Texas Supreme Court holds a lack of immunity for Corona virus is not a “disability” for purposes of mail-in election ballots

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In re State of Texas, 20-0394 (Tex. May 27, 2020)

This is a mail-in ballot case. The great folks at the Texas Municipal League already summarized this case and I try not to duplicate any summaries they beat me to. Their summary is found here and was issued May 28, 2020.

However, since not everyone may have seen the summary and it affects multiple entities, I’ve included this condensed version.

Essentially, the Texas Attorney General filed the lawsuit directly with the Supreme Court seeking to prevent clerks and other election officials from allowing mail-in ballots for those fearful of contracting the virus responsible for COVID-19. Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances, one being the voter is disabled by statutory definition. The Court emphasized that it takes no side in what is the best policy as that is for the Legislature. It’s job is to interpret the language of the Election Code. Based on the language provided, the Court held  “…a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face.”  As a result, it declined to issue a mandamus against any officials, noting the Court was confident they would comply with the law in good faith, now that the Court has clarified the statutory language.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Hecht delivered the opinion of the court. Justices Guzman, Boyd and Bland delivered separate concurring opinions.

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

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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 least 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.

U.S. 5th Circuit adopts 1st Amendment unbridled discretion/prior-restraint standards in federal suit against Texas Governor

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Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Greg Abbott Governor of the State of Texas, 18-50610, (5th Cir – April 3, 2020)

This is a First Amendment case regarding immunity and viewpoint discrimination where the U.S. 5th Circuit adopted a specific prior restraint test.

The Texas State Preservation Board (“the Board”) is a state agency that preserves and maintains the Texas Capitol and its grounds. Governor Abbott is the chairman of the Board, which allows private citizens to display exhibits within the Texas Capitol building. Such displays must have a public purpose. FFRF is a non-profit organization that advocates for the separation of church and state and educates on matters of nontheism. FFRF learned that a Christian nativity scene had been approved by the Board and displayed in the Texas State Capitol. FFRF submitted an application to the Board regarding a Bill of Rights nativity exhibit, which was also approved. FFRF’s depiction was displayed, but the day before its final display date, Governor Abbott sent a letter to then Executive Director of the Board, Mr. Welch, urging him to “remove this display from the Capitol immediately.” The letter explained that the exhibit was inappropriate for display because “[s]ubjecting an image held sacred by millions of Texans to the Foundation’s tasteless sarcasm does nothing to promote the morals and the general welfare,” “the exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood insofar as it suggests that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson worshipped (or would worship) the bill of rights in the place of Jesus[.]”  This letter resulted in the removal of the FFRF display prior to its scheduled removal date. When FFRF submitted another application for the same display, it was told the display did not promote a public purpose. FFRF sued for declaratory and injunctive relief.  The district court granted FFRF summary judgment on certain grounds and denied it on others.  The parties appealed/cross-appealed.

Governor Abbott and Mr. Welsh argue that the district court’s declaratory judgment is retrospective and therefore barred by sovereign immunity (including 11th  Amendment immunity). They further asserted no prospective relief was proper because the dispute is not ongoing. A litigant may sue a state official in his official capacity in federal court as long as the lawsuit seeks prospective relief to redress an ongoing violation of federal law. FFRF alleged constitutional violations against Abbott and Welsh in their official capacities. Further, they established an ongoing violation and Abbott and Welsh did not technically appeal the viewpoint discrimination finding. Speech cannot be prohibited on the basis of offensiveness, and the defendants have only presented arguments through counsel that their behavior will change.  The district court had jurisdiction to entertain the suit, and the controversy is ongoing.  The district court did not, however, have jurisdiction to award FFRF purely retrospective relief.  The declaration that FFRF’s rights were violated in the past is prohibited to the extent it is an individual claim. The U.S. 5th Circuit remanded for the trial court to determine proper prospective relief.  Next, the court analyzed the unbridled discretion arguments regarding public purpose determinations (i.e. prior restraint arguments). Unbridled discretion runs afoul of the First Amendment because it risks self-censorship and creates proof problems in as-applied challenges. Even in limited and nonpublic forums, investing governmental officials with boundless discretion over access to the forum violates the First Amendment. However, in situations such as where space is limited, certain discretion should be afforded. Because discretionary access is a defining characteristic of a limited public forum, the government should be afforded more discretion to use prior restraints on speech in limited public forums than in traditional public forums. The possibility (including imposed checks and balances) of viewpoint discrimination is key to deciding unbridled discretion claims in the context of limited or nonpublic forums. A reasonableness test would be insufficient, by itself.  In a matter of first impression for the 5th Circuit, the court held that prior restraints on speech in limited public forums must contain neutral criteria sufficient to prevent (1) censorship that is unreasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and (2) viewpoint-based censorship. Because the district court only considered whether the public purpose criteria at issue in this case was reasonable, the issue was remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Davis, Graves, and Higginson, Circuit Judges. Vacated and Remanded in part; Reversed and Remanded in part. Memorandum Opinion by Higginson, Circuit Judge. Attorney for Appellant is Kyle Douglas Hawkins, of Austin, Texas. Attorney for Appellee is Samuel Troxell Grover, of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

PIA case remanded because mayor and city secretary did not do a search of personal emails or phones for public business

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James E. Horton v. Ron Welch, Individually and Ron Welch, as Mayor of the City of Caney City, Texas, 12-19-00381-CV, (Tex. App – Tyler, April 8, 2020)

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the Tyler Court of Appeals overruled an order granting the City and mayor’s summary judgment. [Comment: this case was filed prior to the recent PIA statutory changes creating temporary custodians.]

Horton sent two separate requests for numerous records to the City and Mayor Welch (seeking txts, emails, etc.). After Horton paid the required fees, the City, through Welch, gave him what it claims is all the requested records. Horton filed a suit asserting that Welch (as custodian) did not fully comply with his request and asking the trial court to issue a writ of mandamus. Welch filed a no-evidence motion for summary judgment arguing that he provided Horton with all requested records and documents and Horton has no evidence to the contrary. Welch also filed a traditional motion for summary judgment.  The trial court granted Welch’s motions and Horton appealed.

The PIA provides a statutory remedy of mandamus to a requestor when the governmental body refuses to supply public information or information that the attorney general has determined is public information that is not excepted from disclosure. The traditional MSJ was accompanied by an affidavit the city secretary performed a “painstaking investigation” and review of the City’s files and produced all responsive records. The City asserts it is not in possession of any additional records. However, the testimony established the city secretary and mayor did not examine personal accounts upon which council members could have utilized. Under the PIA “is not dependent on whether the requested records are in the possession of an individual or whether a governmental body has a particular policy or procedure that establishes a governmental body’s access to the information.” The PIA provides no guidance regarding the efforts a governmental body must take to locate, secure, or make available the public information requested. However, since the testimony established the mayor and city secretary did not look in private accounts which could have contained such information, a fact issue exists regarding whether or not all responsive information was provided.

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

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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.

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

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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.

Under PIA common-law privacy only applies to a person’s private affairs, not events related to discrimination charges

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Stetson Roane v. Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas; and Seguin Independent School District, 14-18-00264-CV, (Tex App – Hou [14th dist.], Jan 28, 2020)

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) lawsuit where the Fourteenth Court of Appeals agreed with the Attorney General that certain records must be released.

Roane served as superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District (“the District”) who had a sexual harassment charge filed against him.  After he had left the District, it received several PIA requests which included information on the complaint. Roane was notified he could file a third-party objection, which he did asserting common law privacy to withhold the information. While the Attorney General (“AG”) allowed the District to withhold other responsive information, it opined the complaint information was subject to release. Roane filed suit to prevent the release and filed a motion for summary judgment. The AG also filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the AG’s motion and denied Roane’s motion. Roane appealed.

The common-law right to privacy protects information from disclosure when “(1) the information contains highly intimate or embarrassing facts the publication of which would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person, and (2) the information is not of legitimate concern to the public.” However, the highly intimate or embarrassing facts must be “about a person’s private affairs.”  The summary judgment record failed to demonstrate that the information involved matters relating to Roane’s “private affairs.” Matters of workplace harassment, discrimination, and policy violations in a governmental body are, by their very nature, generally do not qualify. The court noted the complainant’s name and other individuals’ names have been redacted from the information ordered to be disclosed by the AG’s opinion.  As a result, all that remains are public matters. Therefore, the trial court ruled properly regarding the competing motions.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Wise, Zimmerer, and Spain. Affirmed. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Zimmerer. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds no waiver of immunity for declaratory judgment relief against county for competitive bidding violation

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Tarrant County, Texas v. Jeffrey D. Lerner, 02-19-00330-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, Jan. 9, 2020)

This is a declaratory judgment/immunity case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held the County retained immunity for declaratory claims alleging violations of the competitive bidding statute.

The County had a contract with Dispute Resolution Services of North Texas (DRS) to manage the County’s alternative dispute-resolution services and was valued at over $400,000 per year. When renewing the contract, Tarrant County did not seek competitive bids for the contract. A competitor, Lerner, sued asserting after the last renewal the contract was invalid due to the lack of bidding. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied.

The immunity waiver contained in the competitive bidding statute is specific and narrowly drawn – “Any property tax paying citizen of the county may enjoin performance under a contract made by a county in violation of [the Act].” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code Ann. § 262.033. The court held the Legislature intended to waive immunity for injunctive-relief claims arising from violations of the statute. However, that does not waive immunity for attorney’s fees or any other form of relief. As a result, the court found the County retained immunity for Lerner’s declaratory judgment claims. The plea should have been granted.

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

No waiver of immunity when non-profit sues to invalidate transfer of real property to city

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City of Houston and Keith W. Wade v. Hope for Families, Inc, 01-18-00795-CV, (Tex. App – Houston [1st Dist.], Jan. 9, 2020)

This is a governmental immunity case where the First  Court of Appeals held the contracting non-profit did not establish a waiver of immunity.

Hope for Families, Inc. (HFF) acquired the property for a community development project financed by the City which fell through.  HFF negotiated a transfer of the property to the City in exchange for debt forgiveness. HFF later sued to invalidate the transfer alleging the City’s negotiator, Wade, committed fraud when negotiating. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied and the City appealed.

HFF asserts “A corporation may convey real property of the corporation when authorized by appropriate resolution of the board of directors or members.” Tex. Bus. Org. Code § 22.255, which it did not do. However, that provision does not grant HFF the right to sue to invalidate a transfer and does not waive immunity. HFF also sued Wade as an individual. While Wade is immune individually (as fraud is an intentional tort), the court held HFF should have the opportunity to replead an ultra vires claim.

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

Texas Supreme Court holds no-evidence MSJ proper to challenge jurisdiction; TOMA waiver of immunity does not include declaratory judgment claims

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Town of Shady Shores v Swanson, 18-0413 (Tex. Dec. 13, 2019)

This is an employment case, but the focus on the opinion is a procedural one.  Importantly, the Texas Supreme Court held 1) a no-evidence motion for summary judgment was proper to raise a jurisdictional challenge and 2) the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) did not waive immunity for declaratory relief, only mandamus and injunctive relief.

Swanson was the former Town Secretary for Shady Shores. She brought claims asserting she was wrongfully discharged. The Town filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted as to the Sabine Pilot and Whistleblower claims. The  Town later filed traditional and no-evidence summary judgment motions (on immunity grounds) as to the Texas Open Meetings Act declaratory judgment claims, which the trial court denied.  The Town took an interlocutory appeal, but Swanson kept filing motions. The trial court granted Swanson leave to file a motion for a permissive interlocutory appeal as Swanson asserted she filed her notice of appeal (for the plea to the jurisdiction) within 14 days of the Town’s notice of appeal for the summary judgments. When Swanson attempted to hold further proceedings and obtain an order on the permissive appeal the Town filed a separate mandamus action (which was consolidated for purposes of appeal). The court of appeals declined to issue the mandamus noting the trial court did not actually sign any orders and noted Swanson did not timely file an appeal and was not granted a permissive appeal. Court of appeals summary found here.

The court of appeals held allowing a jurisdictional challenge on immunity grounds via a no-evidence motion would improperly shift a plaintiff’s initial burden by requiring a plaintiff to “marshal evidence showing jurisdiction” before the governmental entity has produced evidence negating it.  It also held the entity must negate the existence of jurisdictional facts. After recognizing a split in the appellate courts, the Texas Supreme Court rejected the reasoning noting in both traditional and no-evidence motions, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.  Because the plaintiff must establish jurisdiction, the court could “see no reason to allow jurisdictional challenges via traditional motions for summary judgment but to foreclose such challenges via no-evidence motions.”  Thus, when a challenge to jurisdiction that implicates the merits is properly made and supported, whether by a plea to the jurisdiction or by a traditional or no-evidence motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff will be required to present sufficient evidence on the merits of her claims to create a genuine issue of material fact.  Such a challenge is proper using a no-evidence summary judgment motion.  Next, the Court held  the UDJA does not contain a general waiver of immunity, providing only a limited waiver for challenges to the validity of an ordinance or statute.  UDJA claims requesting other types of declaratory relief are barred absent a legislative waiver of immunity with respect to the underlying action. Under  TOMA, immunity is waived only “to the express relief provided” therein—injunctive and mandamus relief—and the scope does not extend to the declaratory relief sought. Thus, TOMA’s clear and unambiguous waiver of immunity does not extend to suits for declaratory relief against the entity. However, Swanson did seek mandamus and injunctive relief as well, which were not addressed by the court of appeals, even though argued by the Town. As a result, such claims are remanded to the court of appeals to address.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with attorney information is found here.

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.

No waiver of immunity for city contract to install sewer lines on property says 4th Court of Appeals

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Twanda Brown v. City of Ingram04-1900508-CV (Tex. App. —  San Antonio, Nov. 20, 2019).  

In this suit, the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction related to counterclaims regarding utility services.  

The City of Ingram (“the City”) sued Brown and eight other defendants, seekingdeclaratory judgment that its ordinances regarding penalties and permits for utilities and wastewater are “valid and reasonable exercises of the City’s police powers.” Brown answered the City’s suit and asserted a counterclaim for breach of contract, alleging the City “breached its Contract for Wastewater Services by knowingly permitting an unqualified, unlicensed subcontractor” to connect her property to the City’s sewer system. Brown alleged the subcontractor’s negligence “sever[ed] a gas line and caus[ed] damages to Brown and her property.” The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted.  Brown appealed.  

The Texas Tort Claims Act makes sanitation, water, and sewer services governmental functions, thereby entitling the City to immunity absent a waiver. The City’s actions of connecting residents to the city’s sewer system is a governmental functionImmunity is waived for breach of contract claims for goods or services provided to the entityBrown’s pleadings allege the purported contract was an agreement to provide goods or services to Brown (i.e. construction and installation of service lines), not the other way around. Because any purported contract does not involve the provision of goods or services to the City, it is not a “contract subject to” the waiver in Texas Local Government Code chapter 271 subchapter I.  

Several days after the trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction, the City filed a motion to strike an affidavit submitted by the City on the basis that counsel for the City learned the affiant made a mistake as to the location of a photograph.  Brown filed an objection but also sought in the alternative, the trial court re-open the hearing. The court noted the record does not reflect whether the trial court ruled on either. However, the court held the issue is irrelevant to the ability to rule on the appeal as it does not change the analysis of the type of contract involved.  Finally, the court denied the City’s request for sanctions as they do not believe the claims “lacked any reasonable basis in law.”   

If you would like to read this opinion click hereThe panel consists of Chief Justice Marion, and Justices Alvarez and Chapa. Opinion by Chief Justice Marion. The attorney for Brown is listed as Roger Gordon.  The attorneys listed for the City are Charles E. ZechScott Micheal Tschirhart  and Llse D. Bailey 

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.

Firefighter’s claims against City dismissed since no adverse employment actions occurred; only minor internal decisions

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Billy Fratus v. The City of Beaumont, 09-18-00294-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Oct. 10, 2019).

This is an employment discrimination/retaliation/firefighter case where the Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Fratus was a firefighter who sued for 1) free speech equitable relief and 2) race discrimination and 3) retaliation under Chapter 21 of the Labor Code.  Fratus asserted the Fire Chief, Huff, did not like Fratus was Hispanic and excluded him from meetings, denied him discretionary perks of the job, spoke bad about him, interfered with Fratus’ relationship with his physician while on disability leave, and a host of other assertions centering on personality slights. Fratus also alleged that the City retaliated against him for speaking out against what he believed was Chief Huff’s sexual harassment of another employee, and for disagreeing with Chief Huff’s firing of one employee. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. Fratus appealed.

Fratus’ claims for declaratory relief centered only on past allegations.  As a result, it is actually a claim for monetary damages for which the City is immune. Further, claims for equitable relief for constitutional violations “cannot be brought against the state, which retains immunity, but must be brought against the state actors in their official capacity.” Since Fratus did not sue any individuals, the equitable relief claims are dismissed. To prevail on a retaliation claim based on protected free speech Fratus has to establish, among other things, he spoke out on a matter of public concern. Speech made privately between a speaker and his employer rather than in the context of public debate is generally not of public concern. The record shows Fratus made criticisms to other co-workers, which does not qualify. A retaliation claim is related to but distinct from a discrimination claim, and it focuses upon the employer’s response to the employee’s protected activity. The TCHRA addresses only “ultimate employment decisions” and does not address “every decision made by employers that arguably might have some tangential effect upon employment decisions.”  Actionable adverse employment actions do not include disciplinary filings, supervisor’s reprimands, poor performance reviews, hostility from fellow employees, verbal threats to fire, criticism of the employee’s work, or negative employment evaluations.  The pleadings and record reflect Fratus did not allege any adverse employment decisions, only petty disagreements and internal rifts. Fratus failed to plead a prima facie claim. Fratus’s appellate brief states that he also has an issue under the Texas Open Meetings Act.  However, such does not meet briefing requirements because it lacks citations to the record or to applicable authority and therefore presents nothing for review. As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justices Kreger and Johnson. Opinion by Justice Johnson.  The attorney listed for Fratus is Laurence Watts.  The attorneys listed for the City are Tyrone Cooper and Sharae Reed.