7th Court of Appeals holds vested rights statute requires a showing of two permits; one vesting and one after a change in regulations

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Jon E. Jacks v. The Zoning Board of Adjustment of the City of Bryan  07-18-00174-CV (Tex. App. – Amarillo, July 9, 2019)

This is a board of adjustment appeal/vested rights case where the Seventh Court of Appeals upheld the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s motion for summary judgment.

Jacks purchased a piece of property in a residential subdivision intending to build a laundromat. Because the original plan for the subdivision had been filed with the City in 1960, Jacks asserted he possessed a vested right to 1960 regulations under chapter 245 of the Texas Local Government Code. When asked for a declaration from the City’s planning department that he possessed vested rights, Jacks was informed the City had no process for a blanket declaration and Jacks must apply for a permit on the project before an analysis of any vested right is performed. Relying on an e-mail “denial” from the Planning Manager Jacks pursued an appeal of this decision to the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. The Board denied Jacks’ request noting Jacks failed to identify any specific regulation that had changed, and Jacks failed to identify any permit application that had been denied.  Jacks appealed to district court pursuant to Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §211.011.  The trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment and Jacks appealed.

Under Texas Local Government Code §245.002, once an application for the first permit of a development is filed all subsequent applications for permits shall be considered under the laws and regulations in effect at the time the first application was filed. The Amarillo Court of Appeals held the statute requires two permit applications be involved; one to vest the rights and the second after a law changed but which must be applied under the old law. Here, Jacks pointed to the 1960 first application, but failed to point to a second application in which the City tried to apply a different set of rules.  Second, Jacks objected to the trial court considering evidence not presented at the Board level.  Jacks did not preserve his objection, but additionally, §211.011 authorizes the trial court to consider additional evidence. As a result, the trial court properly dismissed the claims.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Quinn, Justice Pirtle and Justice Parker. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Parker. Jon Jacks appeared pro se. The attorneys listed for the ZBA are Ryan S. Henry, Artin T. DerOhanian and Michael McCann Jr.

 

U.S. Supreme Court holds ADEA applies to governmental entities, regardless of the size (i.e. under 20 employees).

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Mount Lemmon Fire District v Guido, et al., 17-587 (U.S. November 6, 2018).

Firefighters sued the District asserting it violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  The parties disputed the language of the ADEA. The Fire District responded that it was too small to qualify as an “employer” under the ADEA, which provides: “The term ‘employer’ means a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees . . . . The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State . . . .” 29 U. S. C. §630(b).  The firefighters asserted the “also means” language creates a separate category of employers regardless of size.

After a detailed analysis of the history and wording in the ADEA and comparing the language to Title VII, the Court held the ADEA applies to political subdivisions of the state regardless of the number of employees. The ordinary meaning of “also means” is additive rather than clarifying. Furthermore, the text of §630(b) pairs States and their political subdivisions with agents, a discrete category that, beyond doubt, carries no numerical limitation. The Court acknowledged reading the ADEA as written to apply to states and political subdivisions regardless of size gives the ADEA a broader reach than Title VII. But this disparity is a consequence of the different language Congress chose to employ.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other justices joined, except KAVANAUGH, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Eastland Court of Appeals holds erroneously calling the police is a discretionary act exempting employees from ultra vires claims

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The University of Texas of the Permian Basin et al. v. Michael Banzhoff, 11-17-00325-CV (Tex. App. – Eastland, May 31, 2019).

This is an ultra vires and abuse of process case where there Eastland Court of Appeals held the University of Texas at Permian Basin (UTPB) retained governmental immunity.

UTPB hired Banzhoff as a golf coach but terminated him within a year. He was issued a criminal trespass notice not to attend UTPB sporting events. Shortly after his termination, Banzhoff was arrested at the Odessa Country Club for criminal trespass.  Banzhoff sued UTPB, the athletic director (Aicinena) and the interim coach who replaced him (Newman) alleging seven different causes of action. Aicinena and Newman moved to be dismissed under §101.106(e) of the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) and UTPB filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court granted the dismissal as to Aicinena and Newman, and partially granted UTPB’s plea. The trial court allowed the abuse of process and ultra vires claims to proceed. UTPB filed this interlocutory appeal.

As to the abuse of process claim, no waiver of governmental immunity exists for such a tort. To fall within the ultra vires exception, “a suit must not complain of a government officer’s exercise of discretion, but rather must allege, and ultimately prove, that the officer acted without legal authority or failed to perform a purely ministerial act.”  Suits complaining of ultra vires actions must be brought against government officials in their official capacity and may seek only prospective injunctive remedies. In this case, UTPB—a governmental entity—is not a proper defendant to Banzhoff’s ultra vires claim. As to the individuals, the general allegations in the pleadings are insufficient to plead an ultra vires claim against Aicinena or Newman.  Further, Banzhoff failed to plead any facts that support a finding that Aicinena or Newman exceeded any delegated authority, did not perform a ministerial duty, or violated Banzhoff’s constitutional rights.  The court expressly noted the criminal trespass notice in the record was not issued by either Aicinena or Newman and that there was no specific allegation either man called the police regarding Banzhoff’s presence at the Odessa Country Club. However, even if the court were to take Banzhoff’s allegations as true, “he fails to explain how issuing a criminal trespass notice or calling the police—even if done erroneously—are anything but discretionary actions by Aicinena or Newman.”  As a result, the plea should have been granted in its entirety.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey, Justice Willson and Wright, Senior Justice.   Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Bailey.  The attorneys listed for Banzhoff are Gerald K. Fugit and M. Michele Greene.  The attorneys listed for UTPB are Enrique M. Varela and Eric Hudson.

Texarkana Court of Appeals holds noncore attorney work product is confidential and not subject to PIA disclosure.

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Ken Paxton, Attorney General of the State of Texas v. City of Dallas, 06-18-00095-CV, (Tex.  App. – Texarkana, May 15, 2019).

In this Texas Public Information Act (“PIA”) case, the Texarkana Court of Appeals held noncore attorney work product is confidential and not subject to public disclosure under the PIA.

The City received seven PIA requests for reports and other records relating to specified incident investigations, each conducted in response to a notice of claim for damages received by the City. In each case, the City sought an AG opinion and was told to release the information. The City filed suit as an appeal. In cross-motions for summary judgment the trial court ruled for the City holding the information was confidential. The AG appealed.

“Core public information” is protected from disclosure only “if it is confidential under either the PIA or other law.” Core public information (also referenced as “super-public” information) includes “a completed report, audit, evaluation, or investigation made of, for, or by a governmental body.” Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.022(a)(1). It is confidential only if made so by other law.  The City asserted the information is noncore work product under Rule 192.5 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and, therefore, is “confidential under . . . other law.” The Texas Supreme Court has described the level of protection accorded to core work product as, “inviolate,” “flatly not discoverable,” and “sacrosanct and its protection impermeable.” In contrast, noncore work product is “[a]ny other work product” that is not core work product.  The record indicates the information at issue includes the City’s investigations, evaluation of claims filed against the City and liability analysis prepared by the City’s employees and agents after the City received the notices of claim. The City employees testified the information constitutes material prepared or mental impressions developed in anticipation of litigation or for trial. Each of the notices of claim in question constitute statutory notices required by the Texas Tort Claims Act. As such, they satisfy the objective standard for anticipated litigation. The in-camera review of the records indicated to the court that the City’s investigations were conducted for the purpose of preparing for potential litigation, therefore qualifying for the subjective prong of the anticipated litigation analysis.  The records are therefore “noncore” work product under Rule 192.5. Finally, after a lengthy analysis of Rule 192.5, the court held the noncore work product was confidential.  The trial court judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel by Chief Justice Morriss III, Justice Burgess and Justice Stevens. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Burgess.  The attorneys listed for the City of Dallas are James B. Pinson and Nicholas D. Palmer.  The attorney listed for General Paxton is Matthew R. Entsminger.

Texas Supreme Court holds navigation district retains immunity from suit by State, but ultra-vires claims against commissioners can proceed to trial

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Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District, et al. vs. State of Texas, 17-0365 (Tex. May 10, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a sovereign immunity/regulatory control case where the Texas Supreme Court held the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District (“District”) retained immunity from suit against the claims brought by the State of Texas. However, the District’s commissioners were not immune from the ultra-vires claims.

The District leased part of a navigation stream to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, LLC (“STORM”) for specific oyster production. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (“Department”) asserted the Department had exclusive authority to regulate oyster production in Texas and sued the District to invalidate a lease issued to STORM.  In the 1950s, the State of Texas conveyed more than 23,000 acres submerged land to the District, which as become prime for oyster cultivation. After the lease was issued to STORM, the company sent no-trespass notices to holders of any oyster-production permits. These permits authorize a holder to “plant oysters and make private beds in public waters.”  STORM claimed exclusive use of the leased submerged land. While the District agrees the water above the submerged land belongs to the State, it asserts it owns the fee simple in the land and can lease its exclusive use. The Department sued the District to invalidate the lease and individual District commissioners for ultra-vires acts associated with the lease. The Department also sought monetary damages for “restitution.” The District and commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was partially denied.

The Court first addressed the Department’s claim for monetary damages. It held that Under §311.034 of the Government Code (Texas Code Construction Act), the use of the term “person” in a statute does not waive immunity.  And while the Parks and Wildlife Code allows the Department certain rule making authority, the Department cannot waive immunity by rule which is not contained within the statute.  Since nothing in the applicable Parks and Wildlife Code waives immunity, no waiver for declaratory and monetary claims exists. The Department cannot circumvent the immunity by labeling a claim for monetary damages as “restitution.”    Next, the Court held an ultra-vires claim cannot be brought against the District. However, it can be brought against the commissioners. The Court held the Department properly pled the commissioners acted beyond their lawful authority by entering into the lease. The statute creating the District provided it “rights, privileges and functions” but only those conferred by law. Unlike a home-rule municipality which gets its power from the Texas Constitution, the District is a creature of statute and must look to the Legislature for its authority. Considering the entire regulatory system as a whole, the Court held the powers of the District are limited to navigation. While the statute allows the District to lease land and regulate marine commerce, the question of whether  oyster cultivation qualifies may be precluded when comparing the exclusive power granted to the Department. The Department shall regulate the taking and conservation of fish, oysters, and other marine life. The ultra-vires claims against the commissioners to prospectively enjoin the lease are permitted to go forward.  However, the Court was careful to explain that its holding only allows the State’s claims to go to trial, not whether the State will ultimately win on the present facts.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Blacklock. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds plaintiff in red-light challenge lawsuit was required to exhaust administrative remedies before filing for injunctive relief

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Garcia v City of Willis, et al., 17-0713 (Tex. May 3, 2019)

In this constitutional challenge to red-light camera case, the Texas Supreme Court held the Plaintiff was required to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing his constitutional-takings claim.

Luis Garcia sued the City of Willis on behalf of himself and “others similarly situated” who paid a civil penalty for violating a city ordinance for red-light infractions caught on camera. He sought the invalidation of the ordinance, a refund, or a takings claim. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied by the trial court, but granted by the court of appeals. On appeal to the Supreme Court the State filed an amicus brief arguing additional authority in support of the City.

While the City did not initially challenge Garcia’s standing to bring suit, the State’s amicus brief raised the issue and the Court felt it was required to address it first. After receiving notice from the City of his red-light violation, Garcia paid the requisite civil fine. He has no outstanding fines and does not assert he plans to violate red-light laws in the future. And for standing purposes we “assume that [plaintiffs] will conduct their activities within the law,” barring some stated intent otherwise. Because no pending charges exist, Garcia lacks standing for prospective injunctive relief and could not be a class member of others similarly situated who have not paid the fine.  However, he does have standing to seek a refund of his past payment. In this context, immunity is waived only if Garcia paid the fine under duress.  Here, Garcia chose to voluntarily pay a fine and forgo administrative remedies that would have entitled him to an automatic stay of the enforcement of his fine under TEX. TRANSP. CODE § 707.014(a).  Because Garcia could have invoked this automatic reprieve from payment and challenged the notice of violation administratively but chose not to, he cannot now claim he paid his fine under duress.  Therefore, the City maintains its immunity.   Garcia additionally argues the fine imposed on him amounts to an unconstitutional taking because the underlying is unconstitutional and because the City failed to conduct the statutorily required engineering study.  He asserts he could not challenge the constitutionality of the fine in the administrative hearing. However, the fact remains that the hearing officer might have ruled in his favor for other reasons that would moot his constitutional arguments. As a result, he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

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

Texas Supreme Court holds entity not required to show risk of harm to a specific individual in order to except records from PIA release

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Texas Department of Criminal Justice v Levin, 17-0552 (Tex. April 12, 2019)

This is a Public Information Act (PIA) case where the Texas Supreme Court held the PIA must yield to protecting information that, if released, would create a substantial threat of physical harm to the source’s employees and others.

The Levin Plaintiffs (Levin) represent capital defendants on death row. Concerned with the possibility of mismanaged executions by lethal injection, Levin made a PIA request of the Department, which included a list of drugs used for lethal injections and their source. The Department did not release the specific identity of the pharmacy or pharmacist that compounded the drugs (i.e. source) and requested an Attorney General opinion. The AG agreed with the Department that the PIA has a common law exception where release would create a substantial risk of harm. Levin appealed. While on appeal, the Legislature amended the PIA to create a statutory exception for the source of drugs used for executions.

In prior court and AG opinions, a threat to a specific party was required in order to take advantage of the common law exception. Here, no one but the Department and the pharmacy itself knows the identity of the source that supplies the lethal injection drugs to the State of Texas. There is no evidence of a history of specific threats to that particular pharmacist or pharmacy because the source’s identity has been kept confidential. The Court noted, however, the word “substantial” as used in prior opinions does not refer to the degree to which harm is likely to occur, but rather, the degree of the potential threat of harm itself. Courts should focus on the connection between the requested information, on the one hand, and the potential threat and magnitude of such harm, on the other. The Court found, based on the summary judgment evidence, the Department properly established release of the information would create a potential substantial physical harm which does not currently focus on an identified person, including evidence of what happened to other pharmacy’s when release of similar information became public (Note: some but not all of the evidence was considered relevant). As a result, the Department must withhold the information requested.

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

13th Court of Appeals holds building and standards commission order was final, so could not be collaterally attacked under TOMA

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Harker Heights Condominiums, LLC v. City of Harker Heights, Texas, 13-17-00234-CV (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi, March 28, 2019).

In this case the 13th Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City of Harker Heights’ plea to the jurisdiction dismissing a claim for injunctive relief to prevent the demolition of a building.

Harker Heights Condominiums (HHC) owns property on which thirty-three condominium units sit and that are leased to low income residents in need of housing. The City inspected the property, found defects and ordered repair.  The inspector found substandard conditions rising to such a level as to pose substantial danger to life, health and property.  The City’s Building and Standards Commission ordered certain properties repaired within ninety days or be demolished. HHC was able to bring one unit up to code, but was not able to timely repair the remaining units. After the City awarded a demolition contract, HHC sued to prevent destruction of the units. An initial temporary injunction was granted. After HHC added a claim for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. HHC appealed.

Texas law permits municipalities to establish commissions to consider violations of ordinances related to public safety. The local government code provides for judicial review of any decision of a building and standards commission panel, but the “district court’s review shall be limited to a hearing under the substantial evidence rule.” To appeal an order of a building and standards commission, an aggrieved party must file a verified petition in district court within thirty days of the commission’s order.  HHC waited eighty days. HHC asserted the “decision” was actually the City Council decision to award the demolition contract, not the Commission’s decision. However, the City’s award was merely the granting of a contract, not an order outlined in Chapter 214 of the Local Government Code. The court noted that even if the HHC injunctive relief were interpreted to be a proper petition for review under Chapter 214, it was nonetheless untimely. This untimely filing also means HHC’s TOMA suit is untimely as holding otherwise would subject the commission order to impermissible collateral attack. The plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras, Justice Hinojosa and Visiting Judge Dorsey. Memorandum Opinion by Visiting Judge Dorsey. The attorneys listed for the City are Charles D. Olson, Charles Alfred Mackenzie and Burk A. Roberts.  The attorneys listed for HHC are Brandy Wingate Voss,  Ryan D. V. Greene and  G. Alan Waldrop.

Texas Supreme Court holds Type B economic development corporations are not entitled to immunity for breach of contract claims

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Rosenberg Development Corp. v. Imperial Performing Arts, Inc., No. 17-0660 (Tex. – March 9, 2019).

The Texas Supreme Court holds Type -B EDCs are not entitled to governmental immunity in breach of contract cases.

Rosenberg Development Corporation (RDC) is a Type B economic development corporation created by the City of Rosenberg. RDC executed a contract with Imperial Performing Arts, Inc. (Imperial), a nonprofit organization for performance and visual art activities, including reopening a local arts center and theater. However, the reopening and renovations exceed the agreed amounts by over ten fold. RDC and Imperial filed suit and counterclaims. The immunity issue addressed the breach of contract claims. RDC filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied as to Imperial’s contract claim, and was affirmed by the court of appeals. RDC filed for discretionary review.

The threshold issue for the Court was whether RDC—a municipality’s statutorily authorized corporate creation—is immune from suit under the common law even though RDC is neither a sovereign entity nor a political subdivision of the state. The Development Corporation Act (Title 12, Subtitle C1 of the Local Government Code) authorizes municipalities to create such EDC corporations. The Court analyzed the Act, its purpose, and its language. The Court noted that for the purpose of interlocutory appeals, the RDC qualifies given the specific definition in the Texas Tort Claims Act.  The Court then noted the Development Corporation Act does not speak to governmental immunity directly, but in §505.106, the Legislature has declared that (1) a Type B corporation is “not liable for damages arising from the performance of a governmental function of a Type B corporation or the authorizing municipality,” and (2) “[f]or purposes of Chapter 101, Civil Practice and Remedies Code, a Type B corporation is a governmental unit and the corporation’s actions are governmental functions.” Notably, however, an economic development corporation “is not a political subdivision or a political corporation for purposes of the laws of this state …” and the Legislature has forbidden authorizing municipalities from bestowing on the corporation any “attributes of sovereignty.”   As to the RDC’s argument it obtains statutory immunity from suit and liability, the Court held “[b]ecause section 505.106 merely purports to limit the remedies available when economic development corporations perform governmental functions, we need not consider whether the Legislature can confer immunity by statute or only waive it.”  Where the governing statutory authority demonstrates legislative intent to grant an entity the “nature, purposes, and powers” of an “arm of the State government,” that entity is a government unit unto itself and is entitled to assert immunity in its own right. The Court analyzed cases where governmental self-insurance risk pools have been determined to be governmental entities and determined what is required to qualify as a governmental unit unto itself. While promoting and developing business enterprises and job training is a public purpose merely engaging in such an act does not, ipso facto, make the actor a governmental unit. The common-law rule of immunity is exclusively for the judiciary to define, and in doing so, the Court does not just consider whether the entity performs governmental functions, but also the “nature and purposes of immunity.” Granting immunity to an EDC is not necessary to satisfy the political, pecuniary, and pragmatic policies underlying our immunity doctrines. Further, the Legislature simply did not grant these entities “powers of government” to perform essential governmental functions or activities. Also, since the Act already limits liability and damage’s exposure, the fiscal analysis used to determine if an entity is governmental is not applicable. Ultimately, the Court held “that the Legislature did not authorize municipalities to create economic development corporations as distinct governmental entities entitled to assert immunity in their own right.”

Chief Justice Hecht wrote separately only to point out the highly unusual features of a Type B municipally-created economic development corporation. While he agreed an EDC is not a governmental unit by itself, an EDC is not liable for damages arising from the performance of its governmental functions for purposes of the Texas Tort Claims Act. Since the TTCA only waives immunity, he opines an EDC has immunity from suit and liability for tort claims. In dicta, the Chief Justice noted that since an EDC’s expenditures must be approved by its municipality, a judgment against an EDC in any circumstance may not be enforceable.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Guzman delivered the opinion of the court.  Chief Justice Hecht filed a concurring opinion, found here.  The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds specific performance is available remedy under waiver of immunity for certain contracts

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Hays Street Bridge Restoration Group v City of San Antonio, 17-0423 (Tex. March 15, 2019)

This is a breach of contract case where the Texas Supreme Court held the waiver of immunity found in TEX. LOC. GOV’T CODE §§ 271.151–.160 (as it existed at the time the contract was executed) also applied to specific performance.

The Hays Street Bridge is a historic cultural landmark in San Antonio. In the 1980s, when the City closed the bridge and Union Pacific Railroad sought to demolish it, a group of citizens formed the restoration group to save the bridge. The City obtained a $2.89 million federal grant administered by the Texas Department of Transportation to fund restoration and the Restoration Group promised, through an MOU, to match any funds for restoration. Over the next decade, the Restoration Group raised and transferred to the City more than $189,000 in cash and arranged for significant in-kind donations.  However, in 2012, it adopted an ordinance authorizing the sale of the property to Alamo Beer Company as part of an economic-incentive package. The Restoration Group sued, alleging the transfer would breach the City’s promise in the MOU to use the funds for repair of the bridge. For its breach of contract claim, the Restoration Group sought only specific performance.  The trial court ordered specific performance, but the court of appeals reversed holding the City was immune. The Texas Supreme Court granted review.

The Court, citing to its recent holding in Wasson Interests v City of Jacksonville (Wasson II), held the MOU was of a governmental nature and not proprietary. The MOU was made to support the City–State funding agreement for restoration of the Bridge and revitalization of the surrounding area. Under the Wasson II four-part test, only the first factor (mandatory v discretionary) liens towards proprietary. As a result, the City maintains immunity unless waived. Section 271.152 of the Local Government Code “waives” the City’s immunity, but that waiver is limited by the provisions found in other portions of the Act. Section 271.153 limits damages, not remedies. Damages equates to money and specific performance equates to equitable remedies. Since the waiver is not limited by §271.153 on the subject of specific performance, such relief is a remedy encompassed within the waiver.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Chief Justice Hecht.

City Manager’s change to policy manual is not a unilateral employment contract says Texas Supreme Court

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City of Denton v Brian Rushing, et al, 17-0336 (Tex. March 15, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal from an order denying a plea to the jurisdiction in a breach of contract case. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the denial and dismissed the case.

Rushing, Patterson and Marshall were employees of the Denton Utilities Department. All three worked uncompensated on-call shifts between 2011 and 2015. Policy 106.06 of the City’s Policies and Procedures Manual defines the rights and responsibilities of an on-call employee.  On-call time was listed as uncompensated.  In 2013, the City Manager modified Policy 106.06 and defined an explicit pay schedule for on-call time. These amendments were not approved by the City Council.  Rushing and the others sued the City asserting Policy 106.06 was a unilateral contract and they were entitled to payment of on-call time dating back to 2011.  The court of appeals held the City Manager’s policy adjustments equated to a unilateral contract and immunity is waived under §271.152. The Texas Supreme Court granted review.

The Court first held interpreting Policy 106.06 to be a unilateral contract regarding Rushing’s employment conflicts with the disclaimer in the manual that nothing in the manual “ in any way” constitutes terms of a contract of employment.  Further, Policy 106.06 is a provision of a policies and procedures manual and not an ordinance adoption of a contract. Although city ordinances may create enforceable contracts, the Court held it has not previously determined a municipality’s policies and procedures manual can create an enforceable contract. The Court reversed and rendered a decision for the City.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Devine.

Texas Supreme Court holds pension boards amendments to deferred retirement option account was not unconstitutional

Eddington v Dallas Police and Fire Penson Systems, et al.,   17-0058, (Tex. March 8, 2019)

This is a statutory construction case where the Texas Supreme Court held the City of Dallas’ amendment to its pension plan did not violate the Texas Constitution.

Article XVI, Section 66 of the Texas Constitution prohibits the reduction of benefits in certain local public retirement plans.  The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System (“the System”) amended its pension plan to reduce the interest rate paid on Deferred Retirement Option Plan (“DROP”) accounts. After a member is eligible for retirement, the member can choose to continue working and when leaving active service, draw a higher monthly annuity.  However, a member’s annuity is fixed at retirement age and does not increase with continued service.  While a member continues to work, the System created the DROP option allowing monthly credits to his DROP account, accessible upon leaving active service. In other words, members working past retirement eligibility can choose between a higher annuity on leaving active service, or a lower annuity plus a forced savings account.  The petitioners sued asserting the amendments to the changed interest rate was unconstitutional. The trial court and appellate court denied petitioner’s relief.

After analyzing the text of Section 66 and the uncontested facts asserted, the Court held lowering the interest rate that as-yet unearned DROP payments will bear does not affect a benefit accrued or granted to employees. Interest already credited to DROP accounts is not impacted. The reduction in DROP account interest is prospective only. Section 66(d) protects “accrued” benefits only. Such benefits are those that have been earned by service, not those that may be earned by future service.

Finally, the Court held the trial court did not error in excluding the legislative history evidence submitted and the fiscal notes of the Legislative Budget Board.  The Court reasoned that while the judiciary can consider such information, those are construction aides. Courts should rely heavily on the literal text. The Court determined the text of Section 66 is plain as it affects the parties, so no error was made by the trial court.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Hecht delivered the opinion of the Court.  Justice Guzman and Justice Brown not sitting. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

13th Court of Appeals holds City entitled to damages for beach of contract claims against water treatment and distribution facility

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Kempner Water Supply Corp. v. City of Lampasas, Texas, 13-17-00047-CV (Tex. App. Corpus Christi, January 31, 2019)

This is a breach of contract case for water treatment where the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals held as a matter of law the City was entitled to damages in its breach of contract claim, but remanded the case for a determination on a damage amount.

City of Lampasas (City) sued appellant Kempner Water Supply Corporation (Kempner) for a breach of contract claim. The City assigned its raw water reservation right to a third-party named Central Texas in order for Central Texas to treat the water and deliver it to Kempner for final delivery.  Kempner and the City have differing interpretations of the contract, which focused on the City’s payments for water treatment performed by Central Texas and whether the contract intended to cover payment for water treatments performed directly by Kempner. When the parties entered into the contract, Kempner did not have its own water treatment facility, but later built one. Kempner charged the City for water it treated as well as treatments performed by Central Texas which Kempner distributed. The trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment and denied Kempner’s.  Kempner appealed.

After a lengthy contract construction analysis, the court held the contract states the City agreed to pay Kempner for costs Kempner incurred for water treated by Central Texas.  It did not obligate the City to pay Kempner for water that Kempner treated. The City conclusively established Kempner breached the contract by charging it for Kempner treated water.  However, when analyzing damages, the court noted the record did not separate out the allowable damages. As a result, the case was remanded back to the trial court for a hearing on damages.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Valdez, Justice Benavides and Justice Hinojosa. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Benavides. The docket page with attorney information is found here.

School District substantially complied with TOMA even though it had a glitch with website postings for five months said Amarillo Court of Appeals

Rebecca Terrell and Chandrashekhar Thanedar v. Pampa Independent School District, 07-17-00189-CV (Tex. App. – Amarillo, January 9, 2019).

This is a Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”) case where the Amarillo Court of Appeals affirmed a take-nothing judgment in favor of the Pampa Independent School District (“PISD”).

PISD hired Terrell as a teacher on a probationary basis. At the end of the school year the PISD board voted to terminate her. Terrell brought suit asserting PISD committed TOMA violations in twenty-one separate meetings and demanded that all actions taken during those meetings (including her termination) are void. Physical notice for each of the twenty-two challenged meetings was posted to the inside of an external glass door of the administrative building for PISD in a manner in which the public could view them at any hour. These physical notices identified the date, time, and place of each respective meeting. Meeting notices were also posted to PISD’s website…most of the time. Due to an issue arising from a transfer to a new website for PISD, notice of meetings were not posted on PISD’s website from five months.   PISD was unaware of the website glitch, but upon learning of it, the board took corrective action. PISD also only posted notices on the outside bulletin board and not the one inside its administrative offices.   The trial court issued a take-nothing judgment against the Plaintiffs and they appealed.

The panel opinion noted the Texas Supreme Court has indicated that substantial compliance with TOMA’s notice requirements is sufficient. To determine whether a governmental entity substantially complied with the requirements of TOMA, courts look to whether the notice fairly identifies the meeting and “is sufficiently descriptive to alert a reader that a particular subject will be addressed.”  Courts are not to determine whether the entity could have posted a better notice in a better manner; rather they are tasked with determining whether the notice was sufficient to notify the public of the specific meeting and its topics. Physically posting the agendas in a glass case outside the building for all to see at any time was sufficient for substantial compliance under TOMA.  PISD provided sufficient evidence to constitute a good faith effort to post on the website, explained how the glitch occurred and what was done to fix it.  Appellants next argued that PISD violated TOMA by including only a partial description of the place of the meetings, such as “Pampa High School,” without identifying the meeting room, full street address, or name of the city. TOMA requires that the notice identify the “place” of the meeting. The panel held that while it would be more helpful if the notices had identified the specific room, it deem the school title descriptions were sufficiently specific to alert the public of the location of the school board meetings. As a result, the take-nothing judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Campbell, Justice Pirtle and Justice Parker. Opinion by Justice Parker. Thanedar and Terrell were pro se.  Attorneys listed for the  PISD are Jennie C. Knapp  and W. Wade Arnold.

December 2018 Condensed Summaries

The problem with December is courts try to get cases off their desk prior to the holiday break. Clients like to get stuff resolved before the holiday break. Which means a lot of stuff happens in December preventing me from keeping up with all of the cases coming out related to governmental entities.  While I do not like to do it very often, I am having to provide a condensed version of the case summaries for December 2018.

  1. 1st District COA holds county courts at law in Harris County are the exception and have exclusive jurisdiction for inverse condemnation claims. San Jacinto River Authority v. Charles J. Argento 01-18-00406-CV (Tex. App. — Houston [1st] Dec. 4, 2018). Opinion click here.  This is 36 page opinion where the First District Court of Appeals in Houston consolidated several cases where homeowners brought takings claims due to flooding. The court held the Legislature gave the Harris County civil courts at law exclusive jurisdiction over inverse-condemnation claims under Texas Government Code § 25.1032(c). Therefore, the district courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims. The district courts do, however, have subject-matter jurisdiction over the homeowners’ statutory takings claims under Government Code Chapter 2007, the Private Real Property Rights Preservation Act.

 

  1. University’s plea to the jurisdiction granted as to ex-employee subject to RIF. Francisco Sanchez, Jr. v. Texas A&M University- San Antonio 04-17-00197-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, Dec. 12, 2018). For opinion click A University employee (Sanchez) was subject to a reduction-in-force and brought discrimination charges after being demoted. Sanchez had two positions, with one being a project lead. He filed his EEOC charge for one position after the 180-day deadline from the date of the adverse action and the other EEOC charge was filed within 180 days for the second position. The court held the continuing violation doctrine did not apply to Sanchez. Further, Sanchez could not establish discrimination through direct evidence. The RIF was a legitimate non-discriminatory reason which was not disputed with competent evidence.

 

  1. Fact that attorney “sent” TTCA claim notice letter is irrelevant; TTCA requires notice to be “received’ within time period. City of San Antonio v. Gabriela Rocha 04-18-00367-CV (Tex App. – San, Antonio, Dec.12, 2018). For opinion click This is a TTCA police vehicle accident case. While the TTCA gives a plaintiff 180 days to provide written notice of claim to waive immunity, the City Charter only provided a 90 day window. And while the affidavit of Rocha’s lawyer notes he “sent” the notice timely, the plain language of the TTCA and Charter require the notice to have been “received” within the time period. So, formal written notice was not received timely. The court then analyzed whether the City had actual notice. After examining the record, the court held nothing indicates the City had actual notice of an injury or property damage. As a result, no waiver of immunity exists.

 

  1. Officer’s F-5 dishonorable discharged sustained since omission of material facts in report qualifies under a discharge for untruthfulness. Patrick Stacks v. Burnet County Sheriff’s Office 03-17-00752-CV (Tex. App. — Austin, 12, 2018). For opinion click here. This is an appeal from an F-5 determination that a sheriff’s deputy was dishonorably discharged. Stacks was terminated after a confidential information who personally observed a stop made by Stacks brought forth testimony of significant omissions by Stacks in his report. Stacks asserted the omissions did not amount to “untruthfulness.” The administrative law judge as the SOAH hearing disagreed and held Stacks was discharged for untruthfulness and therefore the dishonorable discharge should apply. The district court agreed. The court of appeals held the law recognizes the misleading effect of omissions. A failure to disclose a fact “may be as misleading as a positive misrepresentation…” As a result, for F-5 determinations, a discharge for untruthfulness includes a discharge for omitting material information or facts that rendered a statement misleading or deceptive.  The ALJ determination was sustained.

 

  1. Property Owners’ takings claims failed as Authority acted within its federal license under Federal Power Act. Jim Waller, et al v. Sabine River Authority of Texas 09-18-00040-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Dec. 6, 2018). For opinion click This is a flooding/inverse condemnation case. During a federal license renewal process, residents who live downstream of the Toledo Bend Dam presented their suggestions about changing the regulations governing the hydroelectric plant to prevent flooding. The suggestions were not incorporated. Then a historic rainfall event occurred causing flooding and the residents sued for takings claims. The Authority acted within the terms of its license and the flooding was caused by the historic rain levels. Further, Plaintiff’s arguments would impose duties expressly rejected by the federal agency during relicensing. As such, the claims are preempted by the Federal Power Act.

 

  1. Supreme Court remands case to COA to reevaluate based on its holding in Wasson II. Owens v. City of Tyler, 17-0888, 2018 WL 6711522, at *1 (Tex. Dec. 21, 2018). For the opinion click here.  The City of Tyler built Lake Tyler in 1946 and leased lakefront lots to residents in a manner very similar to Wasson. Tenants decided to build a new pier and boathouse extending from their lot onto the water. This caused neighboring tenants to object. The neighboring tenants sued the City after it issued a building permit.  After the intermediate court of appeals issued an opinion, the Texas Supreme Court issued the most recent Wasson decision. As a result, the Supreme Court send remanded the case back to the court of appeals in order analyze the case under the four-part test.

 

 

  1. Declaratory Judgment action was first filed, so later filed negligent action must be abated. In re: Texas Christian University, 05-18-00967-CV, (Tex. App. – Dallas, December 21, 2018). For opinion click here. Two negligent/medical malpractice claims were filed, one in Tarrant County and one in Dallas County. The cases are inherently interrelated. The central facts to both lawsuits involve the circumstances surrounding a student athlete’s injury during the September 2015 football game, the subsequent treatment from JPSPG physicians, and the alleged harassment and pressure he felt from TCU’s coaching staff to return to play. To resolve uncertainties regarding the hospital’s liability regarding the athletic event, TCU filed its declaratory judgment action seeking declarations regarding the construction and validity of the Health Services Contract.  As a result, the “first filed” rule dictates the later filed lawsuit by the student must be abated.

 

  1. Texas Supreme Court details statutory construction to determine emergency medical response exception to liability. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Denton, et al., v D.A., et al. 17-0256 (Tex. December 21, 2018). This is a medical malpractice case, but deals with the emergency medical responder provision of the Texas Medical Liability Act, similar in wording to the emergency responder provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act.  Utilizing statutory construction principals, the court noted punctuation and grammar rules can be crucial to proper construction. The Court focused on the prepositional phrase “in a” hospital, and determined the phrase placed before each contested text indicates the Legislature intended for each phrase to be treated separately. The Plaintiff’s construction argument would require the Court to ignore the second use of the prepositional phrase “in a” and renders that language meaningless. The Court declined to use external aides for construction (including the legislative history). While the Texas Code Construction Act allows a court to rely on such aides, even for unambiguous statutes, the Court held it is the Court, as the high judicial body, who decides when such aides will be used, not the Legislature. Further, statements explaining an individual legislator’s intent cannot reliably describe the legislature body’s intent. By focusing on the language enacted, the Court encourages the legislature to enact unambiguous statutes, it discourages courts from usurping the legislature’s role of deciding what the law should be, and it enables citizens to rely on the laws as published. As a result, based on the language in the statute, the Plaintiffs must establish willful and wanton negligence when their claims arise out of the provision of emergency medical care in a hospital obstetrical unit, regardless of whether that care is provided immediately following an evaluation or treatment in the hospital’s emergency department or at some point later, after the urgency has passed.

 

  1. Dog owner could seek injunction stay of municipal dangerous dog court order in county court at law. The State of Texas by and through the City of Dallas v. Dallas Pets Alive, Nos 05-18-00084-CV and 05-18-00282-CV. For the opinions click here and here. Rusty, a pit bull/terrier mix dog, bit and injured a two-year-old child at an adoption event. The City determined Rusty was a dangerous dog under Texas Health & Safety Code § 822.002 in municipal court. The adoption center filed an appeal but also filed for injunctive relief in county court at law to stop the municipal court’s order, which the county court at law granted. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction as to injunction order which was denied. The majority opinion held where the state initiates litigation, it has no immunity from suit. Further, the appellate court (i.e. county court at law) has jurisdiction to protect its own jurisdiction (i.e. involving the subject of a pending appeal). The court held the county court at law had jurisdiction to hear the dangerous dog appeal from municipal court and the injunction was propepr. Justice Lang dissented and would have held the county court at law would not have jurisdiction over the appeal.