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.

Beaumont Court of Appeals holds firefighter’s last-chance agreement in collective bargaining city deprived trial court of jurisdiction to hear appeal of indefinite suspension

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Michael Scott Nix v. City of Beaumont, 09-18-00407-CV (Tex. App. -Beaumont – Oct. 3, 2019)\

This is an interlocutory appeal in a firefighter suspension case where the Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Nix filed a petition seeking declaratory and equitable relief against the City based on his indefinite suspension from his position as a firefighter. He asserted the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) was invalid because the City allegedly failed to comply with the Texas Open Meeting Act (“TOMA”) requirements when the CBA was negotiated.  He also asserts the “last chance” agreement he entered into with the Fire Chief was invalid. Nix’s last-chance agreement probated part of the suspension, but noted he could be terminated if he violated any terms of the agreement.  Nix’s suspension in 2015 resulted in the last-chance agreement and the Chief determined he violated the sick leave policy in 2017 resulting in an indefinite suspension. Nix asserts in the absence of a valid contract, the suspensions were invalid, depriving him of due process of law and a protected property interest. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.  Nix appealed.

TOMA has a limited waiver of immunity. An action taken in violation of TOMA is voidable, not void. When a department head suspends a firefighter for violating a civil service rule, the suspension may be for a reasonable period not to exceed fifteen calendar days or for an indefinite period. Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code Ann. § 143.052(b). The firefighter may accept the suspension or appeal to the Civil Service Commission. If the firefighter disagrees with the Commission, the employee may file suit in district court. The question of whether the City posted the CBA 2012-2015 negotiations in accordance with TOMA is not relevant because it is the CBA 2015-2020 CBA applicable to his underlying challenge to his indefinite suspension in 2017.  The City provided evidence showing proper postings for the negotiation of the 2015-2020 CBA.  When Nix accepted the last-chance agreement in 2015, he had the opportunity to refuse the Chief’s offer and appeal his suspension to the Commission; however, Nix agreed to waive his right to appeal, including the right to appeal the Chief’s 2017 decision determining that Nix had violated the Agreement. Nix waived all rights he may have to file suit against the City as to any issue directly or indirectly related to the last-chance agreement or to his indefinite suspension.  As a result, the trial court properly granted the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justice Horton and Justice Johnson.  Opinion delivered by Chief Justice McKeithen. The attorneys listed for Nix are Melissa Azadeh and Laurence Watts.  The attorneys listed for the City are Sharae Reed and Tyrone Cooper.

Since interlocatory appeal by individual officials stayed proceedings, trial court had no authority to grant or deny City’s plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Brownsville, et al.,  v. Brownsville GMS, 13-19-00467-CV (Tex.App. – Corpus Christi, September 27, 2019).

This is a governmental immunity/contract case where a temporary injunction was sought.  The Corpus Christi court out of Edinburg held the trial court’s failure to rule on the City’s plea to the jurisdiction was not a denial of the City’s plea because a simultaneous separate interlocutory appeal was filed staying the proceedings.

Brownsville GMS, Ltd. (GMS) sued the City of Brownsville (City), the Mayor, and the city commission members complaining of the manner in which the City awarded its waste disposal contract.  GMS obtained a temporary injunction to preclude the City from acting on the award and an order for expedited discovery.  The individuals filed motions to dismiss based on Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.06(e). The City also filed two pleas to the jurisdiction asserting immunity. The trial court scheduled multiple motions to be heard on August 13, 2019. The trial court denied the motions to dismiss during the hearing. The individuals filed an interlocutory appeal during the hearing for the denial. The trial court did not rule on any other motions during the hearing as the proceedings were stayed.

The City also appealed and argued that the trial court’s refusal to rule on its pleas to the jurisdiction invokes the implicit ruling doctrine and cites Thomas v. Long, 207 S.W.3d 334  (Tex. 2006). In Thomas, the implicit ruling was predicated on the trial court’s grant of affirmative relief to Long while at the same time failing to rule on Thomas’s plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court did not have authority to grant the relief Long sought unless it affirmatively determined that it had jurisdiction. Here, the trial court became aware that DeLeon filed an instantaneous interlocutory appeal, thereby staying all proceedings. The trial court correctly recognized it did not have the power to rule on the pleas and adjourned the hearing. Because the trial court had no authority to rule on the pleas it did not implicitly deny the pleas. The appellate court therefore lacks jurisdiction to hear the  City’s appeal.

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

Subcontractor did not contract directly with DFW Airport, so no waiver of immunity exists for breach of contract says Dallas COA

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Ruth Torres v. Dallas/Ft Worth International Airport et. al, 05-18-00675-CV (Tex. App. —  Dallas, August, 29, 2019).

This is a breach of contract case where the Dallas Court of Appeals held the trial court was without jurisdiction to hear the claims.

Torres was to provide human resources consulting services to Pursuit of Excellence (POE), a corporation that contracted with DFW to provide airport operations services. POE filed suit against Torres for breach of contract.  Torres answered, counterclaimed, and attempted to bring in the Dallas/Ft.Worth International Airport (DFW).  DFW filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. Torres appealed.

DFW is a special purpose governmental entity which possesses immunity as a matter of law.  As a result, Torres must establish a waiver of immunity to proceed. The Texas Tort Claims Act expressly lists the operating and regulation of an airport to be a governmental function, so no proprietary aspects are involved. Although TEX. LOC. GOV’T CODE § 271.152 provides for a

waiver of immunity in certain cases, that waiver is not absolute.  Unfortunately for Torres, she did not contract with DFW, but with an independent contractor of DFW.  The waiver under §271.152 only applies to contracts entered into directly with DFW.  The remaining arguments asserted by Torres (UDJA, TOMA, PIA, etc.) were not raised at the trial court so cannot be raised for the first time on appeal. The plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Myers, Osborne, and Nowell.  Opinion by Justice Myers.

3rd Court of Appeals holds PIA appeal deadline for entity to challenge AG opinion is jurisdictional

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San Jacinto River Authority v. Ken Paxton,  03-18-00 547-CV (Austin, Aug. 22. 2019) 

This is the Public Information Act (PIA) case where the Austin Court of Appeals held an entity must file suit to appeal an AG opinion within the jurisdictional time limit. 

San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) received PIA requests from McFarland and Fuchs for communications discussing a specific release of water. It submitted a request for both on the same day.  The AG issued an opinion on the McFarland request opining SJRA could withhold information, but SJRA did not timely submit an opinion request regarding Fuchs and the information must be released. The opinion had language SJRA asserts was an indicated to seek reconsideration. SJRA attempted to seek a reconsideration but was told, by AG letter, the PIA does not allow such. They filed suit to appeal the decision, but it was outside the time frame for appeal of the opinion. SJRA asserted the non-reconsideration letter was the proper trigger point. The AG filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. SJRA appealed. 

The court analyzed the statutory section regarding an entities ability to file suit to challenge an AG opinion. It held filing suit within the 30 day time period was jurisdictional. The non-reconsideration letter cannot reasonably be characterized as “the decision determining that the requested information must be disclosed” because it did not make any reference to disclosure of the information. It is merely a post-decision correspondence informing SJRA it was prohibited from asking for a reconsideration. The opinion also held the separate declaratory judgment claims were redundant and no jurisdiction existed for it.  SJRA asserted the AG should be estopped from using the jurisdictional arguments because it invited reconsideration, causing delay past the deadline. However, the court held estoppel cannot convey jurisdiction. Finally, regardless of SJRA’s “compelling reason” for withholding the information, the trial I court lacks jurisdiction to hear them since SJRA missed the deadline. The plea is affirmed. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Triana. Memorandum opinion by Justice Baker. 

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds injunctive relief not available to stop enforcement of ordinance regulating gas/oil production

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The Town of Flower Mound, Texas, et al.  v. EagleRidge Operating, LLC, 02-18-00392-CV, (Fort Worth, Aug. 22, 2019)

This is an interlocutor appeal in a temporary injunction case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held the zoning restriction on oil/gas equipment at issue was a penal statute and no vested property right existed, depriving the trial court of jurisdiction to issue a temporary injunction. 

Plaintiffs took over operation of a series of oil/gas wells in the Town. The Town passed an ordinance regulating operations, the removal of waste water and hours of operation. The ordinance stated as part of its purpose that  natural gas drilling and production operations involve or otherwise impact the Town’s environment, infrastructure, and related public health, welfare, and safety matters.  In 2018 Plaintiff filed 3 actions with the board of adjustment (BOA) and board of oil and gas appeals (OGA) regarding variances, which were denied. The Town issued several criminal citations for after hour operation and failure to remove wastewater. The Plaintiff sought a TRO and injunction to prevent the enforcement of the ordinance, which was granted. The Town, BOA and OGA appealed.

The basic test as to whether a law is penal is whether the wrong sought to be redressed is a wrong to the public or a wrong to an individual. A public wrong involves the “violation of public rights and duties, which affect the whole community, considered as a community, and are considered crimes; whereas individual wrongs are infringements of private or civil rights belonging to individuals, considered as individuals, and constitute civil injuries.”  When an ordinance’s primary purpose is to protect the welfare of a municipality’s citizens, it “is clearly addressing a wrong to the public at large” and is a penal.  The court held the zoning ordinance was penal in nature. To be entitled to injunctive relief, the Plaintiff had the burden to demonstrate irreparable injury to a vested property right. Contrary to Plaintiff’s position, allegations of injury to an interest in real property does not equate to irreparable injury of a vested property right. Increases in operating costs does not equate to irreparable harm to their mineral interests. Loss of profitability, alone, also does to equate to irreparable harm to their mineral interest. As a result, Plaintiff is not entitled to injunctive relief to prevent enforcement of such a penal ordinance. Under sections of Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code chapter 211 (dealing with BOA and appeals), no injunction is textually available for an appeal from the BOA to a district court, only from an official to the BOA. The Legislature made a distinction between a restraining order and an injunction, and no injunctive relief is available under Chapter 211 for an appeal to district court from a BOA decision. 

Chief Justice Sudderth concerned in a majority of the opinion, but dissented as to the interpretation under Chapter 211. He opinioned a temporary restraining order is a stopgap, placeholding measure to preserve the status quo 14 days, just until a litigant’s application for temporary injunction can be heard.  For practical purposes, depriving the trial court of the ability to extend the restrained enforcement makes little sense. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Gabriel, visiting Judge Wallach.  Memorandum opinion by visiting judge Wallach. 

Developer properly pleaded claims County failed to maintain roadways, Fort Worth Court of Appeals says

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Wise County, et al v. Katherine Mastropiero02-18-00378-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, August 9, 2019)

In this case, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held that the district court had jurisdiction to hear a property owner’s claims the County must maintain roads in her subdivision.

Mastropiero (the developer) began to develop Prairie View Estates, a subdivision in Wise County. In Phase Two of the subdivision, the county refused to maintain the roadways. The plat described several roads and stated that the roads were “dedicate[d] to the public.” Mastropiero alleged that the owners, residents, and members of the public have used the roads continuously ever since. The final plat was then endorsed and filed in the County’s records.  Mastropiero asserted she did not have to file a maintenance bond after the  County accepted the roads but that the County was required to maintain the roads. She sued for a failure to maintain, and the County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

Article V, § 8 of the Texas constitution provides that the district court has supervisory jurisdiction to review certain actions of the County Commissioners Court. Mastropiero has alleged that the Commissioners Court failed to perform a clear statutory duty.  The County asserted it never “accepted” the dedication and thus has no statutory duty. Recording a map or plat showing streets or roadways does not, standing alone, constitute a completed dedication as a matter of law. But acceptance does not require a formal act; implied acceptance is also sufficient, including use of the roads by the public. The determination of whether a dedication has been accepted is a question of fact. As a result, from a jurisdictional standpoint, Mastropiero properly pleaded a cause of action against the County. Additionally, the suit against a single commissioner, but only in her official capacity, is the same as a suit against the County. A suit to compel prospective action is viable in an ultra vires suit, as is raised here.  The plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Birdwell, Bassel and Womack. Memorandum opinion by Justice Birdwell. The attorney listed for the County is James Stainton. Ms. Mastropiero appeared pro se.

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 that 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 that 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.