bonds and rates tied to the bonds, but only notified the public through newspaper publications. It did not expressly notify the church of the suit. The trial court granted the City’s validation of the rates. The Church later filed a regular Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (“UDJA”) claim asserting the rates were discriminatory. When the City informed the Church of the final judgment under the EDJA claim, the church filed a motion for new trial in the EDJA trial court (under Tex. R. Civ. P. 329). The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting the trial court lost plenary power over the case.  The trial court denied the plea and granted the motion for new trial. The City appealed.

Chief Justice Rose held that due process does not require personal service in all circumstances, but any use of substituted notice in place of personal notice—e.g., notice by publication—must be “reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.” Notice by publication is insufficient when the name, address and interest are known.  The EDJA empowers an issuer of public securities to seek an expedited declaratory judgment concerning “the legality and validity of each public security authorization relating to the public securities,” including, as relevant here, the legality and validity of “the imposition of a rate, fee, charge, or toll.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 1205.021(2)(E). Ordinarily, notice by publication satisfies due process as to the parties bound by an EDJA judgment because the EDJA permits only in rem declarations concerning property rights and is notice to the public. However, in this case, the church challenged the application under religious freedom grounds.  Due process, therefore, requires more than notice by publication. Because notice to the Churches was constitutionally insufficient, the resulting judgment was void and can be challenged at any time. Justice Trianna took a slightly different approach, using the text of the EDJA and holding that it does not conflict with Rule 329 (allowing a new trial for persons who did not receive notice) and Rule 329 extends the plenary power of the court for a certain period of time.  Since the Church met the time periods under Rule 329, it was within the trial court’s discretion to grant or deny the motion or new trial.

Justice Baker’s dissent holds that such an interpretation undermines the intent of the EDJA which is to quickly decide the issue then preclude future claims from any other person who challenges the rate and bond applications.   He asserts Rule 329 only applies when a defendant (not an interested person) does not appear after service by publication.

If you would like to read the various opinions, Chief Justice Rose’s concurring opinion is here, Justice Trianna’s concurring opinion is here, and Justice Baker’s dissent is here.

The Ninth Court of Appeals affirmed judgment for City in First Amendment/Whistleblower claims since no causal connection was present

Quote

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Samer Shobassy v. City of Port Arthur, No. 09-18-00363-CV (Tex. App.—Port Arthur  November 19, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s retaliation-in-employment case.  The Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment.

The plaintiff worked as an assistant city attorney for the city for five years and the city attorney was the plaintiff’s supervisor.  During the plaintiff’s employment, he discussed the city’s compliance with purchasing law in the context of his employment as an assistant city attorney.  He was terminated by the city attorney and was given a termination notice which indicated that he was terminated because, among other things, he failed to follow-up on tasks and communicate with the city attorney and failed to complete the tasks assigned to him.  Plaintiff sued the city in district court claiming a Whistleblower Act claim and that his termination violated his First Amendment rights.  The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction and no evidence motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted.

To establish a claim for retaliation under the Whistleblower Act, the plaintiff has to show that the employer’s termination would not have occurred had the plaintiff not made a good faith allegation of violation of law to an appropriate law enforcement authority.  Tex. Dep’t of Human Servs. v. Hinds, 904 S.W.2d 629, 637 (Tex. 1995).  The report has to be a “but-for” cause of the termination.  Office of the Attorney Gen. of Tex. v. Rodriguez, 605 S.W.3d 183, 198 (Tex. 2020). The plaintiff was unable to make the causal connection.  To establish a claim for a free-speech retaliation claim, the plaintiff must show the plaintiff was terminated for engaging in constitutionally protected speech.  Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, Wabaunsee Cty., Kan. v. Umbehr, 518 U.S. 668, 675 (1996).   The speech in question is not protected if it is spoken within the context of the employee’s official duties.  Davis v. McKinney, 518 F.3d 304, 312 (5th Cir. 1998). The Whistleblower claim was dismissed because the claims of illegal conduct by the City were not made until after the termination. The free speech claim was invalid because his speech was performed and related to is employment position. The dismissal of both was proper.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen and  Justices Kreger and Horton. Opinion by Justice Hollis Horton

El Paso Court of Appeals held Governor’s executive orders control over county judge order in the event of conflicts

Quote

State of Texas, et al v. El Paso County, Texas, et al., 08-20-00226-CV (Tex. App. – El Paso, Nov. 13, 2020).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the temporary injunction involving a conflict between the county judge’s executive order and the Governor’s executive order.  The El Paso Court of Appeals reversed the denial.

The Governor’s executive order GA-32 allows bars and open with reduced capacity in October of 2020. After the County had a surge in COVID-19 cases, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued an executive order including a stay at home mandate and eliminating social gatherings not confined to a single household. While it listed several permitted essential services, bars were not included and restaurants could only allow curbside pickup.  The State and a collection of restaurants sued the County and the judge asserting the order was contrary to the Governor’s order. They sought a temporary injunction to prevent enforcement of the County Judge’s order, which the trial court denied. Plaintiffs appealed.

The court first wanted to make clear that it was not deciding on the wisdom of either order, only the statutory construction provision as to which controlled over the other. The Governor’s order contains a preemption clause countermanding any conflicting local government actions, but the County order states any conflict requires the stricter order to apply. County judges are deemed to be the “emergency management director” for their county. The Texas Disaster Act contemplates that a county judge or mayor may have to issue a local disaster declaration and has similar express powers to those issued to the Governor. However, a county judge is expressly referred to as the “agent” of the Governor, not as a separate principle. Further, even if the County judge had separate authorization, the Legislature has declared the Governor’s executive order has the force of law. State law will eclipse inconsistent local law. Additionally, the Act allows the Governor to suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute within an executive order, which would include the County order.  The court then analyzed the standards for a temporary injunction and held the trial court erred in denying the injunction.  Finally, the court concluded by stating how essential the role of a county judge is when managing disasters and emergencies and that their opinion should not be misunderstood. The Governor’s order only controls over conflicts, and any provision of the County order which can be read in harmony remains enforceable.

Justice Rodriguez’s dissent opined that the Governor exceeded the authority provided by the Disaster Act. In his view, “the Governor has taken a law that was meant to help him assist local authorities by sweeping away bureaucratic obstacles in Austin, and used it in reverse to treat local authorities as a bureaucratic obstacle to…”  a once-size-fits-all coronavirus response plan.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The dissent by Justice Rodriguez is found here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Alley, Justice Rodriguez and Justice Palafox.  Opinion by Chief Justice Alley.

The U.S. Fifth Court of Appeals held plaintiffs had standing to challenge zombie law provision in charter despite the election being over.   

Quote

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Joe Richard Pool, III, et al. v. City of Houston, et al., No. 19-20828 (5th Cir.  October 23, 2020).

In this appeal from a trial court’s dismissal of an election case.   The U.S. Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal and held that the plaintiffs had standing to continue the suit for future petitions.

The plaintiffs are petition circulators who attempted to circulate a petition in the city where they are not registered voters.  The city stated that it had a charter provision that required petitions to be circulated or signed by registered voters, but that they were going to look into the issue.  While the city was researching the issue, the plaintiffs filed suit in federal district. The district court held that the charter provision was unconstitutional and granted the temporary restraining order preventing enforcement.  After the petition period was over, the trial court dismissed the case as moot. The plaintiffs appealed. During the litigation, the city added an “editor’s note” to its charter that it would accept petitions from anyone and had a link to a new form regarding such.  The city argues that it will not be enforcing the provision and has approved a form and notation to that effect which should preclude a permanent injunction case.

When laws are deemed unconstitutional they are not always updated or removed from documents.  These are called zombie laws.  The Houston Charter has a provision that limits petition signers to registered voters.  This type of law was deemed unconstitutional in 1999 but was not removed from the city’s charter.  See Buckley v. Am. Constitutional Law Found., Inc., 525 U.S. 182, 193–97 (1999).  In order to show standing to overturn such a zombie law, plaintiffs must show that they are “seriously interested in disobeying, and the defendant seriously intent on enforcing, the challenged measure.” Justice v. Hosemann, 771 F.3d 285, 291 (5th Cir. 2014).  The Fifth Circuit held that it was clear that the plaintiffs would continue to try to submit petitions despite not being registered voters and that the city’s notation and form were insufficient to prevent enforcement.  The court held that the plaintiffs have standing and could continue their suit against the city for future petitions.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of  Justices Graves, Costa, and Engelhardt. Opinion by Circuit Judge Gregg Costa.

 

U.S. 5th Circuit holds Plaintiff students established standing to assert University’s student speech policies on harassments and rudeness are unconstitutional

Quote

Speech First, Inc. v. Fenves, 19-50529 (5th Cir. Oct. 28, 2020)

This is a First and Fourteenth Amendment free speech case in a university setting. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims and reinstated the case.

Speech First, Inc., (“Speech First”) is an organization of free-speech advocates which brought suit on behalf of students at the University of Texas at Austin (“University”) challenging seven policies of the University. The policies prohibited obscenity, defamation, rude statements, “verbal harassment of another” with a very broad definition, a requirement that if a person demands the student to stop communicating with them the student must oblige,  and several others. The Dean of Students (Fenves) has primary authority and responsibility for the administration of student discipline. The trial court dismissed the claims due to a lack of standing. The Plaintiffs appealed.

In general, “‘a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice,’” so the fact the University amended its policies does not preclude the court from analyzing the original policies. Further, some of the definitions were not amended, thereby leaving the controversy live. Next, Because Speech First seeks a preliminary injunction on behalf of its members, it must clearly show that it likely has associational standing to bring its case on the merits.  Speech First has standing if any of its members have standing. The gravamen of Speech First’s claims is that its student-members wish to engage in robust debate on timely and controversial political topics from a contrarian point of view. Because their views do not mirror those of many on campus, their speech may be deemed “harassment,” “rude,” “uncivil,” or “offensive,” as those terms are defined in the University’s policies. The court has repeatedly held, in the pre-enforcement context, that “[c]hilling a plaintiff’s speech is a constitutional harm adequate to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.” Evidence supported that students “are afraid to voice their views out of fear that their speech” may violate University policies.  Further, terms like “harassment,” “intimidation,” “rude,” “incivility,” and “bias” beg for clarification as they are too broad and not sufficiently prescriptive. The prong requiring substantial threat of future enforcement to confer standing does not necessarily apply for a facial challenge, only an “as-applied” challenge. The dismissal is reversed and the case remanded to the district court for a reassessment of the preliminary injunction.   The court finally cautioned that “In our current national condition, however, in which ‘institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishment instead of considered reforms,’ courts must be especially vigilant against assaults on speech in the Constitution’s care.”

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

U.S. 5th Circuit holds qualified immunity applies in university disciplinary hearings where the outcome depends on the credibility of a witness

Quote

U.S. 5th Circuit holds qualified immunity applies in university disciplinary hearings where the outcome depends on the credibility of a witness

Ralph Clay Walsh, Jr. v. Lisa Hodge, et al., 19-10785, 2020 WL 5525397 (5th Cir. Sept. 15, 2020)

This is an appeal from Walsh’s §1983 claim alleging a violation of procedural due process in a disciplinary hearing.

Walsh, a former university professor, was accused of sexual harassment by a student at a conference. The university hired an attorney who investigated the claim and concluded that the student’s claim was substantiated. The dean of the university recommended termination. Walsh appealed and was sent a letter containing the procedure for the appeal. During the appeal, the attorney who investigated the claim was questioned but not the student. Walsh was terminated, then filed a §1983 claim against the university and various professors and school administrators asserting he was not allowed to confront his accuser. The individual defendants moved for summary judgment on grounds of qualified immunity which was partially granted and partially denied. Defendants appeal the denial.

The 5th Circuit rested their analysis on a two-pronged test: 1) whether Walsh suffered a procedural due process violation as a matter of law, then 2) whether Defendants’ conduct was objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the incident. The 5th Circuit found the first prong to be satisfied as, even when balancing private and public interests, Walsh had a right to have his accuser present to answer questions and raise the issue of credibility. Regardless, the 5th Circuit did not find that there was clearly established law for procedures necessary to protect a professor’s interest in avoiding career destruction after being accused of sexual harassment.   The 5th Circuit goes on to acknowledge that its sister circuits, as well as federal regulatory agencies, are split on the matter. Therefore, “[b]ecause of…conflicting, inconclusive language in past cases, [the 5th Circuit] cannot find that Defendants ‘knowingly violate[d] the law.’” The 5th Circuit ultimately reversed the district court’s denial of the qualified immunity argument in the summary judgment motion and rendered judgment in favor of the individual Defendants.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Davis, Jones, and Engelhardt.

First District holds county attorney could not bring suit against commissioner’s court for budget policies

Quote

Hobbs, Williamson County Attorney v. Dan A. Gattis, et. al., 01-19-00025-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], Oct. 15, 2020).

This is a declaratory judgment case where the First District Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the County Attorney’s challenge to a commissioner court policy regarding the budget.

Hobbs, acting in his official capacity as the Williamson County Attorney, sued the Williamson County Judge and Williamson County Commissioners, all in their official capacities, seeking a declaratory judgment that certain policies and orders were void for exceeding the power of the Commissioners Court.  The County defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. Hobbs appealed.

Hobbs challenged a policy that appeared to limit the salaries of his employees, even though the budget allocated for his office had sufficient funds.  The County’s plea challenged the pleadings only and were taken as true. The County defendants argued that Hobbs had no authority to bring suit in his official capacity.  Since Hobbs was only complaining about budgetary issues, the defendants did not invade his elected sphere of control. However, the funds had been budgeted for the County Attorney’s office and Hobbs complained of the policies imposed on how those funds were spent (specifically regarding hiring and salary aspects of assistant county attorneys). A commissioner’s court has broad discretion on budgetary decisions, and such decisions are ordinarily protected from judicial scrutiny by the separation of powers doctrine. But it is limited by certain judicial controls. A commissioner’s court and county officers may not interfere with or usurp the duties delegated by the Texas Constitution and by statutes to independent county officials and their employees.  However, the live pleadings did not list a controversy where potential employees did not accept employment due to the limits or that any other employees were affected. Alleging the policies could hamper Hobb’s office is an allegation of an uncertain or contingent future controversy, not an allegation of a live controversy.  Further, the live pleadings do not show Hobbs, in his official capacity, suffered a distinct and individualized injury. Hobbs acknowledged in his pleading that the county attorney has no individual stake differing from that of other Williamson County elected officials since he is suing in his official capacity only.  A district court has certain constitutional supervisory controls of the commissioner’s court; however, those require an act that is illegal, unreasonable or arbitrary. The challenged policy does not necessarily reduce any employee salary as compared to the amount adopted in the budget. Given the broad budgetary discretion of the commissioner’s court, Hobbs failed to allege facts triggering the district court’s constitutional supervisory control. The plea was properly granted.

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

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds forfeited councilmember can only seek reinstatement through quo warranto proceeding

Quote

 

City of Leon Valley v. Benny Martinez, 04-19-00879-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, August 19, 2020, no pet. h.)

This is a council forfeiture case which the San Antonio Court of Appeals held could only be brought in a quo warranto proceeding.

Section 3.12 of the city charter describes the procedures for council investigations. Benny Martinez was a sitting city council member. After several complaints were filed against him for alleged charter violations the city council held §3.12 hearings. The city council ultimately declared he forfeited his place on the council and removed him. Martinez sued, alleging the procedures used to remove him from office violated his due process rights. He sought a declaratory judgment “to determine [his] right to be reinstated following his removal [from Place 4].”  The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The city filed this interlocutory appeal.

A writ of quo warranto is an extraordinary remedy available to determine disputed questions about the proper person entitled to hold a public office and exercise its functions. See generally Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 66.001. The purpose of a quo warranto action involving officeholders is to determine disputed questions concerning who may hold such office. The court held the plain and unambiguous language of the quo warranto statute confers standing exclusively on the State, not a private litigant. While Martinez asserted his removal was void (thereby trying to fall within an exception to the exclusivity), the court held none of Martinez’s factual allegations allege void acts, only voidable acts if proven. The plea should have been granted.

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

 

 

Officers’ and City’s appeal dismissed by U.S. 5th Circuit because their dismissal “with prejudice” argument inapplicable when inmate could still get conviction reversed

Quote

Kerry Max Cook v. City of Tyler, Texas, et al., 19-40144, 2020 WL 5268509 (5th Cir. Sept. 4, 2020)

This is an appeal and cross-appeal from a dismissal of Cook’s §1983 claim seeking damages suffered from a series of wrongful prosecutions, convictions, and imprisonment, which the U.S. 5th Circuit affirmed.

Kerry Cook filed a §1983 claim, alleging official misconduct via a series of wrongful prosecutions, convictions, and imprisonment. However, the district court, citing Heck v. Humphrey (512 U.S. 477 (1986)), found that a malicious prosecution §1983 claim does not accrue until his conviction is formally terminated in his favor, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacates his conviction, and the State dismisses the indictment against him. The district court dismissed Cook’s suit “with prejudice to the claims being asserted again until the Heck conditions are met…” The City and officer Defendants appealed the dismissal as being without prejudice, insisting the dismissal must be with prejudice. Cook asserted the dismissal was not final, not appealable, and therefore the 5th Circuit lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

The 5th Circuit analyzed two questions: 1) whether the dismissal was with or without prejudice, and 2) whether the dismissal was final and appealable. To the first question, the 5th Circuit found that the dismissal language is taken near verbatim from non-prejudicial language recommended in Johnson v. McElveen (101 F.3d 423 (5th Cir. 1996)), when a trial court is dismissing a case under the condition that it may be reasserted if the Heck conditions are met. To the second question, the 5th Circuit held the dismissal was not final, and thus not appealable because the district court contemplated Cook satisfying the Heck conditions at a later date. The 5th Circuit contrasted this court’s Heck dismissal with other, appealable, dismissals where the issue to be determined was whether Heck was even applicable.

If you would like to read this per curiam opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Davis, Jones, and Willett.

The First Court of Appeals held employment discrimination claims cannot be brought under the TCHRA in state court where the same claims were previously dismissed in federal court.     

Quote

 

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Suran Wije v. David A. Burns and Univ. of Texas, No. 01-19-00024-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] September 3, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this employment discrimination claim, the plaintiff sued a University official and the University for discrimination after he was unable to be re-employed by the University.  The Court of Appeals held that the University retained its immunity.

The plaintiff was an employee at the University from 2000-2005.  While there he made complaints regarding IT issues to his boss.  Years after resigning from the University in 2005, the plaintiff attempted to get a new position at the University but was unsuccessful.   The plaintiff found out he had been “blacklisted.” He sued the University in federal court after receiving a right to sue letter from the EEOC.  The plaintiff alleged that he was being discriminated against by the University and that his personnel file had misinformation in it.  The federal court dismissed his claims with prejudice and so he filed his claims in state court.  The claims included TCHRA claims, a 1983 claim, fraud, defamation, and negligence claims under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The trial court granted the University’s plea to the jurisdiction and the plaintiff appealed.

The State and state agencies, like the University, retain their immunity from federal sec. 1983 claims.  Moore v. La. Bd. of Elementary & Secondary Educ., 743 F.3d 959, 963 (5th Cir. 2014).  University officials also retain immunity.  The TCHRA contains an election of remedies and disallows suits under the TCHRA if the claims involved have already been adjudicated by a different court.  Tex. Labor Code § 21.211; City of Waco v. Lopez, 259 S.W.3d 147, 155 (Tex. 2008).  The Texas Tort Claims Act claims must be negligence claims that cause injury to a person or damage to property under its narrow waiver and does not allow for intentional tort claims. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ch. 101.   The Court of Appeals held that the University’s immunity had not been waived for any of the claims because: (1) they retain immunity for sec. 1983 claims; (2) his TCHRA claims were barred because they had already been brought to another court; and (3) neither his negligence or intentional tort claims met the requirements of the Texas Tort Claims Act.

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

U.S. 5th Circuit holds no deliberate indifference alleged requiring jailers to protect inmate from attack by another inmate

Quote

Torres v. Livingston, 19-40470, 2020 WL 4933063 (5th  Cir. Aug. 24, 2020).

This is an appeal from a dismissal of an inmate’s § 1983 claims which the U.S. 5th Circuit affirmed.

Christopher Torres worked as an inmate janitor in an administrative segregation unit.  While working, another innate requested an officer to pick up photos that were on the floor just outside his cell. The officer, as a matter of routine in fulfilling inmate requests, directed Torres to go ahead and pick up the photos. While bending over to pick up the photos, the inmate stabbed Torres in his neck. Torres sued a correctional officer and several staff members and administrators per 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly failing to protect him from an inmate attack.

To hold an officer liable under the Eighth Amendment it mush be shown that the officer acted with deliberate indifference to the inmate’s health or safety. The U.S. Fifth Circuit found that Torres did not offer any facts suggesting the jailor knew of and disregarded a substantial risk to his health and safety. As a result, Torres failed to state § 1983 claim. Additionally, Torres’s failure to allege facts amounting to a constitutional violation for a failure to train or supervise.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Justices Smith, Willett and Duncan.  Opinion by Justice Smith.

The Third Court of Appeals held that no implied authority exists for actions of a state agency without a showing that the implied authority is required to effectively perform a statutorily expressed responsibility.   

Quote

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell, et al. v. S.O., et al., No. 03-19-00131-CV (Tex. App.—Austin September 4, 2020).

In this ultra virus University case, the plaintiff sued University officials for exceeding their authority in attempting to revoke her Ph.D after she had already graduated from the University.    The Court of Appeals held that the University did exceed its authority in attempting to revoke her earned degree because they do not have specific statutory authority to revoke degrees and the authority to revoke degrees is not essential to its statutory authority to award degrees.

The plaintiff was awarded a Ph.D in 2008.  In 2012, the University conducted an investigation and attempted to revoke her Ph.D for academic misconduct in 2014.  The plaintiff sued the University stating that her due process rights were violated by the University’s procedure.  The University undid its revocation and instituted a different procedure to investigate the possibility of revoking the plaintiff’s degree again.  In response to the University’s renewed efforts, the plaintiff sued the University in this suit as an ultra vires claim.  The University defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing they had the authority to revoke the degree because its rules allowed it and because the authority to revoke degrees is implied with the authority to award degrees.  This case has been through the appellate process once on the issue of ripeness.  The appellate court held that her complaint was ripe and the case was sent back to the trial court.  Upon return, the trial court granted-in-part and denied-in-part the plea.  In this appeal, the issue is whether the University has the authority to revoke degrees, the basis of the plaintiff’s ultra vires claim.

An ultra vires claim waives immunity if the plaintiff can show that an official’s conduct exceeded their granted authority.  Houston Belt & Terminal Ry. Co. v. City of Houston, 487 S.W.3d 154, 158 (Tex. 2016).  State agencies, like the University, only have the authority that they are given by statute and may only adopt rules pursuant to their statutory authority.  Pruett v. Harris Cnty. Bail Bond Bd., 249 S.W.3d 447, 452 (Tex. 2008).  State law gives a University the authority to “award” a degree, but not to revoke one.  Tex. Educ. Code § 65.31(b).  Authority can be implied if the agency needs the power in order to allow the agency to effectively carry out the functions necessary for its expressed authority.  Tex. Mun. Power Agency v. Pub. Util. Comm’n, 253 S.W.3d 184, 192-93 (Tex. 2007).   The Court of Appeals held that the authority to award degrees does not require the authority to revoked degrees, and therefore revoking a degree after a student has earned it and graduated is an ultra vires act waiving sovereign immunity.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of attorney’s fees from the plaintiff.  Even though the plaintiff prevailed, the legal questions were ones that needed to be decided and an appellate court gives a trial court wide discretion in determining attorney’s fees so long there is no abuse of discretion.

Justice Kelly issued a concurring and dissenting opinion stating that the University does have the authority to revoke a student’s degree, but that the claims are not ripe.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Kelly. Opinion by Justice Thomas Baker.  Concurring/dissenting opinion by Justice Kelly can be found here.