Texas Supreme Court holds city’s civil-enforcement of utility payment ordinance was not an unconstitutional taking

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City of Baytown v Alan Schrock, 20-0309 (Tex. May 13, 2022) 

In this takings case, the Texas Supreme Court held the City of Bayton (City) did not commit a taking by withholding utility service in order to collect unpaid utility bills.  

Schrock owned property that he would lease to tenants. The City’s ordinances required landlords to either guarantee payment for utility bills or to file a declaration with the City stating that the landlord would not guarantee its tenant’s utility payments. The City also had an ordinance prohibiting the connection of new utility services at properties encumbered by outstanding utility bills. At some point, utility bills for the City’s water service to the property went unpaid and Schrock did not file any declaration. Schrock contested unpaid amounts (pointing to his tenant as the responsible party) but the City, after a hearing, placed a lien on the property. The City then refused to connect utilities to the property when one of Schrock’s tenants requested it, which caused the tenant to cancel the lease. Because no utilities were connected, no tenants rented, the property fell into disrepair. Schrock sued the City for inverse condemnation and other claims, primarily alleging that the City’s refusal to reconnect his utility service violated Tex Loc. Gov’t Code § 552.0025 (which prohibits municipalities from conditioning utility service connections on payment of outstanding utility bills incurred by other customers residing at the same address.). The trial court ruled for the City, but the court of appeals reversed, noting a fact question existed. The City appealed.  

 A regulatory takings claim is one in which “the plaintiff complains that the government through regulation so burdened his property as to deny him its economic value or unreasonably interfere with its use and enjoyment.” The Court made a distinction between a regulation that directly regulates land use and one which merely impairs the use of the property because of its enforcement. The Court held that the City’s providing utilities to the property was a service; its regulation of that service was not a regulation of the property itself. The true nature of Schrock’s claim lies in the City’s wrongful enforcement of its ordinance, not in an intentional taking or damage of his property for public use. The Court noted that nearly every civil-enforcement action results in a property loss of some kind. Property damage due to civil enforcement of an ordinance unrelated to land use, standing on its own, is not enough to sustain regulatory takings claims. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Bland delivered the opinion. Justice Young delivered a concurring opinion, in which Justice Lehrmann, Justice Blacklock, and Justice Busby joined. 

Texas Supreme Court holds general-law cities cannot impose a revenue-based licensing fee for construction trash haulers

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Builder Recovery Services, LLC v. The Town of Westlake, Texas, 21-0173, (Tex, May 20, 2022) 

In this case, the Texas Supreme Court held that general law cities have limited authority to impose license fees for solid waste collections.  

The Town of Westlake is a general-law municipality that imposed a percentage-of-revenue license fee on companies like Builder Recovery Services, LLC (BRS) which hauls trash away from construction sites.  The Town has a percentage agreement with Republic Services, which performs regular residential and commercial trash collection for the Town, but which also included construction site hauls. The Greater Fort Worth Builders Association sent the Town a letter questioning the Town’s legal authority to make Republic the exclusive provider of construction trash-hauling services. BRS and the Town’s staff attempted to agree on terms for a license, but no agreement was reached. BRS began operating in the Town without a license. When the Town cited BRS for operating without a license, it brought suit. The Town amended the fee amount during the suit. The trial court ruled the original fee was invalid and rejected the remainder of the BRS claims.  Both sides appealed. The court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, by affirming the judgment favoring the Town but holding the BRS claim regarding the original fee was moot. BRS appealed.  

General-law cities, like the Town of Westlake, possess only those powers and privileges that the State expressly confers upon them.  A claim that a percentage-of-revenue fee of any size is unlawful is not mooted by an intervening adjustment to the size of the fee.  The court made a distinction between a licensing fee and a franchise fee. The Town’s relationship with Republic is governed by an exclusive franchise agreement as described in section 364.034 of the Health and Safety Code. The Court assumed the Town had the authority to require a license, then focused its analysis on the types of licensing fees allowed. A licensing fee is meant to recoup administrative costs of the licensing system. The Town does not regulate the price of trash hauling in this instance. How much BRS charges its customers to haul their trash “is none of the Town’s concern, and this privately negotiated, fluctuating amount has nothing to do with how much money the Town needs to administer its trash-hauling regulations.”  The Court held it was unlikely that the Legislature’s grant to general-law cities the generic authority to regulate trash hauling was intended to include an implied power for a revenue-based charge of this nature.  While a licensing fee properly tied to administrative costs is allowed, it cannot be revenue-based. Next, the Court held that while the fee and remainder of the regulations appear to be a packaged deal, the ordinance has a severability clause. But what remains was not argued, so the Court remanded the case. 

 Panel consists of Chief Justice Hecht, and Justices Lehrmann, Boyd, Devine, Blacklock, Busny, Bland, Huddle, and Young. Court of Appeals’ judgment reversed; Remanded to Court of Appeals. Opinion by Justice Blacklock can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here. 

First District Court of Appeals holds property owner could not bring a takings claim based on judicial order regarding substandard building

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Jaime Jaramillo v. The City of Texas City, 01-20-00654-CV, (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.], Feb. 8, 2022, no pet. h.) (mem. op.).

This is a takings case brought after the City initiated an enforcement action for a dilapidated building. The First District Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the property owner’s claims.

Jaramillo entered into an Agreed Order of Abatement with the City where the City would be able to abate and demolish the structures on the real property belonging to Jaramillo any time after a certain date if he did not comply with the ordinances and the International Property Maintenance Code. After reviewing the Agreed Order with the prosecutor and signing it, Jaramillo filed suit two weeks later claiming a taking of his property, denial of procedural due process, fraud, and civil conspiracy. The City filed a motion to dismiss for want of jurisdiction due to entering an unappealable order and sovereign immunity. The trial court granted the motion. Jaramillo appealed.

The court found that there was no waiver of immunity asserted as immunity cannot be waived for an intentional tort.  It further found civil conspiracy is a derivative tort; therefore, it cannot stand alone. Under his due process claim, Jaramillo agreed in the order that the building was substandard.  A court, not an administrative body, entered the order based on the agreement. As a result, no procedural due process was violated.  Jaramillo failed to preserve any errors before accepting and signing the Agreed Order. The Order was affirmed.

Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack, and Justices Rivas-Molloy and Guerra. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rivas-Molloy can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Texarkana holds city properly supported its summary judgment to permanently enjoin mobile home park

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Polecat Hill, LLC, et al. v. City of Longview, Texas, et al. 06-20-00062-CV (Tex. App. – Texarkana, December 2, 2021).

This is a nuisance/permit case brought under Chapter 54 of the Texas Local Government Code where the Texarkana Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment entered on behalf of the City.  [Comment: this is a long, 39-page opinion].

Polecat owned 5 acres of land within the City limits. Polecat received a notice of violation from the City asserting the property violated several health and safety ordinances and needed to be repaired. After receiving the notice, Polecat sued the City. The city counterclaimed against the corporate owners and sued the property in rem. Polecat asserted the property had operated as a location for manufactured dwellings to affix to real property and obtain connections since the 1960s. Polecat argued that the City refused to allow it to proceed with its plans to prepare the Property to be on public sewer service. Polecat argued that, instead, the City was requiring it to apply for a mobile home park license and comply with city ordinances by dedicating property to install fire hydrants, dedicating a turnaround space for fire trucks, and absorbing the cost of water flowing through the fire hydrants. The City asserted Polecat was illegally operating an unlicensed mobile home park and unlicensed travel trailer park in violation of the City’s code of ordinances.  The trial court granted the City’s traditional and no-evidence motions for summary judgment, resulting in a final judgment in favor of the City. The trial court’s order specifically found that the Polecat Defendants’ violations of city ordinances created a substantial danger of injury or adverse health impact and that a permanent injunction was necessary to prohibit the specific conduct that violated the ordinances and to require conduct necessary to comply with them. Polecat appealed.

The summary judgment evidence showed that the Property was continuously operated as a mobile home and travel trailer park. Polecat testified that the Property was a residential property that was eighty percent occupied, but admitted it housed rental mobile homes since the 1960s, as well as seven travel trailers.  The City’s appraisal district had labeled the Property as a mobile home park, and Polecat had never challenged that designation. Even the TNRCC sent notices of violations to Polecat related to improperly hooked up septic lines. The summary judgment evidence showed that the City was willing to work with the Polecat Defendants to obtain mobile home and travel trailer park licenses and would consider a site plan that complied with city ordinances, however, Polecat did not agree to comply with the ordinances.  During discovery, numerous other violations became apparent, including violations preventing fire trucks from being able to properly access or service the Property.  Polecat’s testimony established it never applied for a license to operate a mobile home park or travel trailer park.  The City’s traditional summary judgment motion established various violations of the City’s ordinances. The City also filed a no-evidence motion for summary judgment asserting that because the City was not requesting the dedication or transfer of any portion of the Property to the public for public use; the City had not deprived the Polecat Defendants of all viable use of the Property. Further, it was Polecat’s failure to apply for a site plan permit and a license that prevented the City from extending sewer services. Polecat also admitted it was not challenging the validity of any ordinances.

The court found Polecat failed to preserve its appellate points objecting to the City’s summary judgment evidence as they complained of only procedural defects and failed to obtain a ruling. Next, the court held the City was not required to prove continuing violations in order to be entitled to injunctive relief under Chapter 54. Polecat’s petition did not contain any challenge to the city ordinances themselves or allege that the ordinances did not apply to them and therefore was not entitled to any declaratory relief. The court also noted that there were multiple defendants, including the property in rem, but only Polecat responded to the summary judgment on behalf of itself alone. As a result, the other defendants could only attack the granting of the summary judgment by asserting the City failed to carry its burden of proof. The City met its burden to establish entitlement to summary judgment and permanent injunctive relief. Further, “[i]n a regulatory taking, it is the passage of the ordinance that injures a property’s value or usefulness.” Polecat does not challenge the passage of any ordinance. Instead, the petition focused on whether the City’s intentional actions resulted in inverse condemnation.  However, since the City did not destroy all economically viable use of the property, there can be no taking. Additionally, Polecat’s summary judgment evidence (which Polecat argued created a fact issue) contained mainly affidavits that were unsigned and unnotarized. As a result, Polecat failed to create a fact issue with proper summary judgment evidence. The trial court properly entered judgment for the City.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Morris and Justices Burgess and Carter. Opinion by Justice Burgess.

Fourth Court of Appeals upholds injunction preventing Governor from prohibiting ordinances regulating face masks – Governor’s authority does not extent to local health and safety regulations with separate grants of authority

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Greg Abbott, in his Official Capacity as Governor of Texas, and State of Texas v. City of San Antonio and County of Bexar, 04-21-00342-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonino, November 10, 2021).

This is a COVID-19 declaratory judgment (ultra vires) action brought against Texas Governor Gregg Abbott where the Fourth Court of Appeals held the Governor does not have the power to prevent certain local regulations during a disaster.

Bexar County and the City of San Antonio sued Governor Abbott after the Governor signed Executive Order GA-38, which provides, with some exceptions, that: “No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district, and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face-covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering . . . .”  The local entities sued asserting the order exceeded the Governor’s authority. The trial court issued a temporary injunction order enjoining the enforcement of certain provisions of Executive Order GA-38 disallowing local governmental entities from requiring individuals to wear face coverings. The Governor filed an interlocutory appeal.

The City and County’s ultra vires claim requires construction of the Texas Disaster Act.  The entities have different powers, but both have the ability to adopt reasonable rules and regulations to protect public health. These powers are granted to the entities at all times and are especially relevant during times of disaster. The Governor invoked § 418.016(a) of the Texas Government Code as support for his authority. Under the section, the Governor may “suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business or the orders or rules of a state agency if strict compliance with the provisions, orders, or rules would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”  After analyzing the language the Fourth Court held the statutes the Governor purports to suspend are not “regulatory statutes,” subject to suspension under the Act.  Regulatory statutes “prescribe the procedures” for the conduct of state business, such as procedures for the proper return of mail-in ballots.  The statutes do not address state-level procedure or business; instead, they are “grant-of-authority statute[s] giving local authorities the leeway to act in their best independent judgment within the confines of their own jurisdictions.”  Further, the Governor may only suspend regulatory statutes proscribing procedures for state business. The health and safety laws at issue are not procedural but  grant authority to local governments to act on matters of local public health and do not pertain to “state business.” It would “strain credulity to suppose the Legislature intended to abdicate its legislative prerogative, beyond the narrow regulatory and procedural matters specified, and permit the Governor to suspend all legislated grants of local authority on matters of public health without stating so directly.”  The court then examined the injury elements in the interim, the status quo elements of an injunction, and standing of the local entities. In the end, the court held the local entities were entitled to legally seek a temporary injunction and such injunction was proper under the standards indicated in the rules.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez, Justice Chapa and Justice Rios. Opinion by Chief Justice Martinez. The docket page can be found here.

 

Junk vehicle owner failed to establish ownership in municipal court, so was not entitled to sue for taking in later suit

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Jane Vorwerk v. City of Bartlett and John Landry Pack, Mayor, 03-21-00001-CV, (Tex. App – Austin, August 6, 2021)

The Bartlett Municipal Court declaring a 1986 Toyota mobile home to be a junk vehicle. The municipal court found that defendant James Fredrick Hisle was the owner or person in lawful possession of the mobile home, he was properly notified and appeared in person before the court, and he was afforded ample time to remove the mobile home from his property under Ordinance. It was also declared to be a public nuisance. The court ordered removal and if Hisle did not remove it the City could.  Vorwerk filed suit in justice court asserting she owned the vehicle and the City committed a taking. The City’s filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted.

Vorwerk asserted she created a fact issue regarding the ownership of the vehicle. Vorwerk did not submit any evidence that she owned the mobile home at the time of the municipal-court proceeding. Therefore, because the relevant evidence presented by the City and the Mayor was undisputed, that is, that Vorwerk was not the registered owner, and because Vorwerk did not present any evidence that she was the owner of the mobile home at the time of the municipal-court proceeding, the court conclude that she did not raise a fact issue concerning her ownership of the mobile home at the time of the municipal court hearing. The JP properly dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Panel consists of Justices Goodwin, Triana, and Kelly. Affirmed. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Triana can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

 

Property owner not entitled to de novo review of nuisance determination says Austin Court of Appeals

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Mark Groba v. The City of Taylor, Texas, 03-19-00365-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Feb. 3, 2021)

In this nuisance abatement case, the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Groba, a real property owner, was subject to an enforcement action in the Municipal Court of Taylor, acting in an administrative capacity.  The court conducted a hearing and issued an order granting the City’s application to declare Groba’s property a nuisance under chapter 214 of the Texas Local Government Code. The municipal court later issued an order declaring that Groba failed to comply with its original order to clean up the nuisance. The City then filed a Chapter 54 lawsuit to enforce it’s ordinances and the orders in district court. The City sought injunctive relief related to its nuisance determination, including authorizing the City to demolish the building and charge the costs for doing so to Groba. The City also sought civil penalties.  The trial court issued an injunction order allowing the City to demolish the building, which the City did.  The day after the demolition, Groba filed a counterclaim for declaratory judgment and trespass, arguing that he was entitled to a jury trial on the nuisance determination. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted. Groba appealed.

After receiving a copy of the municipal court order, Groba did not appeal and, thus, did not comply with the jurisdictional prerequisites for judicial review of the nuisance determination.  Groba asserted he was entitled to de novo review of the City’s nuisance determination, and even if he had failed to timely appeal the nuisance determination, the City is estopped from asserting a jurisdictional challenge to his request for a jury trial because the City “misled” him by filing “multiple proceedings” and by dismissing the criminal municipal-court case after he had requested a jury trial. A property owner aggrieved by a municipality’s order under § 214.001 may seek judicial review of that decision by filing a verified petition in district court within thirty days of receipt of the order. A court cannot acquire subject-matter jurisdiction by estoppel. The City’s enforcement of an ordinance may be estopped, but only in exceptional circumstances that are not present. But subject-matter jurisdiction is still not conferred through estoppel.  Further, contrary to Croba’s assertions, the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in City of Dallas v. Stewart, 361 S.W.3d 562 (Tex. 2012) does not give him an unconditional right to de novo review of a nuisance determination. A de novo review is required only when a nuisance determination is appealed, which Croba did not perform.

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

Waco Court of Appeals holds an allegation of overzealous code enforcement actions is inadequate to establish a substantive due process violation when regulations are enforceable.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

House of Praise Ministries, Inc. v. City of Red Oak, Texas, 10-19-00195-CV (Tex. App.—Waco, Aug. 6, 2020).

In this substantive due process case, the Waco Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s grant of a plea to the jurisdiction because the plaintiff did not bring any allegations that rose to the level of a substantive due process violation for code enforcement on its property.

The plaintiff is the owner of a piece of property in Red Oak, Texas that was the subject of code enforcement actions including substandard building declaration in municipal court.  The plaintiff initially brought claims for regulatory taking, procedural due process, and substantive due process based on the municipal court case determining that the buildings on its property were substandard.  In an earlier ruling by the trial court and this court of appeals, the regulatory taking and procedural due process claims were dismissed, but the plaintiff was given the opportunity to replead the substantive due process claim. The plaintiff replead the substantive due process claim including allegations that the City’s offered amortization agreement, overzealous code enforcement actions, and premature lis pendens filing violated its substantive due process rights.  The trial court granted the City’s plea to the jurisdiction related to the substantive due process claim.

To present a substantive due process claim, the plaintiff must prove that the government deprived the plaintiff of a constitutionally protectable property interest capriciously and arbitrarily.  City of Lubbock v. Corbin, 942 S.W.2d 14, 21 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1996, writ denied).  The Court of Appeals held that none of the three allegations met this standard.  The amortization agreement was never entered into by the plaintiff and so did not deprive it of any rights. The Court of Appeals then held that “conclusory allegations that the code enforcement officer enforced the City’s regulations arbitrarily and capriciously are inadequate, standing alone, to support a substantive due process claim.”  The Court also noted that there was no allegation that the regulations themselves were an issue.  Finally, the Court held that a lis pendens filing, which puts potential property purchasers on notice that an action against a property is currently being brought, does not violate substantive due process even if filed prematurely, where no other evidence of capriciousness or arbitrariness in filing the lis pendens.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Property owner negated premise duty as a matter of law involving brown-recluse spider attack on invitee

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Homer Hillis v Henry McCall, 18-1065 (Tex. March 13, 2020)

This is a premises-liability case where the Texas Supreme Court ruled the property owner negated as a matter of law the duty to warn of the brown-recluse spider danger. While not a governmental liability case, the analysis of knowledge would be similar.

Hillis owns a bed and breakfast (the B&B) and a neighboring cabin which he rents out. Hillis hired a housekeeper to prepare and clean the B&B before guests arrived. That process included utilizing “bug bombs” in the event the housekeeper noticed any pest problems, on an “as needed” basis. Hillis leased the neighboring cabin on the property to Henry McCall, and utilized him as a handyman. Hillis typically called McCall several days before guests arrived and asked him to perform various tasks associated with B&B services. While checking under the sink for a leak in response to a Hillis call, McCall was bitten by a brown recluse spider. Before he was bitten, McCall had observed spiders in both the cabin and the B&B on several occasions and had notified Hillis about the general presence of spiders. Hillis asserted he would pass along the information to the housekeeper to take care of. McCall sued Hillis for negligence under a premises-liability theory, alleging that the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition. Hillis filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, under the longstanding doctrine of ferae naturae, he owed no duty to McCall with respect to indigenous wild animals that Hillis had neither introduced to nor harbored on the property. The trial court granted the MSJ and McCall appealed.

The Texas Supreme Court held the duties owed by a landowner in a premises-liability case “depend upon the role of the person injured on his premises.”  When the injured person qualifies as an invitee, as McCall did by admission of the parties,  then as a general rule the landowner owes a “duty to make safe or warn against any concealed, unreasonably dangerous conditions of which the landowner is or reasonably should be, aware but the invitee is not.” The duty does not extend to warning the invitee of hazards that are open and obvious. The Court also recognized that with certain exceptions, a premises owner generally owes no duty to protect invitees from wild animals on the owner’s property. Wild animals “exist throughout nature” and are “generally not predictable or controllable.” The exception to this doctrine is when wild animals are found in artificial structures or places where they are not normally found, the landowner knows or should know of the unreasonable risk of injury and patrons would not be expected to recognize the danger. Under this exception, the landowner owes the general duty owed to an invitee to warn or make safe unreasonably dangerous conditions they know or should know about. However, many insects and spiders are commonly found indoors. The ever-present possibility that an insect or spider bite may occur indoors does not amount to an unreasonable risk of harm. The Court analyzed the record and listed pertinent facts. The Court found knowledge of the general intermittent presence of spiders does not necessarily amount to knowledge of an unreasonable risk of harm, and Hillis had no particular reason to know that brown recluses, or other venomous spiders, were inside the B&B. Further, McCall and Hillis had identical actual knowledge of the presence of spiders on the property. According to McCall, Hillis should have warned him that the spiders McCall himself had seen and reported to Hillis were dangerous. The Court expressly stated “[w]e will not impose a duty on a landowner to warn an invitee about something he already knows.”  As a result, Hillis negated a duty to McCall as a matter of law.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The docket page can be 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.

Lack of due care finding by accident review board is evidence only of negligence, not recklessness under emergency responder exception to TTCA

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Harris County v. George J. Spears, 14-17-00662-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.], September 25, 2018)

This is an interlocutory appeal where the Fourteenth Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the County’s plea to the jurisdiction in this emergency responder/vehicular accident case and rendered judgment for the County.

While responding to an emergency call (i.e. possible suicide and medical emergency), Deputy Corporal Baskins collided with Spears at an intersection. As Baskins approached the intersection he slowed almost to a complete stop.  The cars moved to permit Deputy Baskins to proceed through the intersection. As Baskins drove through the intersection, a vehicle driven by Spears hit the rear passenger side of his patrol vehicle. The vehicle’s siren clearly can be heard in the dash cam video.  The County’s accident review board noted Baskins failed to use “due care” by not clearing the intersection first and issued a 1-day suspension. The County filed a combined motion for summary judgment and plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. The County appealed.

The emergency responder provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) retains immunity unless a responder drives with “reckless disregard for the safety of others.”  The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to show that the emergency response exception does not apply.  The term “emergency” is interpreted broadly under the TTCA.   Deputy Baskins’s affidavit stated the importance to preserve the scene before family arrive and the varying needs when responding to such calls. The evidence established an emergency existed. Further, Spear’s arguments do not justify limiting the emergency response exception to preclude application to a backup responder to a priority two call. The evidence shows that Deputy Baskins was not acting with reckless disregard at the time of the collision. The accident review board’s reprimand does not create an issue of fact regarding recklessness — rather, the board’s conclusion that Deputy Baskins “failed to exercise due care” is evidence only that Deputy Baskins acted negligently in entering the intersection.  As a result, the County’s dispositive motions should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Boyce, Justice Donovan and Justice Wise. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Boyce.  The attorney listed for the County is Patrick Nagorski.  The attorneys listed for Spears are Christina Minshew Lewis and Nichole Marie Nech.

City properly brought enforcement of junked vehicle ordinance in district court, but city ordinance did not properly adopt alternative administrative procedure

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In re Philip T. Pixler, 02-18-00181-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, July 26, 2018).

This is a mandamus suit where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held the district court had jurisdiction over the City of Newark’s enforcement of its junk vehicle ordinance, but that the City ordinance did not properly create an alternative mechanism to allow for administrative penalties.

Pixler owns an auto-tech business and would sometimes store vehicles in parking spaces and on the neighboring property.  Pixler was given eight complaints which were submitted to an administrative board under the City’s ordinances. The board determined the vehicles were junk vehicles and assessed $8,000 in administrative penalties. Pixler did not challenge the board decision directly. The City then filed a petition in district court seeking (1) to enjoin Pixler from further violating its ordinances, (2) to collect the $8,000 in administrative penalties, and (3) to impose separate civil penalties against Pixler for continuing to violate its ordinances. The City won a partial summary judgment motion and awarded penalties totaling $80,000.00, but since the City’s Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act claim is still pending, no final judgment has been entered.  Pixler filed this mandamus proceeding challenging the district court’s subject matter jurisdiction over the matter.

The court divided the holding into roughly three parts: district court jurisdiction over junk-vehicle determinations, district court jurisdiction over administrative penalties assessed by the administrative board, and the district court’s jurisdiction over the additional civil penalties. Subchapter B of chapter 54 of the Texas Local Government Code addresses health and safety ordinances and allows a district court to have jurisdiction over enforcement of such ordinances. And §54.016 permits the municipality to obtain injunctive relief against the owner of the premises that is allegedly in violation of the ordinance. Since the City ordinance declares any junked vehicle visible from a public place to be detrimental to the safety and welfare of the public, enforcement is properly in the district court.  And since §54.017 allows civil penalties of no more than $1,000 per day, the district court has jurisdiction over the civil penalties. However, for administrative penalties assessed by the administrative board, the City’s ordinances did not comply with the statutory requirements. The City’s ordinances adopt the procedures established under the Texas Transportation Code chapter 683 for abatement of junked vehicles. But, the procedures adopted address enforcement in municipal court before a judge.  And while Subchapter E of Chapter 683 allows a city to adopt an alternative procedure for junked vehicles and §54.044 of the Local Government Code likewise allows a city to adopt a general alternative procedure, none of the City’s ordinances actually did that. The court acknowledged the City has the statutory authority to adopt an alternative administrative procedure, but to do so, the City must adopt a specific ordinance setting out the process. Simply because the City has a municipal court of record, does not, by default, mean it can utilize an alternative administrative procedure. Because the City utilized that procedure when its ordinances did not adopt one, the administrative board lacked authority to assess the $8,000 administrative penalty.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Walker and Justice Meier. Opinion by Justice Meier.  Attorneys listed for the City real parties in interest are William Andrew Messer  and William W. Krueger, III.  Pixler appeared pro se.

City ordinance allowed to make additional criteria for dangerous animal determination says Amarillo Court of Appeals

Shannon Nicole Washer, et al. v. City of Borger, 07-16-00413-CV (Tex. App. – Amarillo, July 31, 2018).

In this case the Amarillo Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ claims challenging the constitutionality of an animal control ordinance and a dangerous dog determination preemption issue.

The City of Borger, a home-rule municipality, has an animal control ordinance and dangerous dog determination adoption under Tex. Health & Safety Code § 822.0421. Borger’s ordinances established an animal control authority to investigate dangerous animals (not just dogs), secure impoundment, if necessary, and provide a process for appeal.  Appeals go to municipal court. The authority’s written determination that the animal is dangerous gives rise to a rebuttable presumption that the animal is a dangerous animal. Appeal from the municipal court goes to a county court or county court at law. Washer sued to prevent the application of the ordinance against her and her dog. She obtained a temporary injunction, but on final hearing, the court dismissed her claims. She appealed, but due to the lack of a reporter’s record, the court considered only those issues reviewable by reference to the clerk’s record.

City regulations ancillary to and in harmony with the general scope and purpose of state law are not preempted. Further, Tex. Health & Safety Code § 822.047 allows a city to place additional regulations on the state law dangerous dog determination criteria. Using statutory construction principles, the court held the ordinance was not in conflict with state law or the constitution. The ordinance provides for the taking of sworn statements in addition to interviewing individuals, examining the animal and reviewing other relevant information. Being more specific or providing additional information is not a contradiction. State law does not limit the investigation to sworn testimony. Further, state law is silent on whether a presumption exists of dangerousness after an authority makes a determination.  As a result, the judgment is affirmed.

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 Pirtle. The attorney listed for Washer is Frank Lay.  The attorney listed for the City is Joseph Parsons.

Texas Supreme Court holds City plastic bag ban preempted under the Solid Waste Disposal Act

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City of Laredo v Laredo Merchants Association, 16-0748, — S.W.3d. – (Tex. June 22, 2018)

The Texas Supreme Court held the City’s plastic/paper trash bag ban is preempted.

As part of a strategic plan to create a “trash-free” city, the City of Laredo adopted an ordinance to reduce litter from one-time-use plastic and paper bags. The Ordinance makes it unlawful for any “commercial establishment” to provide or sell certain plastic or paper “checkout bags” to customers. The Laredo Merchants Association (the Merchants) sued the City to declare the ordinance preempted by state law. The Solid Waste Disposal Act, specifically Tex. Health & Safety Code §361.0961, precludes a local government from prohibiting or restricting “the sale or use of a container or package” if the restraint is for “solid waste management purposes” not otherwise authorized by state law. The trial court granted the City’s summary judgment motion, but a divided court of appeals reversed and rendered judgment for the Merchants. The City appealed.

A statutory limitation of local laws may be express or implied, but the Legislature’s intent to impose the limitation “must ‘appear with unmistakable clarity.’” The Solid Waste Disposal Act’s policy is to reduce municipal waste to the extent feasible. The Act’s preemption of local control is narrow and specific, applying to ordinances that “prohibit or restrict, [1] for solid waste management purposes, [2] the sale or use of a container or package [3] in a manner not authorized by state law”. The court held “solid waste management” refers to institutional controls imposed at any point in the solid waste stream, from generation of solid waste to disposal. The definition includes the systematic control of the generation of solid waste. The City’s argument the bags were not solid waste under the Act’s definition because they had not yet been discarded as waste at the point of regulation was rejected. Further, the Court held A single-use paper or plastic bag used to hold retail goods and commodities for transportation clearly falls within the ordinary meaning of “container”. Under the Act’s immediate context, the words “container” and “package” are not accompanied by words modifying or restricting the terms. The Act is not concerned solely with discarded materials but also includes regulations applicable to the production, retail sale, and distribution of new consumer goods. Finally, the Court held the preemption provision applies to local regulation when the manner is not authorized by state law. Manner is how something can be done, not merely if it can be done. The Act removes a home-rule city’s general power over solid waste, but provides limited authority back in certain situations not applicable here.  The City’s Ordinance does not fall within a manner authorized by another state law. As a result, the Act preempts the City’s ordinance.

Justice Guzmon concurred but wrote separately to emphasize the balance needed in such a situation. The City’s Ordinance had a valid environmental purpose. “Improperly discarded plastics have become a scourge on the environment and an economic drain.” Her opinion highlighted the damage caused by unchecked waste ranging from animals, to ranchers, to the agricultural industry. However, the City’s Ordinance listed only a moderate form of impact and had a direct financial impact on the merchants and non-local vendors. She noted a lack of uniform state-wide regulations creates concern and negative impacts, so some preemption is understandable and necessary. In the end the balance of all competing interests is the purview of the legislative branch, not the judicial branch.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Chief Justice Hecht. Concurring opinion by Justice Guzman, joined by Justice Lehrmann.  The docket page with attorney information is found here.