Attorney fees awards in favor of a defendant are not an abuse of discretion where the plaintiff does not make a prima facie case of his claims.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Carl Frederick Rickert, III v. Kayla S. Meade and City of Bonham, 06-02-00002-CV (Tex. App.—Texarkana, July 30) (mem. op.).

In this § 1983 case on an attorney fees award, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of attorney fees in favor of the defendant City because the plaintiff did not establish even a prima facie case.

The plaintiff was terminated from his City employment after a co-worker filed a sexual harassment claim against him based on an allegedly consensual relationship.  The Texas Workforce Commission determined that the sexual harassment claim against the plaintiff was baseless.  The plaintiff sued the City under § 1983 asserting entitlement to a name clearing hearing.  The trial court dismissed the claim for lack of evidence and awarded attorney’s fees to the City.  The plaintiff appealed the attorney fee award.

In order for an attorney fee award to be upheld against a plaintiff in favor of a defendant, it has to be shown that “the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation even though not brought in subjective bad faith.”  Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980) (per curiam) (quoting Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421).  The plaintiff’s action was based on the lack of a name clearing hearing after his termination.  A terminated individual has the right to a name clearing hearing where the employee’s “good name, reputation, honor, or integrity” is questioned during a termination.  Bledsoe v. City of Horn Lake, Miss., 449 F.3d 650, 653 (5th Cir. 2006) In this case, the plaintiff provided no evidence that he was denied a name clearing hearing, or that he even requested one. Evidence was presented that he was provided a chance to be heard at a hearing prior to termination.  The Court of Appeals held this lack of evidence was sufficient to show that the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Morriss and Justices Burgess and Stevens.  Opinion by Ralph K. Burgess.

U.S. 5th Circuit holds a board reprimand against an elected official for speech on a matter of public concern is an actionable First Amendment claim under § 1983.

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Wilson v. Houston Community College System, 19-20237 (U.S. 5th Cir. April 7, 2020)

This is a First Amendment/§1983 case where a former member of the board of trustees claimed the College censured him in violation of his First Amendment Rights. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the plaintiff’s First Amendment claims but sustained the dismissal of his declaratory and injunction claim.

Houston Community College System (“HCC”) is a public college system in the Houston area. HCC is controlled by a board of nine publicly elected trustees, one of whom was Wilson. Wilson publicly chastised HCC on various occasions for its policy decisions and even filed multiple state court lawsuits including one to prohibit videoconferencing votes as being illegal under the bylaws and in excluding him from meetings. The Board of Trustees held a hearing and issued a censure resolution which  chastised Wilson for acting in a manner “not consistent with the best interests of the College or the Board, and in violation of the Board Bylaws Code of Conduct.” The censure, the Board emphasized, was the “highest level of sanction available,” as Wilson was elected and could not be removed. Once censured, Wilson brought §1983 claims under the First Amendment, including declaratory and injunctive relief. The trial court granted HCC’s motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of jurisdiction due to a non-distinct injury. In August 2019, Wilson resigned. He was not re-elected.

In the context of free speech, “the governmental action need not have a direct effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights . . . [but] must have caused or must threaten to cause a direct injury to the plaintiffs.” The trial court held the censure did not forbid Wilson from performing his official duties or speaking publicly. Disagreeing with the trial court, the 5th Circuit held  Wilson’s allegation of retaliatory censure is enough to establish an injury in fact.  Further, a free speech violation giving rise to a reputational injury is an injury in fact and properly states First Amendment standing. However, Wilson’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief regarding the application of the Board’s censure and Code of Conduct are moot given they are no longer live controversies.

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

Fort Worth Court of Appeals analyzes the law-of-the-case doctrine and determines private property owners did not establish claims against a city regarding fee simple land ownership

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City of Mansfield, et al., v Saverings, et al, 02-19-00174-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, July 16, 2020)

In this lengthy opinion, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds certain private property owners did not establish a right to declaratory relief regarding fee-simple ownership of lots over which the City exercised some regulatory control, asserting they were public paths.

A developer filed a final plat in Tarrant County, creating a planned housing development—The Arbors of Creekwood – Gated Community (the Development) located in the City, but which had two HOAs. An amended plat divided the lots into R1 and R2 lots. All R2 lots were in the floodplain, which was governed by City ordinance. The developer created a lake and connected jogging paths ending at the lake. The developer testified the paths were for public use.  The boundary line for the R2 lots abutting the lake was to the north of the lake; thus, the lake was not included within the boundaries of these R2 lots. The developer executed a declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (the Declaration) for the Development and filed them in Tarrant County. The Declaration stated the HOAs owned fee-simple title to private streets in the Development and “common properties” which had a complicated definition. In 1997, the Arbors HOA forfeited its right to do business and became a terminated entity. The surviving HOA asserted the Arbors HOA property lots (R2) automatically transferred to it. In January 2012, the City began planning for a “possible future trail connection” to the jogging path. Construction on the bridge began in 2013 and opened on January 25, 2014. Some owners of R1 lots noticed an increase in people using the jogging path and trespassing on the R1 lots. The R1 owners sued seeking a declaration they owned the R2 lots as common properties, and seeking to quiet title The Court of Appeals issued an interlocutory opinion in review of a temporary injunction noting the R2 lots were included in the definition of “common properties.” The R1 Owners also raised claims against the City Defendants for trespass and inverse condemnation.  The City Defendants filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment, including arguments that the facts and law had substantially changed since the interlocutory order. They argued the R1 owners did not have a right to possess the R2 lots (which were originally owned by the defunct HOA) and that they did not have a private right to enforce a city ordinance on floodplain development. The trial court denied the City Defendants’ motions and granted the partial summary judgment of the R1 owners. The City Defendants appealed.

The court first went through a detailed analysis of the evidence submitted, objections to the evidence, and what constituted judicial admissions. The court held the law-of-the-case doctrine only applied to claims fully litigated and determined in a prior interlocutory appeal; it did not apply to claims that have not been fully litigated. The law-of-the-case doctrine is flexible and directs the exercise of court discretion in the interest of consistency but does not limit its power.  The interlocutory opinion (which was a complicating obstacle) did not address the R1 Owners’ UDJA claim regarding title to the R2 lots, only a probable right of relief for trespass claims based on an undeveloped record. The court noted they were substantially different arguments, issues, law, and review standards. [Comment: For a good analysis of the doctrine and its boundaries, read this section of the case.]  The City argued the R2 lots owned by the defunct HOA could be distributed only under the terms of the articles of incorporation and could not pass to the live HOA automatically. The court agreed with the City that the R1 owners did not establish a proper conveyance under the articles.

Next the court turned to the floodplain ordinance, where the R1 owners asserted the City failed to follow its own ordinance by obtaining studies before constructing structures in the floodplain connecting the jogging paths. The City Defendants’ argument no private cause of action to enforce the ordinance exists is one of standing. The R1 Owners did not challenge the validity of the ordinance but rather asserted that they wanted a construction of the ordinance and enforcement of it against the City Defendants. The R1 Owners did not have a right to enforce the ordinance through a UDJA claim, which only waives immunity for ordinance invalidation.  Alternatively, under the record, the R1 owners did not establish the City violated the ordinance. The City Defendants proffered summary-judgment evidence raising a fact issue on their substantial compliance.  Finally, since the court held the R1 owners could not bring a UDJA claim, the attorney’s fee award was reversed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justices Gabriel and Kerr.  Opinion by Justice Gabriel.

BOA appeal deadline of 10 days applies to Open Meetings, declaratory judgment, and as-applied constitutional claims, holds Dallas Court of Appeals

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Tejas Motel, LLC v City of Mesquite, by and through its Board of Adjustment, 05-19-00667-CV (Tex. Civ. App. – Dallas, June 4, 2020).

This is an appeal from a Board of Adjustment decision regarding non-conforming status in which the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

The City of Mesquite had two zoning categories of lodging facilities within the City and placed conditions on their uses — Limited Services and General Services, neither of which Tejas Motel (“Tejas”) qualified under. Although the Tejas Motel had been nonconforming since 1997, the City did not specifically address that nonconformance until 2018, when the City passed an ordinance changing the manner in which the City’s Board of Adjustment could amortize nonconforming properties. The BOA held public hearings and scheduled a date for all non-conforming properties to become compliant, including Tejas. The City introduced evidence that the nonconforming use would adversely affect nearby properties.  Tejas then announced an agreement for a May 1, 2019 compliance date and the BOA approved that as a compliance date. Tejas, however, denied receiving a written copy after the BOA decision, which the BOA insists was mailed. Tejas then sued the BOA to invalidate the compliance date. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.

The requirement that one timely file a petition for writ of certiorari to challenge a zoning board decision is part of an administrative remedy, which is provided by the Texas Local Government Code and must be exhausted before board decisions may be challenged in court. Under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §211.011 Tejas had ten days from the date the decision was filed to challenge the decision. The Board’s July 31 written “Decision and Order” triggered the statutory deadline. Tejas did not file by the deadline, thereby precluding the court from obtaining jurisdiction. This included challenges brought under the Texas Open Meetings Act, declaratory judgment claim and as-applied constitutional challenges.  Tejas also failed to state any viable federal claims. Although a city is not immune from federal constitutional claims, a trial court may grant a plea to the jurisdiction if a constitutional claim is not viable. Tejas had no constitutionally protected, vested due process interest in continuing to use the property in violation of the city’s ordinances, especially when it acquired the property knowing the restrictions.  As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Molberg, Carlyle, and Evans.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Carlyle.

U.S. 5th Circuit holds statute of limitations was not jurisdictional, but trial judge should have reviewed matters raised at pretrial hearing under MSJ standards and dismissed the claims

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Bradley v. Sheriff’s Department St. Landry Parish, 18-30600, (US 5th Cir – May 7, 2020)

This is a §1983/malicious prosecution case where the U.S. 5th Circuit dismissed a defendant’s claims against the law enforcement and related officials who prosecuted him.

Bradley was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery.  He was arrested and housed in the St. Landry Parish Jail, then released that same day on bond.  After being released, he was detained in another jurisdiction under an unrelated offense. While under this second incarceration, he was transported back to the  St. Landry facility for one night so he could attend a hearing related to the conspiracy charge. He was later tried by a jury and acquitted four years later. Bradley sued the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department and related officers alleging malicious prosecution, wrongful arrest and wrongful detention. The magistrate, sitting by consent, found he lacked jurisdiction to hear the civil suit and dismissed the claims based on the statute of limitations.

The U.S. 5th Circuit held the magistrate judge erred in concluding that, if Bradley’s § 1983 claims were barred by limitations, subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims was lacking. Section 1983 provides a federal cause of action but does not contain an express limitations period. The Supreme Court directs trial courts to look to state law personal injury claims for the limitations.  The court held that statutes of limitations of this nature are procedural, not jurisdictional.  However, while the magistrate may have had jurisdiction, the defendants raised the limitations defense in their pretrial order submission.  As a result, prior to going to trial, it was required for the trial judge to evaluate the claims under a summary judgment standard (noting the magistrate gave the parties notice and an opportunity to respond to his inquiry on limitations).  When a cause of action under § 1983 accrues is a question of federal law. For a false imprisonment claim, the accrual date begins when the imprisonment ceases. In Bradley’s case, the day as his arrest is the accrual date. Bradley’s wrongful arrest claim is barred by limitations, even if he contends that damages flowed from that false arrest until he was found not guilty.  Bradley’s brief does not cite decisions regarding limitations for post-process pretrial detention claims. As a result, the wrongful detention claims also were filed outside the limitations’ period. Since Bradley points to no concealment of fact, no tolling of the limitations applies. Suits brought under § 1983 require the deprivation of a right guaranteed under the United States Constitution.  The magistrate held that “[t]here is no constitutional right to be free from malicious prosecution,” and therefore Bradley “ha[d] no such federal claim.”  The court recognized that a malicious prosecution claim could be viable if it is linked to a specific constitutional right. However, Bradley does not articulate any such right or any link. Simply asserting he has a constitutional right to be free of malicious prosecution under the 5th and 14th Amendments are all conclusory assertions devoid of any specifics. Such is insufficient to establish a claim. Further, Bradley inadequately briefed his “malicious prosecution” claim.  In essence, the 5th Circuit held the trial court had jurisdiction but should have looked at the claims under a summary judgment standard, in which case, all federal claims would be dismissed.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Owen, Justices Clement and Ho.

Eastland Court of Appeals holds conclusory statements in pleadings insufficient to plead jurisdiction – facts are needed to establish City had intent to commit a taking

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City of Albany v. Diana Christine Blue and Elva Rae Sanders, 11-18-00051-CV, (Tex. App – Eastland, April 2, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a nuisance and inverse condemnation case where the Eastland court of appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.  It then remanded to allow the Plaintiffs the ability to replead.

The City began construction of a drainage and improvement project for the city-owned golf course next to property owned by the Plaintiffs.  The Plaintiffs assert the construction altered surface water flow and drainage resulting in the flooding of their property. They sued and the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed.

The City only challenged the sufficiency of the Plaintiffs’ pleadings and did not submit any evidence contrary to the alleged facts. The City asserts that Appellees failed to allege facts that show an intentional act of the City.  However,  if the City knows that specific damage is substantially certain to result from its conduct, then takings liability may arise even when the government did not particularly desire the property to be damaged. The Plaintiffs merely allege that “[Appellant] knew that its actions would cause identifiable harm, or that specific property damage was and is substantially certain to occur.” However, conclusory statements in a pleading are insufficient to establish jurisdiction.  As a result, the Plaintiffs did not sufficiently plead an inverse condemnation claim. Likewise, they failed to allege the required intent needed to establish a nuisance claim against the City under the Texas Constitution. Again, they provide mere conclusory statements.  However, the Plaintiffs were not put on notice their pleadings were defective. The pleading defects in this case are not the type that can never be cured. As a result, the case is remanded to give the Plaintiffs the opportunity to cure the defects.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey,  Senior Justice Wright, and Justice Stretcher. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Stretcher. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Eastland Court of Appeals holds violation of internal policies does not automatically equate to constitutional violation

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John Doe v. University of North Texas Health Science Center, et. al., 02-19-00321-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, April 2, 2020)

This is a due process/due course of law case involving enrollment in medical school where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the University’s plea to the jurisdiction.

“John Doe” was enrolled in medical school when he took a leave of absence after being questioned about failing to submit the paperwork for his fourth-year rotation. Doe asserts the University was required to reenroll him the following year as part of a leave-of-absence agreement. The University considered him dismissed from the program. When the University did not reenroll him, he sued, pro se.   Doe asserted he was entitled to some form of hearing and opportunity to explain matters before the University decided not to reenroll him. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. Doe appealed.

Since this is an academic setting, certain deference is given to school administrators, especially when it comes to professional judgment calls. What process is due depends on the circumstances and is a flexible standard. However, the standard is set by the constitution, not by the institution’s internal policies. Simply because an institution violates one of its own procedural rules or even a perceived agreement outside of the rules does not automatically equate to a constitutional violation. After reviewing the record, the court held he was given the proper level of constitutionally required notice and opportunity to respond. As a result, the plea was properly granted.

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

 

13th Court of Appeals holds statute of limitations properly raised in plea to the jurisdiction and “damage” to real property is limited to two-year SOL

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Danis Tucker and Beverly Tucker v. City of Corpus Christi, Texas, 13-18-00328-CV, (Tex. App – Corpus Christi, Feb. 27, 2020)

This is a takings claim where the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction involving junked vehicles v antique vehicles.

A City municipal court judge ordered that four vehicles located on the Tuckers’ residential property be seized and disposed of pursuant to the City’s junked vehicles ordinance.  The Tuckers sued claiming a taking under the Texas Constitution. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, based in part on a statute of limitations defense,  which was granted.  The Tuckers appealed.

The court first addressed whether the statute of limitations is now considered a jurisdictional defense (as opposed to an affirmative defense) which could be raised in a plea. Adopting reasoning from other districts, the court held Tex. Gov’t Code §311.034 states compliance with statutory prerequisites to suit are jurisdictional. A statute of limitations is a prerequisite to suit and is therefore jurisdictional when dealing with a governmental entity. It, therefore, can be raised in a plea. Under § 16.003 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, a takings claim based on a physical seizure of “personal property” is governed by a two-year limitation, while a takings claim based on the actual physical seizure of real property is a ten-year period (referencing adverse possession). However, a takings claim based on “damage” to real property is governed by the two-year limitations period. The statute of limitations begins to run when a claim accrues, which occurred more than four years before the Tuckers brought suit. As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Benavides, Hinojosa, and Tijerina. Affirmed. Opinion by Justice Hinojosa. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

14th Court of Appeals reverses jury award in excessive force case against County, but upholds portion against deputy

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Harris County, et al, v Coats, et.al, 14-17-00732-CV, (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.], February 6, 2020)

This is a § 1983/wrongful death case where the 14th Court of Appeals reversed in part a jury award against the County and its deputy. [Comment: this is a 49-page opinion].

Jamail and his girlfriend were using cocaine when Jamail felt ill.  Jamail exited through a window and called 9-1-1 from a public phone. However, when the EMTs arrived, Jamail ran from the area to a nearby Burger King. Deputy Saintes arrived after a disturbance call, handcuffed Jamail and walked him to the ambulance. When they neared the ambulance, Jamail became combative and attempted to run. Multiple deputies arrived and assisted Saints to subdue Jamail. EMTs gave Jamail an injection of a sedative. Jamail was seen breathing normally. The parties dispute whether Deputy Vailes’ boot was on Jamail’s nose and mouth at the time.  However, after a short while, he could not be roused. He was transported to a nearby hospital where he died. The family sued. Multiple individuals and parties settled out or were dismissed based on immunity.  A jury trial was held against the County and Deputy Vailes. The jury found for Jamail’s family. The County and Deputy Vailes appealed.

The court first determined no policy, custom, or practice of the County existed to establish § 1983 liability on the entity. Normally, single incidents cannot create a policy, custom, or practice. As far as constable’s go, the fact a constable’s jurisdictional reach is throughout the county does not support the trial court’s conclusion that the Precinct Four Constable is a law enforcement final policymaker for Harris County. Jamail’s burden was to identify a final policymaker who speaks on law enforcement matters for the local government unit at issue—Harris County, not simply a precinct.  As to Deputy Vailes, the court held some evidence existed that Deputy Vailes placed his boot on Jamail’s face when he was already handcuffed. The law was sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand (as did those who testified) that stepping on the nose and mouth of someone who is lying on the ground, likely sedated, handcuffed, and unresponsive, with enough force that the person’s neck touches the ground, would constitute an excessive-force violation. Therefore, Vailes was not entitled to qualified immunity on that claim. However, the evidence was insufficient Vailes’ actions caused Jamail’s death.  Deputy Vailes argues that Jamail died because of acute cocaine toxicity, as the medical examiner concluded following Jamail’s autopsy. In cases alleging medical injury or death, expert testimony regarding causation is generally the norm and Jamail’s family did not produce any regarding the cause of death.  The fact Vailes’ boot was placed on Jamail, when he was already non-responsive is insufficient to justify the jury award against Vailes as to Jamail’s death. Because of the alterations to the judgment, the court remanded for a reconsideration of the attorney fee award.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Christopher Justice Wise, and Justice Jewel. Opinion by Justice Jewel.

14th Court of Appeals holds flooded property owners’ claims lack jurisdiction in district court

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San Jacinto River Authority v. Reba Ogletree, et al., 14-18-00043-CV, (Tex App – Hou [14th dist.], Jan 28, 2020)

In this inverse condemnation case the Fourteenth Court of Appeals dismissed the homeowner’s claims for lack of jurisdiction.

Homeowners, whose properties allegedly flooded when water was released from Lake Conroe in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, sued the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) and the Texas Water Development Board in a Harris County district court. SJRA filed a plea to the jurisdiction and the TWB filed a Rule 91a motion. The trial court denied the plea but granted TWB’s motion. SJRA and the Homeowners appealed.

SJRA and the Texas Water Board contend on appeal that Texas Government Code section 25.1032(c) imbues the county civil courts at law with exclusive jurisdiction over all inverse condemnation claims filed in Harris County. Generally, Texas district courts and county courts at law have concurrent jurisdiction in eminent-domain cases, but section 25.1032(c) creates an exception for certain cases filed in Harris County.  Inverse condemnation claims and statutory condemnation claims are distinct categories of eminent-domain proceedings. The homeowners also raised substantive and procedural due process claims. The court concluded that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the purported substantive and procedural due process claims because, as pled, they are necessarily dependent upon the viability of the inverse-condemnation claims over which the district court lacks jurisdiction.  When the homeowners requested the ability to amend their petitions, the court noted it lacked authority to lift the legislatively mandated stay in section 51.014(b) [interlocutory appeal provision], even for a limited purpose. Further, in this situation, the homeowners’ live pleading affirmatively negates the district court’s jurisdiction; hence, the homeowners are not entitled to a remand to plead new claims.  All of the homeowner’s claims should have been dismissed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost, and Justices Jewell and Bourliot. Opinion by Justice Bourliot. Docket page with attorney information found here.

U.S. Supreme Court remands statutory campaign limit case noting court of appeals upheld it under the wrong analysis

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Thompson v. Hebdon, 140 S. Ct. 348 (2019)

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court held the court of appeals improperly analyzed Alaska’s statute limiting political contributions as constitutional.

Alaska law limits the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate for political office, or to an election-oriented group other than a political party, to $500 per year. Petitioners challenged the limit as an unconstitutional restriction on their First Amendment rights. The trial court and court of appeals upheld the limit.

The Ninth Circuit upheld the law noting the evidence necessary to justify a legitimate state interest is low: the perceived threat must be merely more than “mere conjecture” and “not . . . illusory.”  Under this analysis, the circuit court held the limit was narrowly tailored and allowed effective campaigning. However, such an analysis ignored the Supreme Court’s opinion in Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U. S. 230 (2006).  “[C]ontribution limits that are too low can . . . harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.” It also ignored several “danger signs” listed in Randall such as lower comparable limits in other states, a failure to adjust for inflation over time (Alaska’s has been the same for 23 years), and the application to different offices. The State failed to provide “any special justification that might warrant a contribution limit so low.”   As a result, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s opinion and remanded for consideration consistent with its opinion.  Justice Ginsburg wrote separately to emphasize that while remand is proper, Alaska has the second smallest legislature in the country and derives 90% of its budget from the oil and gas industry. As a result, the justifications for such a low limit must be analyzed consistent with Alaska’s comparable place in the country.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per curiam opinion.

Supervisor entitled to qualified immunity as to one suspended employees 1st Amendment claim but not the other

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Benfield v. Magee, 18-30932, (U.S. 5th Cir. December 17, 2019)

This is a First Amendment in employment action where the U.S. 5th Circuit reversed the denial of the individual supervisor’s qualified immunity defense and dismissed the claims as to one employee, but not the other.

Warren and Benfield worked in Louisiana as paramedics for the Desoto Parish Emergency Medical Services. Louisiana paramedics must complete annual recertification training, which required the approval of the medical director. Warren asserts he suggested changes to the procedures manual which would prevent Magee, their supervisor, from electronically signing in lieu of the medical director. Warren asserts afterward Magee harassed him (including criticizing Warren’s religious beliefs, denying him a promotion, accusing him of inappropriate relationships.)  When a new co-medical director inquired into the Plaintiff’s recertification, they blamed Magee for telling them to electronically falsify the records. Magee suspended Warren and Benfield for falsification.   Warren and Benfield sued Magee directly, claiming that he suspended them for exercising their First Amendment free-speech and free-association rights.  The trial court denied Magee’s assertion of qualified immunity and he appealed.

Warren’s letter of changes to the procedure’s manual occurred 19 months prior to his suspension. And while a plaintiff can establish a causal connection with other inferences, Warren’s allegations do virtually nothing to establish a chronology or relationship. He states that this harassment occurred sometime after the June 2015 letter, yet provides no further specificity.  Warran would be unable to overcome the qualified immunity defense without stating with specificity when he was harassed.  As a result, his assertions are insufficient to establish a causal connection and such claims are dismissed. However, Magee made no substantive argument for dismissing Benfield’s free-speech claim, believing Benfield raised only a freedom of association claim. As a result, the denial was proper as to Benfield.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Stewart, Clement and Ho.  Opinion by Justice Clement. The attorney listed for Magee is Edwin H. Byrd.  The attorney listed for Warren and Benfield is Bryce J. Denny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Property owner did not allege viable constitutional claim after County granted neighbor development permit

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Stephen Sakonchick II v. Travis County, 03-19-00323-CV (Tex. App. – Austin Oct. 30, 2019).

This is a constitutional challenge to a construction permit where the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the County’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Sakonchick owned a home on in a neighborhood known as Bee Creek Hills, in Travis County and the City of Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (“ETJ”). Bee Creek’s only means of vehicular ingress and egress is along Canon Wren Drive.  The Overlook is a real estate development featuring a four-story mixed-use office building on the corner of Bee Cave Road and Canon Wren Drive. The Overlook’s owners applied for a basic development permit to construct a parking garage and a second driveway, which was granted. Prior to it being granted, Sakonchick began calling Travis County to voice his objections. Unhappy that Travis County failed to address his concerns before issuing the permit, Sakonchick sued Travis County and The Overlook’s owners pleading various theories and seeking to enjoin the construction of the garage.  Essentially, Sakonchick claims Travis County denied him due process when it issued the basic development permit without first affording him notice or hearing to object. Travis County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the district court sustained after an evidentiary hearing.

As an ostensible property interest, Sakonchick alleges an “ownership of an appurtenant easement” in “the Canon Wren Drive right of way.” But a vested property right is “more than a unilateral expectation” or an “abstract need or desire” on the part of the individual asserting the right. Instead, a vested property right exists when its claimant has “a legitimate claim of entitlement” to the right asserted. He and his neighbors do not, however, have an exclusive right to use Canon Wren Drive to access the neighborhood without encountering traffic or any other inconvenience typically associated with suburban life. Sakonchick did not produce any evidence the proposed parking garage and driveway will jeopardize his ability to access the real property he owns in Bee Creek. Nor has he alleged or produced evidence that the proposed structures will encroach on private property or restrict use of the residential real estate in the Bee Creek neighborhood.  As a result, he has not pled a viable constitutional theory against the County. Further, the record affirmatively negates the existence of jurisdiction over Sakonchick’s claim against Travis County, so Sakonchick is not entitled to replead.  However, the court did modify the dismissal noting it was dismissed “without prejudice” as a dismissal with prejudice constitutes adjudication on the merits and operates as if the case had been fully tried and decided.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Rose, Justices Kelly and Smith.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Smith. Sakonchick appeared pro se. the attorneys listed for Travis County are Mr. Brian P. Casey, Mr. Patrick M. Kelly, and Ms. Cynthia Wilson Veidt.

Taxpayer lacked standing to challenge Houston drainage fee ordinance despite charter election invalidity

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Elizabeth C. Perez v. Sylvester Turner, et al., 01-16-00985-CV (Tex. App. – Hous. [1st Dist], Oct. 15, 2019)

This is a long standing/multi-opinion dispute challenging the City of Houston’s drainage fee ordinance. Prior summaries found here and here. In this substituted opinion (for an opinion issued in August of 2018), the First District affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Voters in the City of Houston adopted a dedicated charter amendment for a “Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets.” It then adopted a regulatory ordinance. One source of funding was a charge imposed on properties directly benefitting from the drainage system. The ballot language for the charter amendment was originally held misleading and invalid. After several disputes from the subsequent ordinance occurred, Perez  brought this ultra-vires claim and sought a judgment declaring the drainage fee ordinance invalid (yet again); an injunction against the assessment, collection, and expenditure of taxes and fees pursuant to the ordinance; and reimbursement, “on behalf of herself and all other similarly situated persons or entities,” of taxes and fees assessed and collected pursuant to the ordinance and paid “under duress.”  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting Perez lacked standing because she had suffered no particularized injury separate from the public, which was granted. Perez appealed.

The prior judicial declaration that the Charter Amendment is void does not address the Drainage Fee Ordinance. Thus, to the extent that Perez’s claims are based on her allegations the prior opinions invalided the ordinance, such are misplaced. The charter amendment was only needed to shift a portion of ad valorem tax revenue from debt services and was not required for authority to pass a drainage fee ordinance. Local Government Code Chapter 552 provided independent authority for such an ordinance. Perez has pleaded that she paid “illegal” drainage fees, she has cited to no authority declaring illegal the Drainage Fee Ordinance. Further, Perez has to demonstrate she “suffered a particularized injury distinct from that suffered by the general public” by the drainage fees collected.  The municipal fees were assessed to property owners across the City. The payment of municipal fees, like the drainage fees assessed against Perez’s properties here and numerous other properties in the City, does not constitute a particularized injury. Taxpayer standing is an exception to the “particularized injury” requirement.  However, it is not enough for the plaintiff to establish that she is a taxpayer— the plaintiff “may maintain an action solely to challenge proposed illegal expenditures.” A litigant must prove that the government is actually expending money on the activity that the taxpayer challenges; merely demonstrating that tax dollars are spent on something related to the allegedly illegal conduct is not enough.  Perez asserts the fees were collected illegally.  However, she was unable to establish the City is actually making any “measurable, added expenditure” of funds on illegal, unconstitutional, or statutorily unauthorized activities. As a result, she is not entitled to taxpayer standing. The plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Keyes, Justice Lloyd and Justice Kelly. The attorneys listed for the City are Collyn A. Peddie and Patricia L. Casey.  The attorneys listed for Perez are Dylan Benjamen Russell, Andy Taylor  and Joseph O. Slovacek.