Attorney’s fees for breach of contract under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §271.153 valid only if equitable and just – denied for much smaller change order amount

Quote

Dowtech Specialty Contractors, Inc. v. City of Weinert, 11-18-00246-CV (Tex. App. – Eastland, September 25, 2020)(mem. op.).

This is a breach of contract dispute where the Eastland Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court judgment awarding Dowtech a small amount of damages, but denied the contract remainder and attorney’s fees.

The City’s water supply is a combination of well water and water obtained from the North Central Texas Municipal Water Authority (the NCTMWA). The well water needed to be treated so the City, using several grants, decided to construct a pressurized system to keep the well water separate from NCTMWA water. During the bid process, the engineer advised the bidders to adjust a line item for instrumentation to allow NCTMWA to control certain valves/parts, but also a separate control system for the City. The revised bid specifically noted that not all necessary components for a full system were specified and the contractor must provide all items needed for a functional system. Dowtech was awarded the bid, but the main difference from the losing bidder was the cost of line item. Later, the City adjusted the pumphouse and issued a change order. When Dowtech asserted it was finished, the City noted it had not installed all parts of the instrumentation system, to which Dowtech asserted the bid did not require an operational system. After Dowtech submitted a final invoice, to which the City asserted it breached the agreement and refused to pay the final invoice. Dowtech sued the City for breach of contract and sought to recover both the contract balance and the charges for the additional work.  The City counterclaimed.  After a bench trial, the trial court awarded Dowtech $2,052.50 for the pumphouse work, but that Dowtech did not complete all work required by the contract so was not entitled to the contract price. It also denied the request for attorney’s fees and interest. Dowtech appealed.

The Court of Appeals held Dowtech did not plead the affirmative defense that its performance under the contract was excused and does not argue that the issue was tried by consent. But even if it had, the evidence was legally and factually sufficient to support the trial court’s determination Dowtech failed to complete all contracted work. Further, Dowtech did not file a motion for new trial or otherwise object to the trial court’s failure to award prejudgment interest on the change order amount. Therefore, Dowtech failed to preserve this issue for appeal.  Additionally, because the suit was brought under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §271.153, attorney’s fees can only be awarded if equitable and just. The trial court had discretion to award fees and the fact both parties failed in their primary claims (with Dowtech winning only as to the much smaller change order amount), the Court of Appeals felt the record did not reflect an arbitrary or unreasonable decision by the trial judge. The judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey, Justice Stretcher, and Senior Justice Wright.  Memorandum opinion by  Chief Justice Bailey.

 

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds governmental immunity bars both suit and liability where the ‘only plausible remedy’ is invalidation of a government contract.

Quote

City of San Antonio v. Patrick Von Dohlen, et al., 04-20-00071-CV (Tex. App.—San Antonio Aug. 19, 2020)

 This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction and Rule 91a motion to dismiss filed by the City of San Antonio.

Plaintiffs Patrick Von Dohlen, Brian Greco, Kevin Jason Khattar, Michael Knuffke, and Daniel Petri sued the City of San Antonio (“City”) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  Plaintiffs alleged that the City violated Government Code Chapter 2400 by continuing to exclude Chick-fil-A from operating a restaurant in the City’s airport based on Chick-fil-A’s financial support for “certain religious organizations that oppose homosexual behavior.”  Section 2400.002 of the Texas Government Code specifically prohibits governmental entities from taking any adverse action against any person or business based on “membership in, affiliation with, contribution, donation, or other support provided to a religious organization.”  This legislation took effect on September 1, 2019, more than five months after the San Antonio City Council voted to implement an amended concession agreement that required Chick-fil-A to be replaced with a different vendor.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting governmental immunity, and a Rule 91a motion to dismiss for lack of standing, both of which the trial court denied.  The City then appealed.

The Fourth Court of Appeals determined that although a plaintiff may properly sue for declaratory and injunctive relief when the governmental entity and its officers acted without legal or statutory authority, such a suit is precluded by governmental immunity if the purpose or result is to cancel or nullify a valid contract with the entity.  In this case, the court examined the nature of the plaintiffs’ claims and held that even though the plaintiffs purportedly sought only prospective relief against the City, the only plausible remedy for their claims was nullification of the amended concession agreement.  The court agreed with the City and found that plaintiffs’ suit sought to “undo and invalidate a contract previously approved by the city council, compel the City to re-open the contract approval process, and require the City to re-award the contract to a subcontractor that will operate a Chick-fil-A restaurant in the airport.”  Furthermore, where the “only plausible remedy” for the plaintiff’s claim is invalidation of a government contract, governmental immunity bars both suit and liability.  As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consisted of Chief Justice Sandee Bryan Marion and Justices Patricia O. Alvarez and Irene Rios.  Opinion by Chief Justice Bryan Marion.  Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Austin Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff has to allege recoverable damages to waive governmental immunity for breach of contract under Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code.

Quote

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Robert Lee Fitzsimmons, Jr. v. Killeen Indep. Sch. Dist., 03-19-00535-CV (Tex. App.—Austin, August 14, 2020).

In this governmental immunity case, the Austin Court of Appeals dismissed the case against the School District because the plaintiff failed to allege recoverable damages for breach of contract (Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code).

The plaintiff was a school teacher for the School District who was given the opportunity to resign after an accusation of “viewing inappropriate materials.”  The School District and the plaintiff entered into a “Settlement and Resignation Agreement” that included nondisclosure clauses to protect both the School District and the plaintiff.  The plaintiff later lost a job opportunity based on the allegations related to his prior position.  He sued the School District for breach of contract based on the Settlement Agreement.  The School District filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that its governmental immunity was not waived.  The trial court granted the School District’s plea to the jurisdiction.

To present a claim for breach of contract that waives immunity under Texas Local Government Code Chapter 271, a plaintiff has to allege that the contract in question is a contract “stating the essential terms of the agreement for providing goods or services to the local governmental entity that is properly executed on behalf of the local governmental entity.”  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 271.151.  Also, a claim has to include an allegation of recoverable damages.  Id. § 271.153.  The plaintiff did not allege recoverable damages, thus the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim.

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

Waco Court of Appeals held that a contract for a Water District to provide water services to a customer is not a contract that waives governmental immunity under Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code.

Quote

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Mclennan County Water Control and Improvement Dist. v. Matthew and Rachel Geer, et. al, 10-17-00399-CV (Tex. App.—Waco, July 22, 2020).

In this governmental immunity case, the Waco Court of Appeals dismissed the case against the Water District because the plaintiff failed to allege a cause of action that waives governmental immunity for breach of contract (Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code) or for negligence (Texas Tort Claims Act) for actions surrounding the turning off of the plaintiffs’ water by the District.

The plaintiffs are owners of property in the Water District.  The Water District turned off the plaintiffs’ water after it was discovered that the plaintiffs had two buildings hooked up to the same meter.  The Water District also sent an employee to the plaintiffs’ property and took pictures on-site without the plaintiffs’ consent.  The plaintiffs’ sued the Water District for breach of contract for turning off their water and for trespass under the Tort Claims Act for entering their property without permission.  The trial court denied the Water District’s plea to the jurisdiction and the Water District appealed.  The Court of Appeals held that the District’s governmental immunity had not been waived and dismissed the case.

To present a claim for breach of contract that waives immunity under Texas Local Government Code Chapter 271, a plaintiff has to allege that the contract in question is a contract “stating the essential terms of the agreement for providing goods or services to the local governmental entity that is properly executed on behalf of the local governmental entity.”  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code        § 271.151.  To present a claim under the Tort Claims Act, the claim has to be based on a negligent, not intentional act.  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021. The Court of Appeals held that a contract for water service where the service is provided by the Water District to an individual is not a contract for which immunity is waived under Chapter 271 because the Water District is not contracting to receive goods or services.  The Court also held that the intentional act of entering someone’s property without permission is not a valid claim under the Tort Claims Act, because the Tort Claims Act is for negligent acts.

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

 

 

14th Court of Appeals holds 1) proof of causation necessary to maintain labor code disability discrimination & 2) plea was properly denied for breach of contract

Quote

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Norris Rogers v. Houston Community College, 14-18-00591-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.], July 14, 2020) (mem. op.).

This case contains two claims: (1) disability discrimination under Texas Labor Code Section 21.105; and (2) breach of contract under Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code. The Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part the trial court’s orders and reinstated the contract claim.

The plaintiff, and adjunct electrical instructor, argued he was terminated by the College because of a disability which prevented him from performing carpentry work or general construction work.  He also argued a unilateral employment contract was created for employment.   The College filed a no-evidence summary judgment on the disability claim and a plea to the jurisdiction on the contract claim. The trial court granted both and Rogers appealed.

To establish a prima facie case of discrimination based on disability, a plaintiff must show that the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment decision because of the disability.  Donaldson v. Tex. Dept. of Aging & Disability Srvs., 495 S.W.3d 421, 436 (Tex. App.––Houston [1st Dist.] 2016, pet. denied).  The plaintiff did not establish he was terminated because of his disabilities.  During this analysis, the Court also discussed how a lack of causation in a no-evidence summary judgment argument can be presented.   The Court affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing the disability claims against the College.

Next, to establish a contract, and waiver of immunity, under Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code the plaintiff must prove that the contract: (1) is in writing, (2) states the essential terms of the contract, (3) provides for goods or services for the entity; and (4) was properly executed for the entity.  The plaintiff presented evidence that a unilateral contract existed.  The College stated that its policies and procedures would not allow this type of contract, but the Court held that the policies presented did not sufficiently negate the contract could exist.  Because there was sufficient evidence from a jurisdictional standpoint that the contract could exist, the Court overturned the trial court’s order granting the plea to the jurisdiction.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Wise, Zimmerer, and Spain.  Opinion by Justice Ken Wise.

 

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

Quote

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.

Former City Manager properly alleged breach of contract under Chapter even though the actual contract document was not presented to the city council.

Quote

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Port Isabel v. Edward Meza,  No. 13-19-00070-CV, 2020 WL 3786249 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi July 2, 2020) (mem. op.).

This is a breach of contract case where the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the  City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Edward Meza was hired as the City Manager.  Two years later, the City Commission approved an employment/severance package for Mr. Meza, in concept.  The agreement was drafted and signed by the Mayor and Meza, but the actual agreement document was never taken back to the City Commission for approval.  Meza was later terminated and the severance policy was rescinded by the City Commission.  Meza sued the City for breach of contract.  The City argued the agreement was not properly approved and executed by the City. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied.

Section 271.151 of the Texas Local Government Code waives immunity in contracts for services but requires a contract be “properly executed” by the governmental entity.  The court of appeals reviewed the agreement, the meeting minutes, the City’s Charter, and the affidavits of appointed and elected officials.  The July 2010 meeting minutes showed approval of the basics of the employment/severance agreement.  The City Charter provided that the mayor can sign documents for the City.  The court of appeals held that this evidence raised a fact issue that the agreement was properly executed sufficient to overcome the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.  The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plea to the jurisdiction.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Benavides, Longoria, and Perkes. Opinion by Justice Benavides.

County properly supported summary judgment affidavits to establish breach of contract claim against garbage franchise holder

Quote

Hernandez v County of Zapata, 04-19-00507-CV  (Tex. App. – San Antonino, July 8, 2020).

This is a breach of contract/garbage collection case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals upheld an order granting the County’s summary judgment against Hernandez.

The County of Zapata and Hernandez entered into a one-year written contract, granting Hernandez an exclusive franchise to provide garbage collection services to Zapata County residents. Hernandez agreed to pay Zapata a percentage of the sums he collected from Zapata County residents for his garbage collection services. When a dispute arose, the County of Zapata sued Hernandez for breach of contract.  The County filed a traditional motion for summary judgment, which was granted. Hernandez appealed. [Comment: this opinion is helpful mainly to litigators who deal with standards for admission of evidence].

A party opposing a motion for summary judgment may file a response “not later than seven days prior to the day of” the summary judgment hearing.  Hernandez failed to timely file a response and failed to establish the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion to file a late response. Hernandez’s motion was unsupported by any probative evidence establishing good cause for the failure. The lack of factual support and explanation regarding counsel’s alleged mistakes, “leav[es] the trial court without any means of determining whether an excusable accident or mistake had in fact occurred.”

In comparison, the County’s affidavits in support of its summary judgment were properly supported and included the underlying facts to justify the conclusions asserted in the affidavits. For example, the affidavit of the County auditor provided support by stating 1) His primary duties are to oversee financial record-keeping for the county and to assure that all expenditures comply with the county budget, 2)  He has continuous access to all county books and financial records and conducts a detailed review of all county financial operations, 3) He has general oversight of all books and records of all county officials and is charged with strictly enforcing laws governing county finance, 4)  After reviewing bank statements from Hernandez’s business and comparing with county records and the cross-checking corresponding franchise fee percentage owed by Hernandez pursuant to the contract, that the amount Hernandez owed Zapata was $361,439.07. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Hernandez’s objections to the County’s affidavits.

The trial court also did not abuse its discretion in overruling the objection to bank statements based on hearsay.  Under the Texas Rules of Evidence, a statement by an opposing party is not hearsay if the statement is offered against the opposing party and “is one the party manifested that it adopted or believed to be true.” Hernandez admitted that he produced the bank statements in discovery. By producing the bank statements and by adopting the bank statements as his own, Hernandez manifested an adoption or belief in their truth.  The evidence is sufficient to conclusively establish the existence of a valid contract,  that Zapata performed under the contract, and that Hernandez breached the agreement.  Aside from the first-year payment, it is undisputed Hernandez did not pay Zapata the contracted percentages of the total gross receipts for the years 2011 to 2016. As a result, the trial court was within its discretion to grant the summary judgment.  Finally, the record supports an award of attorney’s fees.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Justices Martinez, Rios and Watkins.  Opinion by Justice Martinez.

Corpus Christi Court of Appeals holds recovery in breach of contract case under Chapter 271 waiver of immunity dependent on contract definition of “owner” – attorney’s fees are recoverable for any contract covered by Chapter 271 waiver.

Quote

Special guest author Laura Mueller, City Attorney of Dripping Springs

City of Corpus Christi v. Graham Constr. Servs., Inc., 2020 WL 3478661, No. 13-19-00367-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi June 25, 2020) (mem. op.).

This is a breach of contract claim under Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code involving a wastewater plant replacement project where the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.

The City of Corpus Christi (City) entered into a contract with Graham Construction Services (Graham) for the replacement of a wastewater plant.  In the agreement, the City hired Carollo to provide engineering and contract administration services and Carollo was considered the owner’s representative.  The agreement had strict deadlines for the completion of the project in two different phases.  The agreement also had strict notice of claim requirements (i.e. less than 90 days after claim event).  Graham submitted over a dozen delay claims, arguing that it faced delays due to “unclear or conflicting specifications in the contract, unnecessarily burdensome testing requirements, and an uncooperative and obstructionist attitude on the part of Carollo”, but not within the time frames required by the agreement.  At some point, the City replaced Carollo with Freese & Nichols (Freese), but Carollo was still involved in the project.  Graham also submitted reports requesting an increase in price and extensions of the schedule.  The City reviewed the reports and met with Graham regarding these reports. The City refused to issue a certificate of substantial completion, and Graham left the job site.   Graham sued the City for breach of contract.  The City filed a counterclaim which included a third-party petition against Carollo.  Three years after the suit filing, the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  The trial court denied the plea as to the breach of contract and attorney fee claims and the City appealed.

Under Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code’s waiver of immunity for goods/services contracts contract damages are limited to: (a) balance due including increased costs from owner caused delays; (b) change orders; (c) attorney’s fees; and (d) interest.  Id. § 271.153.  The chapter does not waive a contractor’s defense, but does require a contractor to comply with the adjudication methods found in the contract. Id. §§ 271.154; .155.  The City argued that it was not responsible for owner-caused delays because the delays were allegedly caused by Carollo, an independent contractor.  The Court held a fact issue exists because Carollo was listed as an Owner Representative in the agreement.  The Court also held (a) the City’s thirty and sixty-day notice of claim requirements are prohibited by § 16.071 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code; and (2) the City did not tell Graham it missed the notice of claim deadline but instead worked through the claim dispute.  These are permissible under § 271.155.  The Court compared this case to a recent contract case where the City did notify a contractor of the lateness of their claims.   See Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. ERO Int’l, LLP, 579 S.W.3d 123, 129 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi–Edinburg 2019, no pet.).  Finally, the Court held that the contractor’s request for attorney’s fees was allowed because § 271.153 states that fair and equitable attorney’s fees are recoverable. The plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.

 

 

Texas Supreme Court holds immunity waived for arbitration clauses, but only a court can decide the immunity question

Quote

San Antonio River Authority v Austin Bridge & Road, L.P., 17-0905 (Tex. May 1, 2020)

In this construction contract dispute, the Texas Supreme Court held Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code waives immunity for arbitration clauses.

The San Antonio River Authority (“Authority”) hired Austin Bridge and Road L.P. (“ABR”) to perform repairs of the Medina Lake Dam.  Disagreements about scope of work and payment arose. ABR triggered the arbitration provision in the contract. When the arbitrator denied the Authority’s assertion it was immune, it sued ABR in district court seeking a declaration the Authority lacked the ability to waive immunity for arbitration. The trial court denied the Authority’s summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed in part, holding that while the arbitration provision was enforceable, only a court could determine immunity was waived. The Authority appealed.

Until the waiver in Chapter 271 existed, governmental immunity shielded a local government from enforcement of its contract obligations. Currently, § 271.154 expressly provides that arbitration agreements are enforceable. The term “Adjudication” in Chapter 271 means “the bringing of a civil suit and prosecution to final judgment . . . and includes the bringing of an authorized arbitration proceeding…”  Further, an arbitration is an “adjudication procedure” under the plain meaning of the statute. However, immunity is waived only to the extent authorized by Chapter 271. As a result, the Authority was authorized to agree to arbitrate disputes arising from its contract with Austin Bridge, within Chapter 271’s expressed limits.  However, the Court agreed with the court of appeals and held only the judiciary has a non-delegable duty to determine whether immunity has been waived. Because immunity bears on the trial court’s jurisdiction to stay or compel arbitration, and to enforce an arbitration award in a judgment against a local government, a court must decide whether governmental immunity is waived. An agreement to arbitrate is unenforceable against a local government to the extent it purports to submit immunity questions to an arbitrator. The Court then analyzed the contract and determined that while the contract was for the benefit of the River District, it also provided a benefit to the Authority, and the Authority is the entity that entered into the contract. As a result, in this situation, the Authority’s immunity is waived.  The Court held the decision of whether ABR is seeking actual damage or consequential damages is not factually developed; however, ABR at last pled some possibility the damages sought are actual damages.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Justice Bland delivered the opinion of the Court. Dissent filed by Justice Boyd, joined by Chief Justice Hecht and Justices Guzman and Devine.

Contractor properly complied with administrative dispute resolutions in contract, so properly exhausted administrative remedies holds Dallas Court of Appeals

Quote

 

Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority v. GLF Construction Company, 05-19-003930-CV, (Tex. App – Dallas, April 3, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a contractual immunity case where the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of DART’s plea to the jurisdiction.

GLF and DART entered into a contract for GLF to built part of a DART light rail extension. In the contract, the parties agreed to an administrative dispute resolution process. According to GLF, DART’s inadequate project administration drove GLF’s costs up far beyond the contract price.  GLF submitted a paragraph 50 request for equitable adjustment. GLF administratively appealed the contracting officer’s decision to an administrative judge, but the judge’s decision, while finding liability, did not list which party owed any money. In January 2019, GLF sued DART for breach of contract and to hold the resolution process unconstitutional. DART filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

DART asserts GLF failed to exhaust its remedies under the resolution process. However, the court interpreted DART’s position as essentially stating that because GLF did not sue to challenge the judge’s decision and formally list the suit as an appeal, that this lawsuit does not qualify as an appeal of that decision, and therefore GLF did not exhaust its remedies. The court noted in this lawsuit, GLF requested a trial de novo from the administrative law judge’s decision and sought damages. As a result, the petition challenges the administrative judge’s decision within the plain meaning of the regulations and contract. The plea was properly denied.

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

Texas Supreme Court holds plaintiff lacked standing to challenge PIP payments since he suffered no out-of-pocket expenses

 

Farmers Texas County Mutual Insurance Co. v Beasley, 18-0469 (Tex. March 27, 2020)

While not a governmental entity case, this case involves standing to sue under a personal injury protection policy (PIP) and the distinction made with incurred rates vs. list rates of the medical providers. This can affect not only litigation but also those entities which are self-insured.

Beasley was injured in a car accident and his treatment displayed in the medical provider’s invoices totaled $2,662.54. Beasly had health coverage with BlueCross Blue Shield (BCBS) which negotiated a provider rate of $1,068.90.  The medical providers did not attempt to recover or hold him liable for the difference. Beasley also had a PIP policy through Farmers Texas County Mutual Insurance Company (Farmers).  The policy stated it would pay benefits because of bodily injury, including reasonable medical expenses. Beasley made a claim but sought the list/invoiced rates. Farmers paid Beasley $1,068.90.  He sued for the difference alleging breach of contract and asserting the policy covers reasonable medical costs, regardless of any reductions the providers agreed to accept later. Farmers asserted the policy was for medical expenses incurred. The trial court granted Farmers’ plea to the jurisdiction but the court of appeals reversed holding the breach of contract claim was sufficient to confer jurisdiction. Farmers appealed.

Standing is a requirement of jurisdiction and Beasley must establish an injury. Beasley was not harmed as the medical providers did not attempt to charge him for the difference.  He was not able to claim any unreimbursed, out-of-pocket medical expenses. Nor does Beasley assert that any of his medical providers withheld treatment as a result of the adjusted bills. The fact Beasley felt personally aggrieved by the lack of payment does not mean he suffered an injury. [Comment: yes, he actually made that argument.] Beasley also asserts Farmers impermissibly considered a collateral source in determining how much to reimburse: BCBS’s payments to Beasley’s medical providers. But a health insurer’s negotiated discounts do not constitute a collateral source of benefits to the insured in this context.  Adjustments in the amount of charges to arrive at the amount owed is a benefit to the insurer, one it obtains from the provider for itself, not for the insured. As a result, the collateral source rule is inapplicable in Beasley’s case. Beasley, therefore, was not able to establish standing to bring suit.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Green. The court docket page with attorney information is found here.

 

Public entities which issue bonds can utilize Expedited Declaratory Judgment Act for validation of contract execution, but not compliance says Texas Supreme Court

Quote

City of Controe, et al, v San Jacinto River Authority, et al, 18-0989, (Tex. March 27, 2020)

This is a case brought under the Expedited Declaratory Judgment Act (EDJA) involving proper compliance by the local government with bond requirements. The EDJA provides an “issuer” of “public securities” an expedited declaratory procedure to establish the “legality and validity” of public securities and “public security authorizations.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 1205.021.

The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District was created to address concerns about inhabitance of an area and their reliance on groundwater drawn from the Gulf Coast Aquifer. In 2008, the Conservation District required all large-volume groundwater users—including the Cities—to develop and implement plans for reducing their usage substantially. Mandatory groundwater usage cutbacks took effect in January 2016. Respondent San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) is a legislatively created conservation and reclamation district developed a Groundwater Reduction Plan (GRP) to draw surface water from Lake Conroe, treat the water, and sell it to large-volume users. SJRA issued seven series of bonds between 2009 and 2016 that had an outstanding principal balance of approximately $520 million. SJRA entered into bilateral GRP contracts with about 80 water-system operators. Although SJRA  can set, the GRP rates are governed entirely by contract. Several cities sued the Conservation District, which suit expanded to include SJRA. Several cities asserted they would not pay. SJRA filed suit   under the EDJA seeking a declaration regarding the contracts and rates. The cities opted into the suit, but then filed pleas to the jurisdiction alleging SJRA did not seek a declaration as to “the legality and validity” of a “public security authorization,” but instead seek to litigate what are substantively suits on contracts that properly lie outside the statute.  The trial court denied the pleas and the cities appealed. The intermediary court of appeals held primarily for SJRA and the cities appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The EDJA was enacted to “stop ‘the age old practice allowing one disgruntled taxpayer to stop the entire bond issue simply by filing suit.’”  The Court went through an analysis of the EDJA and its purpose in considering jurisdiction and definitions. SJRA and the Attorney General contend the GRP contracts, rate order, and rates themselves are public security authorizations because they are all connected to the bonds SJRA issued to finance the GRP Project.  The Court first held the Authority Declaration concerns the legality and validity of SJRA’s contracts with GRP Participants, as GRP rate orders and rates are creatures of the contracts.  As a result, the EDJA permits the trial court to exercise jurisdiction over this declaration.  However, the Court held the rate orders and rates lacked a proper connection with the bonds. Even though the rate order and rates may affect the amount SJRA is paid under the contracts, neither has an authorizing connection with the public securities. The EDJA treats execution of a contract to be connected but does not treat compliance with a contract as a public security authorization. As a result, SJRA can seek a declaration the contract was validly executed, but not whether it complied with the contract. As a result, the EDJA confers jurisdiction to declare whether the GRP contracts (as public security authorizations) are legal and valid, but it does not extend to declaring whether a specific rate amount set in a particular rate order is valid as it is controlled by the contract.  SJRA may not obtain EDJA declarations concerning the Cities’ in personam rights and liabilities. The EDJA permits only in rem declarations concerning property rights.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Busby. The court docket page with attorney information is found here.

School district failed to establish unauthorized contract, even with TEA report declaring contract was executed in violation of procurement laws

Quote

Harlandale Independent School District v. Jasmine Engineering, Inc, 04-19-00638-CV, (Tex. App – San Antonio, March 11, 2020)

This is a breach of contract/immunity case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the school district’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Harlandale Independent School District (the “District”) and  Jasmine Engineering, Inc. (“Jasmine”) entered into a Professional Services Agreement (“PSA”)which was amended six times. When the District terminated the contract, Jasmine sued for breach of contract.  The District filed one plea to the jurisdiction challenging only the pleadings, which the 4th Court already considered and held Jasmine properly pled a waiver of immunity. On remand, the District filed another plea to the jurisdiction challenging jurisdictional facts. The plea was denied, and the District appealed.

Texas Education Agency (“TEA”) performed an investigation and issued a determination that the District violated state law procurement requirements by entering into the PSA and amending it. The District therefore asserts no valid contract was created. Section 271.152 of the Texas Local Government Code waives immunity for contracts for goods or services. Under chapter 271 a valid contract is one stating the essential terms for providing goods or services to the local governmental entity and that is properly executed on behalf of the local governmental entity. Jasmine Engineering asserts that the TEA cannot determine the validity of the PSA and, if the matter were properly before the trial court, Jasmine Engineering would argue waiver and other legal theories. While the District relies on the TEA report, the District did not advance that it also determined the PSA was not authorized. While it is true that the TEA has the statutory authority to initiate investigations into contracting matters, make findings, and impose sanctions pursuant to its findings, these powers do not imply that the TEA’s findings bind the trial court or are a jurisdictional bar. Tex. Educ. Code §39.057.  And while the TEA report is attached to the plea, none of the supporting documentation was included. As a result, the evidence did not negate the pleadings and the trial court properly denied the plea.

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

Texas Supreme Court holds 1949 utility easements with “reconstruction” language means easements are general with no fixed width

Quote

Southwestern Electric Power Company v. Kenneth Lynch, Tommy Batchelor, and Twant Wilson, Texas, 18-0768, (Tex. – Feb. 28, 2020)

This is a property/easement dispute where the Texas Supreme Court held a set of utility easements were general, with no fixed width, regardless of the historic use.

In 1949, Southwestern Gas & Electric Company (Southwestern) acquired a number of easements over a stretch of land in northeast Texas to construct a transmission line. Southwestern constructed wooden poles at the time. Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) later acquired these easements. The easements authorize SWEPCO “to erect towers, poles and anchors along” a set course on a right-of-way that traverses several privately owned properties and SWEPCO historically used only 30 feet of easement area. In 2014 and 2015, SWEPCO undertook a modernization project to replace the transmission lines.  SWEPCO offer to set a width of 100 feet to individual property owners. Some owners accepted, but the Landowners in this case did not. After the project was completed, the Landowners filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment fixing SWEPCO’s easements to a thirty-foot width, fifteen feet on each side of the transmission line. They asserted the offer of 100 feet meant SWEPCO intended to exceed the 30 feet in the future.  SWEPCO filed two pleas to the jurisdiction, which were denied, and counterclaims for trespass and breach of contract. The trial court held a bench trial and held for the Landowners. The judgment was affirmed by the court of appeals.

The Court first determined SWEPCO’s pleas were properly denied as a ripe controversy existed regarding the scope of the easement, regardless of whether SWEPCO ever utilized more than 30 feet. While acknowledging many of the Landowner’s assertions were hypotheticals, it noted their claims are inextricably tethered to a disagreement of present scope. Regarding that scope, the easements do not state a specific maximum width of the right-of-way, nor do the easements specify how much of the land SWEPCO is entitled to access. Instead of construing the easements as general easements that intentionally omitted a defined width, the courts below incorrectly held the easements became “fixed and certain” once the transmission lines were constructed. The plain language of the easements stated they allowed for reconstruction and alteration, which contemplates future construction and installation of new poles and additional lines. The Court has recognized the existence of general easements that do not require a fixed width.  As a result, they are general easements with no fixed widths. However, the  Court noted a holder of a general easement must utilize the land in a reasonable manner and only to an extent that is reasonably necessary.  If at some point in the future SWEPCO utilizes the easements in a way that the Landowners believe is unreasonable and not reasonably necessary, or in a way that violates the express terms of the easements, the Landowners could at that point bring suit to enjoin SWEPCO’s use of the easements.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Green. Justice Bland did not participate. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.