14th Court of Appeals holds ex-employees trigger date to file a charge of discrimination only occurs when employer’s discriminatory animus becomes sufficiently clear and he has suffered a tangible employment action

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Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas v. John Carter, 14-19-00422-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.], January 14, 2021)

This is an employment dispute where the 14th Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction filed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro).

Carter worked as a bus operator for Metro. In 2014 Carter was involved in a vehicle accident that Metro categorized as “preventable.”  Carter’s union representative requested a reconsideration. Due to polio as a child, Carter walked with a noticeable limp. When reviewing the video of the accident, the superintendent (Ramirez) believed Carter did not have sufficient leg strength to lift his leg off the accelerator and instead had to use his arm to move his leg off the accelerator and onto the brakes. Cater had to submit to a fitness-for-duty evaluation and was held to be capable of performing the job. Ramirez refused to put Carter back to work. Ramirez required Carter to pass a Texas Department of Public Safety Skilled Performance Evaluation (SPE) to determine if he was capable of driving commercial vehicles, which had not been done by Ramirez before. However, Carter passed. From June 2014 to January 2016, Metro moved Carter from place to place within the agency. In January 2016, after receiving notification that Carter had not passed the January 2016 medical examination, Metro placed Carter on involuntary medical leave. However, Carter had received a 2015 medical certificate noting he could operate commercial vehicles. At this point, Carter filed a charge of discrimination.  In March of 2017, Metro terminated Carter. Carter sued for disability and age discrimination and retaliation. Metro filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. Metro appealed.

The court first held Carter’s claims were not time-barred. Even though he was on notice in 2014 that he may have been subject to discrimination, his wages did not change and he was not otherwise impacted until placed on medical leave in 2016. He timely filed his charge of discrimination in 2016 and was terminated in 2017. The court specifically stated “[i]t was only when Metro placed Carter on involuntary medical leave even though he possessed a valid, two-year CDL and DOT medical certification, that Metro’s discriminatory animus became sufficiently clear and he had suffered a tangible employment action, that Carter was required to file a charge of disability discrimination.”  As a result, he timely filed his charge and brought suit. The court then held that fact issues exist as to the remaining aspects of the disability discrimination and retaliation charges.

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

Beaumont Court of Appeals holds City is not liable for alleged failure to create a police report, failure to investigate, or failure to prosecute as asserted by Plaintiff

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Caryn Suzann Cain v. City of Conroe, Tex., et al., 09-19-00246-CV, 2020 WL 6929401 (Tex. App.—Beaumont Nov. 25, 2020)

 This is an interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s order granting the City’s motion to dismiss, plea to the jurisdiction, and traditional motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff, Caryn Suzann Cain, filed a pro se civil suit against the Conroe Police Department alleging police negligence in the department’s investigation and disposal of her complaints regarding disputes with her neighbors. Cain asserted the City failed to render police assistance and file an incident report after she was allegedly assaulted by her neighbor’s dog, and that the Department showed bias towards her neighbor, a state correctional officer, who allegedly continued to harass her over a period of eighteen months.  Cain later § 1983 claims against the City.  In response, the City defendants filed a motion to dismiss under §101.106(e) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, a plea to the jurisdiction, and traditional motion for summary judgment.  The trial court granted all motions.

The officers were entitled to dismissal of the tort claims under §101.106(e).  Next, under the TTCA if an injury does not arise from a city employee’s operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle, then the city is not liable for its employee’s negligence. “Arises from” requires a plaintiff to show a direct connection between the injury and the employee’s vehicle operation or use.  Simply using a patrol vehicle’s radio is not actionable. Similarly, the court noted mere involvement of tangible personal property in an injury does not, by itself, waive immunity.  The tangible personal property must do more than create the condition that makes the injury possible. Here, no tangible personal property was negligently used to result in any of the alleged injuries. Next, to allege a valid constitutional rights violation under § 1983 against the City, Cain was required to assert a deprivation was caused by a policy, custom, or practice of the City. A municipality is not liable under § 1983 for the unconstitutional acts of its non-policymaking employees.  The Court determined Cain did not allege sufficient facts showing an unconstitutional policy or custom was being implemented. Finally, the Due Process Clause does not require the State to protect life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors, and it generally confers no affirmative right to government aid.  Thus, Cain’s allegation that the City failed to protect her against her neighbor did not constitute a due process violation.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consisted of Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justices Hollis Horton and Leanne Johnson.  Opinion by Chief Justice McKeithen.  Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

 

El Paso Court of Appeals holds courts analyze the substance of pleadings, not the form of creative pleadings trying to reframe the claims.

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Joseph O. Lopez v. The City of El Paso, 08-19-00123-CV (Tex. App.—El Paso Dec. 9, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s order granting the City’s plea to the jurisdiction in which the El Paso Court of Appeals affirmed.

Plaintiff, Joseph O. Lopez sued the City of El Paso, for alleged injuries he sustained as the result of an arrest by two City police officers.  Lopez alleged that during the arrest, the officers forcefully pulled him from his vehicle; flung him to the ground, pinned him and applied pressure on his torso, head, and neck.  He also asserts one of the officers struck him in the head multiple times.  Lopez further alleged that the officers negligently employed a baton while using excessive force. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.

On appeal, the Eighth Court of Appeals addressed the sole issue of whether the trial court abused its discretion by deciding that Appellant had failed to allege sufficient facts to support a waiver of immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”).  First, the court noted that § 101.106(a) bars a plaintiff from suing city employees once the plaintiff has elected to sue the city first, even in cases where city employees might otherwise be solely and personally liable in their individual capacities.  The court then acknowledged Lopez had creative pleading in an attempt to avoid characterizing the officers’ conduct as an intentional tort.  It noted that when courts analyze a plaintiff’s pleadings to determine the existence of waivers of immunity, courts look at the substance of the pleadings, not to their characterization or form. The TTCA does not apply to intentional acts including assault, battery, false imprisonment, or any other intentional tort.  In this case, the police conduct alleged by Lopez, the substance of his claims, fell under the category of intentional torts, specifically assault and battery, not negligence.  As a result, the alleged tortious conduct did not sustain a waiver of immunity under the TTCA.  The plea was properly granted.

 

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consisted of Chief Justice Jeff Alley and Justices Yvonne Rodriguez and Gina Palafox.  Opinion by Justice Rodriguez.  Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

 

14th Court of Appeals holds describing the general place where an injury occurs is sufficient for Tort Claims Act notice.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Metro. Transit Auth. of Harris County v. Tracey Carr, No. 14-19-00158-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th]  January 12, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s order denying the city’s plea to the jurisdiction in a vehicle accident tort claims case, the 14th Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.

The plaintiff sued the transit authority after she was injured on a bus.  The plaintiff was injured when boarding a bus due to the driver’s sudden acceleration.  The plaintiff alleged that the injury occurred on October 25, 2017 on or around 7:15 p.m. near a specific intersection on Bus 3578.  She stated that the driver was male and either Hispanic or Caucasian.  The plaintiff injured her back, neck, and spine.  The plaintiff notified the transit authority of this information within six months of her alleged injury.  The transit authority filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting the notice was insufficient because she gave the wrong bus number in her notice.  The trial court denied the Authority’s plea to the jurisdiction and the Authority appealed.

A plaintiff is required to present written notice to the governmental entity within six months of an injury that could give rise to a claim under the Texas Torts Claim Act.  The notice has to “reasonably” describe the injury or damage, the time and place of the incident in question, and the facts of the incident.  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.101(a).  Whether a notice provided to the governmental entity is timely and adequate is a question of law for the court to decide.  The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s denial of the transit authority’s plea to the jurisdiction, holding that the plaintiff’s notice was sufficient because she provided notice of the location, the injury, and the facts of the injury.   The description was sufficient with the street intersection despite the allegation that the bus number of the bus where the accident occurred was incorrect.

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

 

The Tenth Court of Appeals held immunity waived for airport lease based on improvements made by tenant

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Cleburne v. RT General, LLC, No. 10-20-00037-CV (Tex. App.—Waco  December 16, 2020) (mem. op.).

This is an interlocutory appeal from a trial court denial of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction on a breach of contract and related claims regarding an airport lease. The Waco Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.

The plaintiff sued the city after the city attempted to evict the plaintiff from the city’s airport under a lease agreement with the plaintiff.  The city and plaintiff entered into a lease agreement for airport facilities where the plaintiff could use the airport facilities at no charge for ten years because the plaintiff had expended over $300,000 in repairing the city’s airport facilities.  After the first ten years, the plaintiff was required to pay rent for use of the facilities.   Three years into the lease, the city sent a letter of eviction to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff sued the city for breach of contract, inverse condemnation, declaratory judgment, and fraud.  The city argued it had immunity from suit because the airport operation is a governmental function and the contract was missing an essential term, the rental payments for the first ten years.  The trial court denied the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Immunity is based on whether a function on which liability is based is a governmental or proprietary function.  Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 559 S.W.3d 142, 146 (Tex. 2018).  Operation of an airport is a governmental function.  Tex. Transp. Code § 22.021(a)(2).  Immunity from a governmental function can be waived by a contract claim if the contract falls within the provisions of Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code including stating the essential terms of the contract.  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 271.152.  While price is an essential term of an agreement, the court of appeals held that past consideration could meet this requirement.  The court of appeals also held that claims for declaratory judgment and inverse condemnation can move forward on the same set of facts because immunity is waived under breach of contract.

Chief Justice Gray dissented by footnote stating that there was insufficient evidence that goods or services were provided to the city under the lease agreement.  Chief Justice Gray would also render judgment on the other claims as they are creative pleading efforts that should be dismissed as attempts to avoid the governmental immunity issue.

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

 

The Eleventh Court of Appeals held that failure to monitor or provide medical care for an inmate who was injured in a county jail is insufficient to waive immunity under the Tort Claims Act.   

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

James Garms v. Comanche County, No. 11-19-00015-CV (Tex. App.—Eastland   December 18, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s judgment granting the city’s plea to the jurisdiction on a tort claims case, the Eastland Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of the plea because injuries allegedly caused by failure to monitor or provide medical care is a nonuse of tangible personal property which does not waive immunity under the Tort Claims Act.

The plaintiff sued the county after he was injured in the county jail.   The plaintiff was an inmate in the county jail when he was injured.  He had informed the jail staff that he felt unwell and his blood pressure was checked.  Despite a high blood pressure reading, the duty nurse was not notified and the plaintiff was not monitored.  The plaintiff lost consciousness and sustained a serious head injury.  The plaintiff was left unattended with a serious head injury which caused further issues.  The plaintiff sued the county for negligence caused by a faulty motorized camera and failure to monitor and provide medical care to the plaintiff. The trial court granted the county’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Immunity from a governmental function can be waived under the Tort Claims Act if the injury is caused by: (1) the operation or use of motor-driven equipment; or (2) use of tangible of personal property.  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021.  The plaintiff must also show a nexus between the injury and the uses listed in the Tort Claims Act.  LeLeaux v. Hampshire-Fannett Indep. Sch. Dist., 835 S.W.2d 49, 51 (Tex. 1992).  Claims based on inaction of government employees or nonuse of tangible property are insufficient to waive immunity under the Tort Claims Act.  Harris Cty. v. Annab, 547 S.W.3d 609, 614 (Tex. 2018).  The court of appeals held that the claims for failure to monitor or provide medical care did not waive the county’s immunity.  The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey and  Justices Trotter and Wright. Opinion by Justice W. Stacy Trotter.

 

Third Court of Appeals holds church’s motion for new trial in water rate EDJA case held valid given unique and troubling circumstances in case

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City of Magnolia v Magnolia Bible Church, et al., 03-19-00631-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Dec. 18, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal from an order granting a new trial and denying a plea to the jurisdiction in a water rate case in which the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of new trial and the denial of the City’s plea.

This case involves the interplay between the provisions of the Expedited Declaratory Judgment Act (“EDJA”)(which deals with public securities), the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and the constitutional principles of due process. The City adopted an ordinance relating to the City’s water-system rates. In addition to residential and commercial accounts, the ordinance created a new category of water user, the “Institutional/Non-Profit/Tax-Exempt accounts,” which, among others, covered churches.  The Churches opposed the new category and surcharge as being discriminatory under the Tax Code and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TXRFRA”).  The City preemptively filed a validation suit under the EDJA to validate the bonds and rates tied to the bonds, but only notified the public through newspaper publications. It did not expressly notify the church of the suit. The trial court granted the City’s validation of the rates. The Church later filed a regular Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (“UDJA”) claim asserting the rates were discriminatory. When the City informed the Church of the final judgment under the EDJA claim, the church filed a motion for new trial in the EDJA trial court (under Tex. R. Civ. P. 329). The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting the trial court lost plenary power over the case.  The trial court denied the plea and granted the motion for new trial. The City appealed.

Chief Justice Rose held that due process does not require personal service in all circumstances, but any use of substituted notice in place of personal notice—e.g., notice by publication—must be “reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.” Notice by publication is insufficient when the name, address and interest are known.  The EDJA empowers an issuer of public securities to seek an expedited declaratory judgment concerning “the legality and validity of each public security authorization relating to the public securities,” including, as relevant here, the legality and validity of “the imposition of a rate, fee, charge, or toll.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 1205.021(2)(E). Ordinarily, notice by publication satisfies due process as to the parties bound by an EDJA judgment because the EDJA permits only in rem declarations concerning property rights and is notice to the public. However, in this case, the church challenged the application under religious freedom grounds.  Due process, therefore, requires more than notice by publication. Because notice to the Churches was constitutionally insufficient, the resulting judgment was void and can be challenged at any time. Justice Trianna took a slightly different approach, using the text of the EDJA and holding that it does not conflict with Rule 329 (allowing a new trial for persons who did not receive notice) and Rule 329 extends the plenary power of the court for a certain period of time.  Since the Church met the time periods under Rule 329, it was within the trial court’s discretion to grant or deny the motion or new trial.

Justice Baker’s dissent holds that such an interpretation undermines the intent of the EDJA which is to quickly decide the issue then preclude future claims from any other person who challenges the rate and bond applications.   He asserts Rule 329 only applies when a defendant (not an interested person) does not appear after service by publication.

If you would like to read the various opinions, Chief Justice Rose’s concurring opinion is here, Justice Trianna’s concurring opinion is here, and Justice Baker’s dissent is here.

The Ninth Court of Appeals affirmed judgment for City in First Amendment/Whistleblower claims since no causal connection was present

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Samer Shobassy v. City of Port Arthur, No. 09-18-00363-CV (Tex. App.—Port Arthur  November 19, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s retaliation-in-employment case.  The Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment.

The plaintiff worked as an assistant city attorney for the city for five years and the city attorney was the plaintiff’s supervisor.  During the plaintiff’s employment, he discussed the city’s compliance with purchasing law in the context of his employment as an assistant city attorney.  He was terminated by the city attorney and was given a termination notice which indicated that he was terminated because, among other things, he failed to follow-up on tasks and communicate with the city attorney and failed to complete the tasks assigned to him.  Plaintiff sued the city in district court claiming a Whistleblower Act claim and that his termination violated his First Amendment rights.  The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction and no evidence motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted.

To establish a claim for retaliation under the Whistleblower Act, the plaintiff has to show that the employer’s termination would not have occurred had the plaintiff not made a good faith allegation of violation of law to an appropriate law enforcement authority.  Tex. Dep’t of Human Servs. v. Hinds, 904 S.W.2d 629, 637 (Tex. 1995).  The report has to be a “but-for” cause of the termination.  Office of the Attorney Gen. of Tex. v. Rodriguez, 605 S.W.3d 183, 198 (Tex. 2020). The plaintiff was unable to make the causal connection.  To establish a claim for a free-speech retaliation claim, the plaintiff must show the plaintiff was terminated for engaging in constitutionally protected speech.  Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, Wabaunsee Cty., Kan. v. Umbehr, 518 U.S. 668, 675 (1996).   The speech in question is not protected if it is spoken within the context of the employee’s official duties.  Davis v. McKinney, 518 F.3d 304, 312 (5th Cir. 1998). The Whistleblower claim was dismissed because the claims of illegal conduct by the City were not made until after the termination. The free speech claim was invalid because his speech was performed and related to is employment position. The dismissal of both was proper.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen and  Justices Kreger and Horton. Opinion by Justice Hollis Horton

Beaumont Court of Appeals held Plaintiff failed to overcome emergency responder exception under Texas Tort Claim Act in vehicle accident case

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Texas Dept. of Pub. Safety v. Kendziora, 09-19-00432-CV (Tex.App.—Beaumont, Nov. 5, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of Texas DPS’s plea to the jurisdiction in a case involving a car accident while a DPS trooper (“Chapman”) was responding to an emergency. The Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed the denial.

Chapman was responding to a call reporting one hundred people fighting at a sports complex. En route, he approached a red light with his lights and siren activated, activated his airhorn, and slowed to a near stop while clearing the intersection. He looked both ways while crossing the intersection and cleared multiple lanes before being struck by Kendziora. Kendziora filed suit under the Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) for personal injuries sustained from that collision. DPS put forth the emergency exception defense under TTCA, which preserves immunity if the employee was in compliance with applicable law or was not acting recklessly. Chapman testified that he considered the nature of the emergency in deciding to respond immediately and urgently, while still ensuring vehicles at the intersection were stopped before proceeding. Kendziora testified that she did not hear any sirens or see any police lights prior to the collision.

The Court of Appeals held that Kendziora failed to raise a fact issue as to whether Chapman acted recklessly when he entered the intersection. She did not present any evidence showing Chapman failed to slow as necessary before entering the intersection or that he acted recklessly. Kendziora argued that the dashcam video is evidence of the reckless actions, but the video was not tendered or admitted into evidence in the lower court and was not part of the appellate record.

If you would like to read this memorandum opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justice Kreger, and Justice Johnson. Opinion by Chief Justice McKeithen.

The Sixth Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of TTCA case because the trial court was not required to review a late-filed amended petition in making its decision on summary judgment. 

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Raul Gonzales v. City of Farmers Branch, No. 06-20-00054-CV (Tex.App.—Texarkana  November 5, 2020) (mem. op.).

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”)/vehicle accident case where the Texarkana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the City.

The plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle where a police officer shot and killed the driver of the vehicle.  The plaintiff alleged that the city negligently trained and supervised its officers and for reckless use of the firearm.   The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a motion for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were for intentional torts for which the city retains immunity.  The trial court granted the city’s plea to the jurisdiction and summary judgment, dismissing the plaintiff’s claims.  On the same day, the plaintiff filed an amended petition.  The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s judgment arguing that: (1) he should have been allowed to speak at the non-jury trial; and (2) that the trial court should have taken into consideration his late amended petition before issuing its judgment.

The court held that amended petitions must be filed within seven days of the date of a summary judgment proceedings or have leave of the court before being filed. Tex. R. Civ. P. 63;  Horie v. Law Offices of Art Dula, 560 S.W.3d 425, 431 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2018, no pet.).  The court of appeals noted that no trial was held in this case, it was decided by summary judgment, and thus there was no trial for the plaintiff to be excluded from.  Further, the court held Gonzales did not appeal the dismissal on substantive grounds and only argued the amended petition should have been considered.  The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s claims because the plaintiff did not request leave to file the amended petition as required by the Rules of Civil Procedure.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of  Chief Justice Morriss and Justices Burgess and Stevens. Opinion by Chief Justice Josh R. Morriss, III.

El Paso Court of Appeals held Governor’s executive orders control over county judge order in the event of conflicts

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State of Texas, et al v. El Paso County, Texas, et al., 08-20-00226-CV (Tex. App. – El Paso, Nov. 13, 2020).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the temporary injunction involving a conflict between the county judge’s executive order and the Governor’s executive order.  The El Paso Court of Appeals reversed the denial.

The Governor’s executive order GA-32 allows bars and open with reduced capacity in October of 2020. After the County had a surge in COVID-19 cases, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued an executive order including a stay at home mandate and eliminating social gatherings not confined to a single household. While it listed several permitted essential services, bars were not included and restaurants could only allow curbside pickup.  The State and a collection of restaurants sued the County and the judge asserting the order was contrary to the Governor’s order. They sought a temporary injunction to prevent enforcement of the County Judge’s order, which the trial court denied. Plaintiffs appealed.

The court first wanted to make clear that it was not deciding on the wisdom of either order, only the statutory construction provision as to which controlled over the other. The Governor’s order contains a preemption clause countermanding any conflicting local government actions, but the County order states any conflict requires the stricter order to apply. County judges are deemed to be the “emergency management director” for their county. The Texas Disaster Act contemplates that a county judge or mayor may have to issue a local disaster declaration and has similar express powers to those issued to the Governor. However, a county judge is expressly referred to as the “agent” of the Governor, not as a separate principle. Further, even if the County judge had separate authorization, the Legislature has declared the Governor’s executive order has the force of law. State law will eclipse inconsistent local law. Additionally, the Act allows the Governor to suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute within an executive order, which would include the County order.  The court then analyzed the standards for a temporary injunction and held the trial court erred in denying the injunction.  Finally, the court concluded by stating how essential the role of a county judge is when managing disasters and emergencies and that their opinion should not be misunderstood. The Governor’s order only controls over conflicts, and any provision of the County order which can be read in harmony remains enforceable.

Justice Rodriguez’s dissent opined that the Governor exceeded the authority provided by the Disaster Act. In his view, “the Governor has taken a law that was meant to help him assist local authorities by sweeping away bureaucratic obstacles in Austin, and used it in reverse to treat local authorities as a bureaucratic obstacle to…”  a once-size-fits-all coronavirus response plan.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The dissent by Justice Rodriguez is found here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Alley, Justice Rodriguez and Justice Palafox.  Opinion by Chief Justice Alley.

Austin Court of Appeals holds that under the Civil Service Act applied to police officers, a reinstatement list must factor in seniority in the position being demoted and not seniority in the department

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Bradley Perrin v. City of Temple, et al, 03-18-00736-CV, (Tex. App – Austin, Nov. 6, 2020)

This is an employment dispute in a civil service police department with crossclaims and a host of procedural matters. The Austin Court of Appeals ultimately held the Plaintiff was entitled to the promotional position of corporal.

Perrin and Powell were serving as police officers for the City and took the written examination for promotional eligibility to the rank of corporal.  Five officers passed, including Perrin and Powell. The results were publicly posted on a certified list with Powell being third and Perrin being fifth. Then, the Director added seniority points, but made Perrin third and Powell fifth. The City Defendants and Powell contend that the Director erred in adding the seniority points and did so incorrectly. However, before the list expired, the City eliminated four corporal positions and created two new lieutenant and two new sergeant classifications. The Chief sent out a memo stating the sequence of events should have resulted in the promotion of Officers Mueller, Perrin, Powell and Hickman to corporal, and then the immediate demotion back to the rank of police officer, and placement on a Re-Instatement List for the period of one year. The reinstatement list listed Powel higher than Perrin due to seniority points being included. Perrin sued the City Defendants for a list status higher than Powell under declaratory judgment and ultra vires claims.  The City Defendants counterclaimed, seeking declaratory relief that Powell was entitled to the promotion and Powell intervened. The trial court issued an order denying Perrin’s plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment and granting the City Defendants’ and Powell’s motions for summary judgment. Perrin appealed.

The court first held the legislature waived immunity for dissatisfaction with the grading in §143.034(a) of the Texas Local Government Code, which permits an “eligible promotional candidate” who is “dissatisfied” with “the examination grading” to “appeal, within five business days, to the commission for review.” To the extent that Powell is relying on the UDJA to challenge “the examination grading” such is precluded due to the redundant remedy doctrine. Powell’s ultra vires claim is not dependent on the remedies so is permitted to move forward for prospective relief only, but since Powell sought a reevaluation of the promotion list, that is not prospective. The trial court erred in granting Powell’s summary judgment for retrospective relief to alter the list. conclude that the City Defendants’ counterclaim requesting declaratory relief did not rise to a justiciable level and therefore the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the counterclaim. It is the promotional eligibility list that provided the rights and status of the parties as to their initial promotion to corporal. Whether Perrin was erroneously placed ahead of Powell on the promotional eligibility list does not affect the rights and status of the parties under that list because, on this record, there is no mechanism by which the expired list may be retroactively amended.  By providing a unilateral right of review only to officers, the Civil Service Act is not thereby permitting a declaratory judgment action through which the City Defendants may challenge the decision of the Director in making the list.  However, for the reinstatement list, the context of the statute makes clear that the reinstatement list is created by the demotion of officers who have “least seniority in a position” and that the list “shall” be “in order of seniority.” The court determined that “seniority” in section 143.085(a) refers to seniority in the corporal position, not seniority in the Department.  So, when multiple individuals are promoted to open vacancies from a promotional eligibility list at the same time and then demoted at the same time, “seniority” for the reinstatement list is determined by the order of the promotional eligibility list.

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

The U.S. Fifth Court of Appeals held plaintiffs had standing to challenge zombie law provision in charter despite the election being over.   

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Joe Richard Pool, III, et al. v. City of Houston, et al., No. 19-20828 (5th Cir.  October 23, 2020).

In this appeal from a trial court’s dismissal of an election case.   The U.S. Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal and held that the plaintiffs had standing to continue the suit for future petitions.

The plaintiffs are petition circulators who attempted to circulate a petition in the city where they are not registered voters.  The city stated that it had a charter provision that required petitions to be circulated or signed by registered voters, but that they were going to look into the issue.  While the city was researching the issue, the plaintiffs filed suit in federal district. The district court held that the charter provision was unconstitutional and granted the temporary restraining order preventing enforcement.  After the petition period was over, the trial court dismissed the case as moot. The plaintiffs appealed. During the litigation, the city added an “editor’s note” to its charter that it would accept petitions from anyone and had a link to a new form regarding such.  The city argues that it will not be enforcing the provision and has approved a form and notation to that effect which should preclude a permanent injunction case.

When laws are deemed unconstitutional they are not always updated or removed from documents.  These are called zombie laws.  The Houston Charter has a provision that limits petition signers to registered voters.  This type of law was deemed unconstitutional in 1999 but was not removed from the city’s charter.  See Buckley v. Am. Constitutional Law Found., Inc., 525 U.S. 182, 193–97 (1999).  In order to show standing to overturn such a zombie law, plaintiffs must show that they are “seriously interested in disobeying, and the defendant seriously intent on enforcing, the challenged measure.” Justice v. Hosemann, 771 F.3d 285, 291 (5th Cir. 2014).  The Fifth Circuit held that it was clear that the plaintiffs would continue to try to submit petitions despite not being registered voters and that the city’s notation and form were insufficient to prevent enforcement.  The court held that the plaintiffs have standing and could continue their suit against the city for future petitions.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of  Justices Graves, Costa, and Engelhardt. Opinion by Circuit Judge Gregg Costa.

 

U.S. 5th Circuit holds Plaintiff students established standing to assert University’s student speech policies on harassments and rudeness are unconstitutional

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Speech First, Inc. v. Fenves, 19-50529 (5th Cir. Oct. 28, 2020)

This is a First and Fourteenth Amendment free speech case in a university setting. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims and reinstated the case.

Speech First, Inc., (“Speech First”) is an organization of free-speech advocates which brought suit on behalf of students at the University of Texas at Austin (“University”) challenging seven policies of the University. The policies prohibited obscenity, defamation, rude statements, “verbal harassment of another” with a very broad definition, a requirement that if a person demands the student to stop communicating with them the student must oblige,  and several others. The Dean of Students (Fenves) has primary authority and responsibility for the administration of student discipline. The trial court dismissed the claims due to a lack of standing. The Plaintiffs appealed.

In general, “‘a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice,’” so the fact the University amended its policies does not preclude the court from analyzing the original policies. Further, some of the definitions were not amended, thereby leaving the controversy live. Next, Because Speech First seeks a preliminary injunction on behalf of its members, it must clearly show that it likely has associational standing to bring its case on the merits.  Speech First has standing if any of its members have standing. The gravamen of Speech First’s claims is that its student-members wish to engage in robust debate on timely and controversial political topics from a contrarian point of view. Because their views do not mirror those of many on campus, their speech may be deemed “harassment,” “rude,” “uncivil,” or “offensive,” as those terms are defined in the University’s policies. The court has repeatedly held, in the pre-enforcement context, that “[c]hilling a plaintiff’s speech is a constitutional harm adequate to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.” Evidence supported that students “are afraid to voice their views out of fear that their speech” may violate University policies.  Further, terms like “harassment,” “intimidation,” “rude,” “incivility,” and “bias” beg for clarification as they are too broad and not sufficiently prescriptive. The prong requiring substantial threat of future enforcement to confer standing does not necessarily apply for a facial challenge, only an “as-applied” challenge. The dismissal is reversed and the case remanded to the district court for a reassessment of the preliminary injunction.   The court finally cautioned that “In our current national condition, however, in which ‘institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishment instead of considered reforms,’ courts must be especially vigilant against assaults on speech in the Constitution’s care.”

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices King, Jones and Costa. Opinion by Justice Jones.

14th District Court of Appeals holds all elements of a circumstantial-evidence retaliation claim (including pretext) are jurisdictional, plus court lacked jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s discrimination claim

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Margaret Fields v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 14-19-00010-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Oct. 15, 2020)

This is an employment discrimination and retaliation case where the Houston Court of Appeals (14th Dist.) affirmed the granting of the school district’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Fields enrolled as a teacher intern in the Houston Independent School District (“HISD”) alternative-certification program as a means of becoming a full-time teacher for HISD.  An alternative-certification committee served as the final decision-making authority.  It reviewed and evaluated Fields, who had difficulty with performance.   After exhausting several performance enhancement plans, the committee dismissed Fields from the program.  After receiving her right to sue letter, Fields sued for discrimination and later retaliation. HISD filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. Fields appealed.

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals first held Fields’ retaliation charge was factually related to her discrimination charge. Therefore, even though Fields did not file or amend her discrimination charge to include retaliation, she was not required to in order to bring suit.  Next, the court recognized NISD presented evidence of legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the discharge, which Fields was unable to rebut to establish pretext under her discrimination charge. Fields then argued her retaliation charge should stand because she is not required to establish pretext as a jurisdictional requirement because the jurisdictional requirement applies only to a prima facie case.   The court disagreed. When an employer presents jurisdictional evidence rebutting the prima facie case, the presumption of retaliation disappears.  The employee must present sufficient evidence of pretext to survive a plea to the jurisdiction.  All elements of a circumstantial-evidence retaliation claim are jurisdictional. Because Fields failed to present any evidence of pretext on the part of HISD, she failed to establish a waiver of immunity.  As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consisted of Justices Tracy Christopher, Ken Wise, and Jerry Zimmerer.  Opinion by Justice Jerry Zimmerer.