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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Texas Supreme Court holds ordinance initiative ballot language is misleading because it did not account for exceptions

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In Re: Linda Durnin, et. al, 21-0170 (Tex. March 2, 2021)

This is an original proceeding mandamus action where the Texas Supreme Court held petitioners were entitled to mandamus to make sure the City Council’s ballot language properly complied with the intent of the citizen-initiated petition to adopt an ordinance.

Petitioners brought an initiative petition requiring the City Council place on the ballot for the May 2021 election an ordinance regarding camping in public places (including sidewalks) and aggressive solicitation for money. The City Council called the election for the initiative.  When the Council approved the ballot language, it stated the ordinance creates a criminal offense and penalty for anyone sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors.  Petitioners sued for mandamus asserting, among other things, that the ballot language inaccurately reflects the ordinance to be voted upon.

The Texas Supreme Court held the wording of the proposed ordinance does not apply to just anyone. The ordinance contains certain exceptions for common uses of the sidewalk. Thus, only a subset of those who engage in the covered behavior—not just anyone—can be penalized under the ordinance. In this regard, the word “anyone” in the Council’s ballot language threatens to “mislead the voters” by misrepresenting the measure’s character and purpose or its chief features. The court issued mandamus to strike the word “anyone” for two locations in the ballot. However, the Court disagreed with the Petitioners noting that they did not meet the burden necessary for an emergency mandamus action to hold the City Council lacked the ability to select the language. The proposition correctly states that the ordinance creates criminal offenses and penalties. The Court held “Relators would prefer that this aspect of the ordinance appear less prominently in the proposition, but it is not [the court’s] job to micromanage the sentence structure of ballot propositions. [It’s] job is to ensure voters are not misled…”  The only defect the Court believed needed adjusting was the word “anyone” as it does not account for exceptions.

The dissent agreed the language was misleading, but would not have reached that issue. It believed the Petitioners clearly established the charter prevents the City Council from deciding the ballot language.  Instead, the City should be required to cite the caption language contained in the proposed ordinance.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Blacklock delivered the opinion of the court. Justice Boyd dissented (found here)  and was joined by Justice Devine and Justice Busby.

Dallas Court of Appeals holds Plaintiffs failed to challenge all grounds on which dismissal could have been granted; therefore dismissal is affirmed

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Chris Carter and Karen Pieroni v. Dallas City Plan Commission and City of Dallas, 05-20-00190-CV, (Tex. App – Dallas, March 1, 2021)

This is a Confederate monument case where the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

After a Confederate monument was originally scheduled for removal from a City cemetery, Plaintiffs brought suit to prevent its destruction. Through asserted the City violated its own codes, violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, the Texas Monument Protection Act and a few others. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted, except to claims under the Texas Antiquities Act. Plaintiffs appealed after non-suiting the remaining claim.

No judgment may be reversed on appeal unless the error complained of probably caused rendition of an improper judgment. TEX. R. APP. P. 44.1(a)(1). To appeal, an appellant must challenge each independent ground asserted in the plea. The City asserted three grounds in its plea to the jurisdiction: standing, governmental immunity, and the political question doctrine. The political question doctrine is not necessarily a component of or necessarily entwined with either of the other two grounds. Plaintiffs challenged standing and immunity, but not the political question doctrine. Because the Plaintiffs did not challenge each independent, standalone ground on which the dismissal of their claims could properly have been based, the court affirmed the granting of the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Myers, Osborne, and Carlyle. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Carlyle. Docket page with attorney information found here.

13th Court of Appeals holds remainder of employment contract was consequential damages, not amounts due and owed, therefore no waiver of immunity exists for breach

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Edinburg Housing Authority, Dr. Martin Castillo, Gabriel Salinas, Simon Garza, Marissa Chavana, and Juan Guzman v. Rodolfo Ramirez, 13-19-00269-CV, (Tex. App – Corpus Christi Feb. 25, 2021)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a housing authority’s motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds in an employment dispute. The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals reversed the denial and dismissed the case.

Ramirez signed a three-year employment contract with the Housing Authority to be its Executive Director and was extended for another three years, to end in 2021. However, in 2018 the board of the housing authority terminated Ramirez. Ramirez sued the Authority as well as individual commissioners (hereinafter “Authority Defendants”) for breach of contract, as well as constitutional due course of law, equal protection, and declaratory judgment relief. The Authority Defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 91a citing a lack of jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion and the Authority Defendants appealed.

The court first decided that, contrary to the individual commissioner’s assertion, the court did have interlocutory jurisdiction to hear the appeal involving them individually as well as in their official capacities. Section 51.014(a)(5) of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code allows interlocutory appeal for the denial of a motion for summary judgment based on an individual’s immunity.  While the underlying motion was a motion to dismiss as opposed to an MSJ, the court determined they are treated the same for purposes of §51.014(a)(5). Next, suits brought pursuant to a Texas constitutional provision are limited to equitable relief and do not allow a claim for monetary damage.  This applies to the entity as well as individual employees and officials. Ramirez’s constitutional claims should have been dismissed because they sought only the recovery of monetary damages. Next, to trigger the waiver of immunity for contract claims under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 271.152, a plaintiff must claim damages within the limitations of the chapter, i.e. balances due and owed, but not paid. Consequential damages are specifically excluded. Ramirez does not claim that the Housing Authority and its Commissioners failed to pay him for work he completed as the Housing Authority’s Executive Director. Rather, Ramirez seeks recovery of the wages he would have earned had his employment contract continued through the end of its extended term. These future wages would be considered “lost profits,” which are “consequential damages excluded from recovery.”  As a result, no jurisdiction exists as to the contract claim. The court then determined Ramirez’s constitutional claims against the commissioners, individually, cannot be brought against them as private actors. Because the individual commissioners are not the State or an entity thereof, these claims cannot stand. Further, Ramirez signed a contract with the Authority, not the individual commissioners. As a result, the commissioners cannot be individually sued for breach of contract. Finally, Ramirez had the opportunity to amend and failed to correct any defects. As a result, he is not entitled to amend.  Finally, the court determined the Authority Defendants were entitled to attorney’s fees and remanded to the trial court for such a determination.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras, and Justices Hinojosa and Silva. Reversed and remanded. Opinion by Justice Hinojosa. Docket page with attorney information found here.

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.

Beaumont Court of Appeals holds City is not liable for alleged failure to create a police report, failure to investigate, or failure to prosecute as asserted by Plaintiff

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Caryn Suzann Cain v. City of Conroe, Tex., et al., 09-19-00246-CV, 2020 WL 6929401 (Tex. App.—Beaumont Nov. 25, 2020)

 This is an interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s order granting the City’s motion to dismiss, plea to the jurisdiction, and traditional motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff, Caryn Suzann Cain, filed a pro se civil suit against the Conroe Police Department alleging police negligence in the department’s investigation and disposal of her complaints regarding disputes with her neighbors. Cain asserted the City failed to render police assistance and file an incident report after she was allegedly assaulted by her neighbor’s dog, and that the Department showed bias towards her neighbor, a state correctional officer, who allegedly continued to harass her over a period of eighteen months.  Cain later § 1983 claims against the City.  In response, the City defendants filed a motion to dismiss under §101.106(e) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, a plea to the jurisdiction, and traditional motion for summary judgment.  The trial court granted all motions.

The officers were entitled to dismissal of the tort claims under §101.106(e).  Next, under the TTCA if an injury does not arise from a city employee’s operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle, then the city is not liable for its employee’s negligence. “Arises from” requires a plaintiff to show a direct connection between the injury and the employee’s vehicle operation or use.  Simply using a patrol vehicle’s radio is not actionable. Similarly, the court noted mere involvement of tangible personal property in an injury does not, by itself, waive immunity.  The tangible personal property must do more than create the condition that makes the injury possible. Here, no tangible personal property was negligently used to result in any of the alleged injuries. Next, to allege a valid constitutional rights violation under § 1983 against the City, Cain was required to assert a deprivation was caused by a policy, custom, or practice of the City. A municipality is not liable under § 1983 for the unconstitutional acts of its non-policymaking employees.  The Court determined Cain did not allege sufficient facts showing an unconstitutional policy or custom was being implemented. Finally, the Due Process Clause does not require the State to protect life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors, and it generally confers no affirmative right to government aid.  Thus, Cain’s allegation that the City failed to protect her against her neighbor did not constitute a due process violation.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consisted of Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justices Hollis Horton and Leanne Johnson.  Opinion by Chief Justice McKeithen.  Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

 

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.