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.

Texas Supreme Court holds the law requires more than conclusory references to the statute’s elements in order to waive immunity

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Patrick Von Dohlen, et. al., v City of San Antonio, 20-0725 (Tex. April 1, 2022)

This is a declaratory judgment – statutory cause of action case brought against the City of San Antonio (“City”) for violating Chapter 2400 of the Texas Government Code. The Texas Supreme Court held the Plaintiffs failed to allege a proper waiver under the statute but remanded for an ability to cure the defect.

The city council for the City of San Antonio declined to allow Chick-fil-A to operate a concession area within the City’s airport. The Plaintiffs alleged the action was taken due to councilmember comments opposing the religious views of the company. Specifically, the company has a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior. Later, the Legislature passed TEX. GOV’T CODE § 2400.002, which prohibits a city from taking “any adverse action against any person based wholly or partly on the person’s membership in, affiliation with, or contribution, donation, or other support provided to a religious organization.”  Four years later, the Plaintiffs sued the City and asserted it was in violation of this statutory provision. The City challenged jurisdiction asserting the law is not retroactive, and lack of standing due to no distinct injury from the general public. The trial court denied the plea, but the court of appeals reversed and dismissed the claims. Plaintiffs appealed.

When a statute waives immunity, a plaintiff must still plead an actual violation and mere references to the statute are insufficient. Chapter 2400 explicitly waives sovereign and governmental immunity when a person “alleges” a violation of Section 2400.002.  However, the petition’s alleged facts all occurred prior to the enactment of Chapter 2400 and nothing afterward. While the Plaintiffs allege the City’s violation is continuing in nature, they do not allege any facts to support this. Here, Plaintiffs do not plead sufficient facts to “actually allege a violation” of Chapter 2400 because they fail to point to any specific “action” the City took on or after Chapter 2400 was effective. However, this does not mean the City has negated the ability to plead such a claim. Texas law does not favor striking defective pleadings without providing plaintiffs an opportunity to replead.  As a result, the case is remanded to allow the ability to replead.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. JUSTICE HUDDLE delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Lehrmann, Justice Boyd, Justice Busby, Justice Bland, and Justice Young joined. JUSTICE BLACKLOCK filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Devine joined and is found here

US 5th Circuit held officer entitled to qualified immunity due to suspects resisting placement in vehicle

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Craig, et al. v. Martin, 19-10013, (5th Cir. Feb. 15, 2022)

Special guest author: Joshua Galicia, Law Offices of Ryan Henry, PLLC

This Fifth Circuit appeal stems from a series of §1983 claims, all of which were dismissed under the appellant’s motion for summary judgment except the officer’s assertion of qualified immunity for the excessive force claims. The Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s denial, determined the officer was entitled to qualified immunity and dismissed the claims.

Officer William Martin (“Martin”) received a call about a “disturbance” involving A.C., Jacqueline Craig’s (“Craig”) minor child. Martin responded alone. On scene, Martin activated his bodycam and began a conversation with Craig, which escalated in hostility until Craig was yelling at Martin. Craig’s adult child Brea Hymond (“Hymond”) was recording the event on her cell phone.  Craig’s minor children are J.H. and K.H. J.H. stepped in between Craig and Martin, to which Martin grabbed J.H. and pulled her out from between them. K.H. then shoved Martin from behind. Martin proceeded to tase Craig to the ground and then handcuffed her. Martin then restrained J.H. and proceeded to walk Craig and J.H. to his vehicle. K.H. stood in front of the passenger door, in an apparent attempt to prevent Craig and J.H. from being placed within. Martin ordered K.H. to move and, upon refusing to do so, struck K.H., after which she moved out of the way. J.H. then further resisted being placed in the vehicle by keeping her leg out until Martin kicked her leg once, after which she placed her leg inside the vehicle.  Finally, Martin placed Hymond under arrest, who had been verbally harassing Martin throughout the previous events. Hymond refused to identify herself, so Martin raised her handcuffed arms behind her back to gain compliance.  Craig, individually and on behalf of her minor children, K.H. and J.H., and Hymond sued Martin for unlawful arrest and excessive use of force. The trial court dismissed most of the claims, but denied Martin’s qualified immunity defense. Martin appealed.

The Fifth Circuit divided its analysis into two parts: whether the officer’s actions were excessive and, if they were, whether the actions “violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable [officer] would have known.” For the first part, the Fifth Circuit found that the officer’s actions were reasonable given the nature of the actions taken against Martin by each party, particularly that he was by himself for the majority of these interactions while each individual was performing said actions and that there was video evidence, which contradicted some of the appellees’ allegations in their pleadings. For the second part, even if the officer’s actions had been found to be excessive, the precedent cited by appellees was noted as failing to find caselaw which showed individuals who were actively resisting officers as was present in this case to the point that Martin should have known he was violating clearly established rights. The court reversed the trial court order, held Martin was entitled to qualified immunity, and dismissed the remaining claims.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Chief Circuit Judge Owen and Circuit Judges Barksdale and Duncan. Opinion by Chief Circuit Judge Owen.

Fifth Circuit holds that there is no per se rule permitting pressure placed on a resisting suspect’s back and that reasonableness of use of force can change in a single interaction

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Vicki Timpa, et al. v. Dustin Dillard, et al., 20-10876, 2021 WL 5915553 (5th Cir. Dec. 15, 2021)

Special guest author Joshua Galicia

This is a §1983 excessive force and bystander liability case appealed from the District Court of the Northern District of Texas wherein the district court granted appellees’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing both claims on the grounds that the appellees had qualified immunity. The Fifth Circuit court partly reverse-in-part and affirmed-in-part

In Dallas, Texas, Anthony Timpa called 911 requesting assistance due to a possible mental health episode and stating he had ingested cocaine. A dispatcher requested DPD officers respond to the call and that the individual may be experiencing mental health issues. For mental health calls, DPD general instructs that “as soon as [a person is] brought under control, they are placed in an upright position (if possible) or on their side.” Additional instructions were provided for individuals suffering from a state of agitation normally brought about by drug use, including cocaine. In this case, Officers Dillard, Dominguez, Vasquez, and supervising officers Rivera and Mansell arrived after Timpa had been cuffed by private security guards. Timpa began to roll towards a roadway, so Officer Dillard placed his knee on Anthony’s back, keeping it there for approximately fourteen minutes. Around nine minutes in, Timpa ceased kicking, but continued moving his head back and forth then, for the final three-and-a-half minutes, Anthony became limp and unresponsive. After Dillard removed his knee and paramedics placed Timpa on a gurney, they determined that Timpa was dead. The Dallas County medical examiner conducted an autopsy and determined that Timpa had been suffering from “excited delirium syndrome” and had died from sudden cardiac arrest brought upon by the presence of cocaine in his system as well as stress associated with physical restraint. At trial, Plaintiffs’ medical expert testified that Timpa would have lived had he been restrained without force being applied to his back. Timpa’s family brought suit against Officer Dillard for excessive force and unlawful deadly force and the other four officers for bystander liability. On summary judgment, the district court granted the defendants qualified immunity for both the excessive force and bystander liability claims. The plaintiffs appealed.

The Fifth Circuit court found that Dillard’s arguments for entitlement to qualified immunity mischaracterized precedential case law regarding excessive force. Specifically, Dillard articulated a per se rule by the Fifth Circuit that ‘[the use of a] prone restraint [on] a resisting suspect does not violate the Fourth Amendment even when pressure is applied to the suspect’s back.’ In fact, the United States Supreme Court has specifically rejected any such rule. Further, the Fifth Circuit indicated that excessive/deadly force claims are not analyzed via a generalized view of the incident, but rather via a fact-intensive review of key points throughout, as changing circumstances could require an adjustment of what is considered reasonable force. Additionally, the Fifth Circuit court kept in mind that Dillard had received training specifically on interacting with suspects suffering a mental health episode and those under the influence of certain drugs, like cocaine. In this case, the court considered that Timpa himself called 911 seeking help, that he was already cuffed when Dillard arrived, that Dillard was aware that Timpa was obese (which naturally makes breathing harder when in the prone position), that Dillard was aware Timpa had stated he’d ingested cocaine (which exacerbates any breathing difficulties), that Timpa’s head movements (which Dillard argued was continued resistance) were actually signs that Timpa was attempting to breathe, and that Timpa had gone limp several minutes before Dillard removed his knee from Timpa’s back. Ultimately, the court found that there were genuine material fact issues as to excessive force as well as the use of deadly force.

As to bystander liability, the Fifth Circuit Court found that genuine issues of material fact existed for three of the four officers. Specifically, the court found that there were questions of fact whether the three officers knew Dillard was violating Timpa’s constitutional rights, whether they had reasonable opportunity to prevent Dillard from continuing to place his knee on Timpa’s back, and whether they chose not to act accordingly. The fourth officer left before Timpa stopped moving and did not return to the scene until after Dillard had removed his knee.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s order as to Dillard and three of the other officers and affirmed the granting of summary judgment as to the fourth officer.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Circuit Judges Clement, Southwick, and Wilett. Opinion by Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement.

Texas Supreme Court holds officer entitled to official immunity for turning on his lights.

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City of San Antonio v Riojas, 20-0293 (Tex. Feb. 18, 2022)

The Texas Supreme Court held an officer who turned his lights on to warn motorists of a traffic slowdown was entitled to official immunity.

Officer Tristan noticed a traffic slowdown and turned on his lights to warn motorists behind him.  Tristan observed a white sedan cross multiple lanes of traffic and exit the expressway. Officer Tristan then pulled onto the shoulder and radioed another officer to stop the sedan for making an improper lane change. While these events were occurring, Armando Riojas was riding his motorcycle behind Officer Tristan’s vehicle but three lanes over and directly behind a car driven by Vela. When the car in front of her slowed, Vela braked in response. Riojas swerved to avoid a collision but lost control of his motorcycle. Witnesses accused Tristan of causing the crash, including accusing him of scaring everyone on the stretch of road by turning on his lights. Riojas sued the City, alleging that Officer Tristan was negligent in turning on his emergency lights.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied and which the court of appeals affirmed. They determined Tristan was not entitled to official immunity. The City appealed.

Riojas concedes that by turning on his lights, Officer Tristan was performing a discretionary function within the scope of his employment. Riojas contends, however, that the City has not proven conclusively that Officer Tristan was acting in good faith. The need–risk assessment required for official immunity should not place an onerous burden on law enforcement.  Further, the need–risk balancing requirement does not go beyond the pursuit and emergency-response contexts.  The purpose for official immunity is most salient in the context of street-level police work, which frequently requires quick and decisive action in the face of volatile and changing circumstances. As a result, to be entitled to official immunity, Tristan had to only establish a reasonably prudent officer, under the same or similar circumstances, could have believed that his conduct was justified based on the information he possessed at the time. Riojas had to then show that no reasonable officer in Tristan’s position could have believed that the circumstances justified his conduct. Here, there was no suspect, no arrest, and no inherent danger to the public.  As this was not a pursuit case, the needs-risk analysis is not required or proper. Officer Tristian established his actions were reasonable and Riojas did not establish that no reasonable officer could have made the same call. As a result, Officer Tristan was entitled to official immunity as a matter of law, which in turn, removes the waiver of immunity from the City.

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

In police pursuit case, Texas Supreme Court holds 1) deviation from policy waives immunity only if lights or sirens are required, 2) officer exceeding the speed limit is part and parcel of a police chase and not not inherently reckless and 3) no independent waiver of immunity for negligent implementation of policy

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City of San Antonio v Maspero, et al. 19-1144 (Tex. Feb. 18, 2022)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) vehicle accident case where the Texas Supreme Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ claims for lack of jurisdiction.

Plaintiffs contend that their injuries arose from a San Antonio police officer’s vehicular pursuit of a fleeing suspect who crashed into their car. The chase resulted from a joint drug task force attempted to stop a car leaving suspected drug trafficking ring location. Officer Kimberly Kory was assigned to assist with the investigation. When the suspect began to flee, the task force requested assistance but did not provide any specifics about how to respond to the fleeing vehicle. SAPD’s “General Manual” contains detailed procedures governing the vehicular pursuit of such suspects.  The record demonstrated the suspect sped in heavy traffic and through active school zones. The suspect got turned around and sped past Kory, missing her vehicle, but collided with an oncoming vehicle, carrying the Plaintiffs.  They sued the City, which filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  The City asserted the emergency response exception to the waiver of immunity.  The trial court granted the plea, but the court of appeals reversed.

Under Texas Transportation Code Section 546.006, a driver of an emergency vehicle must drive “with appropriate regard for the safety of all persons” and is not relieved of “the consequences of reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Section 546.003 states “the operator of an authorized emergency vehicle engaging in conduct permitted by Section 546.001 shall use, at the discretion of the operator in accordance with policies of the department or the local government that employs the operator, audible or visual signals.”  Plaintiffs argued that since Kory deviated from the SAPD policy on such pursuits, she cannot take advantage of the Transportation Code section. The Court disagreed, holding §545.003 only required adherence to policies regarding use of lights and sirens. At the point where the suspects collided with the Plaintiffs’ vehicle, Kory was not speeding or taking action which would have required lights and sirens. Further, the court found the use of her siren was inconsequential for purposes of the causal nexus. Plaintiffs failed to explain how their injuries arose from Officer Kory’s alleged failure to use her siren in conjunction with the lights.  Based on the undisputed facts asserted, the use of a siren would not have changed the collision. Further, the court does not believe Kory’s actions constitute recklessness or even that a fact question exists. Law enforcement must retain discretion to assess and balance these types of risks using reasoned judgment.  Kory had specific instructions to stop the suspect. She did not chase him into an obviously dangerous area or force him to crash. Isolated, minor instances of Kory speeding or swerving do not bypass the emergency exception under the TCAA. A police officer’s speeding and swerving during a pursuit are not inherently reckless actions. Exceeding the speed limit is part and parcel of a police chase.  Further, no evidence suggests that the speeding itself was a cause of the crash.  Further, the evidence shows Kory engaged in some degree of risk assessment while in pursuit.  Finally, the Court disagreed with the court of appeals holding that the City’s immunity is waived for the negligent implementation of policy. The Court clarified there is no independent waiver of immunity for negligent implementation of policy.  When a waiver already exists, but the discretionary exception may apply, that is when the distinction between negligent formation of policy and negligent implementation of that policy kicks in.  The distinction only applies when evaluating whether the discretionary exception to an existing waiver is to apply. As a result, in this case, there is no waiver of immunity and the trial court’s order is reinstated.

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

The emergency exception to the Tort Claims not grounds for jurisdictional plea when factual disputes exist regarding an officer’s recklessness

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Houston v. Crystal Green, No. 14-20-00190-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Jan. 11, 2022) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s denial of the city’s motion for summary judgment, the city argued that it retained its immunity from suit under the emergency exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act.  The Fourteenth Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because there was evidence that the officer may have been reckless when driving his vehicle during the emergency.

The plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident with a city police officer collided with her vehicle.  The plaintiff sued the city under the Texas Tort Claims Act.  The city argued in a summary judgment motion that it retained its immunity from suit because the officer was heading to an emergency when the accident occurred and because the officer had official immunity.  Evidence was presented that the officer may have entered the intersection where the accident occurred at a high rate of speed and without his sirens on.  The trial court denied the City’s motion for summary judgment and the city appealed.

The Tort Claims Act waives governmental immunity for injuries or damages caused by use of a motor vehicle.  See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021; Tex. Dep’t of Transp. v. Able, 35 S.W.3d 608, 611 (Tex. 2000).  Immunity is retained for damages caused due to actions that are covered by the “emergency exception,” which covers the “action of an employee while responding to an emergency call or reacting to an emergency situation.  Id. § 101.055.  But the action must not be done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety to others.  Id.  In addition, the Texas Transportation Code requires that emergency vehicles be operated safely and without “reckless disregard for the safety of others.”  Tex. Transp. Code § 546.005.   There was evidence presented in the case that raised a fact issue of whether the officer’s operation of the vehicle that caused the injuries and damages was reckless. Because there was evidence of reckless disregard, the trial court did not grant the summary judgment in favor of the city.  The court of appeals agreed and upheld the denial of the summary judgment motion remanding the case back to the trial court.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice Christopher and  Justices Hassan and Poissant.  Opinion by Justice Margaret “Meg” Poissant.

 

Fort Worth Court of Appeals held plaintiffs’ pleadings defective in flood/drowning case but remanded to allow plaintiffs to replead

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City of Fort Worth v. Soledad Alvarez, et al. 02-20-00408-CV  (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, February 10, 2022)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) vehicle accident case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals agreed jurisdiction was not pled or presented but remanded for an opportunity to cure the pleading.

Romero was traveling in a vehicle with her daughter when floodwaters due to rain swept the vehicle into an alleged rain-filled excavation on property owned by Whiz-Q that was purported to have improper drainage due to a defective excavation. Both occupants drowned. The family sued Whiz-Q, the City and TxDOT. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction claiming that its immunity was not waived because it did not own, occupy, or control “the property where this incident occurred” or the access road Romero was on. The plea was denied, and the City appealed.

Plaintiffs argued their pleadings incorporated by implication that the flood waters on the access road constituted a defective condition, but the City asserts the pleadings only mention defective excavation. The court held the pleadings must be read as written, which does not include the flood waters as a defective condition. The City next argued that it did not have a duty to make the premises safe because it did not create the dangerous condition or agree to make safe a known, dangerous condition.   However, a premises-liability defendant may be held liable for a dangerous condition on real property if it created the condition or it “assum[ed] control over and responsibility for the premises,” even if it did not own or physically occupy the property. “The relevant inquiry is whether the defendant assumed sufficient control over the part of the premises that presented the alleged danger so that the defendant had the responsibility to remedy it.”  While the City has exclusive control over its roadways, it entered into an agreement with TxDOT to maintain the access road. The City’s jurisdictional evidence shows that, at the time of the accident, the City did not possess—that is it did not own, occupy, or control—the property or the defective excavation on the property. Whiz-Q owns and operates its business on the property.  The court concluded that at the time of the accident, either Whiz-Q or TxDOT owned or maintained the property, not the City. The pleadings are therefore defective. However, the court noted a premise defect (as opposed to a special defect) could still be potentially raised in the pleadings under the agreement with TxDOT; at least the City failed to negate all conceivable avenues under the agreement.  As a result, the suit was remanded to allow the Plaintiffs to replead under a premise defect theory only.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Kerr,  and Justice Womack. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Kerr

Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirms trial court’s authority under Civil Service Act to vacate a hearing examiner award, remand for a rehearing, and require a separate hearing examiner

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Shea O’Neill v. City of Fort Worth, 02-21-00214-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Feb 3, 2022)

This is a civil service case (which has already gone up and down the appellate ladder) where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ability to order a substituted hearing examiner in an appeal from an indefinite suspension. [Comment: Note, this is a 38-page opinion].

O’Neill was a firefighter for the City and was indefinitely suspended after being involved in a physical altercation with a citizen at a TCU football scrimmage.  He appealed to a hearing examiner who found for O’Neill. An appeal resulted to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals, which remanded the issue to decide if the hearing examiner improperly considered outside evidence. On remand, the court (specifically Judge Fitzpatrick) held the hearing examiner (Guttshall) violated the Civil Service Act (Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §§143.010(g) and 143.053(d)) by considering evidence that was not presented in the final hearing.  The trial court vacated the examiner’s decision and ordered a rehearing. When the City recognized that the same hearing examiner (Guttshall) was set to preside over the rehearing, the City objected and filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which Guttshall denied. The City then filed suit (that resulted in the present appeal) under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA) to hold Guttshall could not preside over the rehearing. The trial court held a trial on the merits under the UDJA claims and found Guttshall had exhibited bias, was no longer independent and ruled for the City. O’Neill appealed.

O’Neill argued the City’s declaratory-judgment lawsuit was barred by res judicata or collateral estoppel. The main issue presented to the trial court was whether Guttshall could preside over the rehearing regarding O’Neill’s appeal of his indefinite suspension. While O’Neill asserted the court failed to make the findings of fact on the issues he requested (so the findings entered could not be used in evaluating the appeal), the trial court, as the trier-of-fact has no duty to make additional or amended findings that are unnecessary or contrary to its judgment. O’Neill next asserted the City requested a rehearing when appealing Guttshall’s opinion to Judge Fitzpatrick so the issue of a hearing examiner was already addressed. Hence, his argument goes, since Judge Fitzpatrick did not expressly grant relief for a separate hearing examiner, only a rehearing, the issue was fully litigated. However, when an appellate court remands a case and limits a subsequent trial to a particular issue, the trial court may only determine that particular issue. Because of the remand, Judge Fitzpatrick was therefore constrained to decide only the City’s procured-by-unlawful-means claim and nothing provided for her to determine whether Guttshall had exhibited bias and was thus no longer an independent or impartial hearing examiner. As a result, res judicata and collateral estoppel are not triggered. Next, O’Neill asserted that since Guttshall denied the City’s plea, the issue was already addressed and the City cannot appeal. However, if the denial were considered the same as an arbitrator’s award (which O’Neill argued it was), such an award is appealable. But more importantly, the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and declaratory-judgment action accomplished separate purposes. The City’s plea was an objection to Guttshall presiding over the rehearing, which was a requirement to preserve the issue.  The UDJA claim went beyond mere preservation and sought express relief on the uncertainty of the issue under the wording of Chapter 143 (which does not expressly address this situation). Next, O’Neill argued the trial court erred by impliedly finding that subject-matter jurisdiction exists even though the City failed to exhaust its administrative remedies.  However, since the declarations sought are strictly limited to statutory interpretations, they are questions of law that do not require exhaustion. Next O’Neill argued that the trial court erred by fashioning a remedy not expressly authorized by the Civil Service Act, i.e., allowing a rehearing before a new hearing examiner. The trial court used guidance by referring to the Texas Arbitration Act (TAA) in interpreting/applying the Civil Service Act. The sections of the Civil Service Act make no provision for a scenario in which the district court vacates the hearing examiner’s award and remands the case for a rehearing. The court noted that the Texas Supreme Court has looked to the TAA in prior opinions to fill in the gaps when the Civil Service Act is silent.  Turning to the TAA concerning the issue here, it has a specific section dedicated to rehearings after an arbitration award is vacated. The Civil Service Act states in multiple locations that a hearing examiner must be independent and therefore neutral. When a hearing examiner is found to have developed bias against one party, they are not independent. To allow a biased hearing examiner to preside over the rehearing merely because the Civil Service Act is completely silent regarding rehearings is against the purpose of the Act. The trial court, following the Texas Supreme Court’s example for crafting remedies when the Civil Service Act provides none, is permitted to look to the TAA for guidance.  As a result, the trial court’s order is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Bassel and Justice Walker. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Bassel.

Beaumont Court of Appeals reinstates arbitrator award for City in civil service termination.

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City of Beaumont, Texas v. James Mathews, 09-20-00053-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Feb. 3, 2022)

This is a civil service/collective bargaining/arbitrator appeal (which has gone up and down the court of appeals route already) where the Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order and reinstated the arbitrator’s award. [Comment: warning, this is a 38-page opinion].

Firefighter Mathews was discharged from the City of Beaumont Fire Department after a formal investigation into a rear-end collision involving Mathews occurred. Driver Freeman apparently rear-ended the vehicle driven by Mathews, causing Mathews to exit his vehicle and strike Freeman one or more times. The incident occurred while Mathews was off-duty, but the department’s rules and regulations apply certain standards of conduct regardless of duty status. The arbitrator admitted a statement from Freeman asserting such, which was corroborated by other evidence. Mathews appealed the termination to an arbitrator, who ultimately ruled in favor of the City, confirming Mathews’ termination. Mathews appealed to the district court, which reversed the arbitrator’s award, holding the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction and exceeded his jurisdiction. The City appealed.

The court found that Mathews timely filed an appeal of the termination, selected to proceed before an arbitrator and that Mathews signed the appeal letter.  By doing so, he triggered the arbitrator procedure. Mathews argued the notice of dismissal Chief Huff gave him failed to advise him he had the right under the Act to appeal before either the Commission or a neutral arbitrator. But the question is whether the lack of that information is jurisdictional when the record shows the firefighter was aware of the options that were available to him under the Act. Mathews never testified he was unaware he could select arbitration or civil service commission as an appeal forum. Likewise, Chief Huff never testified that she told Mathews he could appeal only to a neutral arbitrator. Mathews’ appeal letter cited the exact sections in the Act that provide firefighters with options in choosing the forum where they may appeal.  In fact, the evidence shows just the opposite, as the live pleadings indicate it was because of the Union’s distrust of the Beaumont civil service commission that Mathews selected the arbitrator. While Chief Huff’s notice does not contain clear and unambiguous language regarding the options it did notify Mathews that he should look to the Collective Bargaining Agreement to decide how to proceed.  Here, the record conclusively proves that Mathews decided after seeking advice from his union that it was in his best interest to demand his appeal be heard by a neutral arbitrator rather than going before a Commission. As a result, the arbitrator’s jurisdiction was properly triggered. Next, under the Act, neutral arbitrators exceed their jurisdiction when they conduct the proceedings in a manner “not authorized by the Act or [a manner that is] contrary to it, or when they invade the policy-setting realm protected by the nondelegation doctrine.” The City filed pretrial motions with attached evidence and the arbitrator denied the motions. During the evidentiary hearing, the City submitted some of the same evidence, which was admitted by the arbitrator. Mathews argued the arbitrator improperly considered evidence submitted through the pretrial motion procedure instead of exclusively at the evidentiary hearing. The district court held the arbitrator could not consider pretrial evidence or motions. However, the Act allows the parties to file pretrial motions and expressly states it is not a violation of the Act as long as copies of the filings are served on the opposing party. Thus, the City did nothing wrong by filing a pretrial motion since the certificate of service states the City served the motion on Mathews’ legal representative and Mathews never raised a lack of service. In turn, the arbitrator did not violate the Act by conducting a hearing on the City’s motion. Next, the court held that the record does not demonstrate the arbitrator considered evidence that was not admitted during the evidentiary hearing. As factfinders, neutral arbitrators are the sole judges of the admissibility of the evidence and the weight and credibility to be given the evidence admitted during a final hearing. Comparing the arbitrator’s findings of fact and conclusions with the evidence presented during the hearing, the court determined the arbitrator relied upon the evidence admitted at the final hearing. The district court conducted a factual and legal sufficiency review of the evidence, but that is not authorized by the Act. District court’s appellate review of arbitrator decisions are restricted to jurisdictional grounds and claims the award was procured by fraud, collusion, or through the use of other unlawful means. As a matter of law, the record present does not allow the district court to reverse the arbitrator’s decision. The district court’s order and final judgment have deprived the City of the statutory benefit of an efficient and speedy resolution through the Act. As a result, the district court’s order was reversed and the arbitrator’s decision was reinstated.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Golemon, Justice Kreger and Justice Horton.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Horton

 

14th Court of Appeals holds officer was not entitled to official immunity – proper focus is on the actions which caused the plaintiff’s injury, not on the overall investigation the officer was performing

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Nicholas Hulick v. City of Houston, 14-20-00424-CV  (Tex. App. Houston [14th Dist.], Feb. 1, 2022)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”)/ vehicle accident case where the Fourteenth District reversed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction based on the official immunity of its officer.

Officer Andrew De La Guardia responded to a service call involving a homeless suspect causing a disturbance on the street outside of a business. It was raining heavily while he was en route to the location. When he arrived, he drove around the area looking for the suspect, but was unable to find anyone matching the description.  When the rain became more severe he decided to turn around and head back to the station. Slowing to ten to fifteen miles per hour, he looked through the rain for oncoming traffic. Seeing none, the officer attempted to cross the westbound lanes of traffic but struck a motorcycle driven by Hulick.  Hulick sued.  The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing De La Guardia had official immunity at the time. Hulick appealed.

A governmental employee is entitled to official immunity: (1) for the performance of discretionary duties; (2) within the scope of the employee’s authority; (3) provided the employee acts in good faith.  If the employee is immune, the employee would not be liable under Texas law to the Plaintiff, therefore the City retains its immunity from suit.  The court analyzed whether the officer was performing a discretionary function at the time. An action is discretionary if it involves personal deliberation, decision, and judgment; on the other hand, an action that requires obedience to orders or the performance of a duty as to which the employee has no choice is ministerial. The court noted the City correctly observed that a law enforcement officer’s operation of a vehicle is a discretionary function in certain circumstances, including high-speed chase and responding to an emergency.  However, absent such special circumstances, an officer’s operation of a motor vehicle on official, non-emergency business is ministerial.  De La Guardia discontinued his search for the suspect at that time and was attempting to return to the station. While the City asserts he was performing an investigation (which is discretionary) the court held the focus should be on the actions which caused the injury (i.e. failing to yield the right-of-way to oncoming traffic).  The record did not support a finding of official immunity in this circumstance and the order granting the plea was reversed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Justice Jewell, Justice Bourliot and Justice Poissant. Memorandum opinion by Justice Jewell.

Lubbock Court of Appeals affirmed board of adjustment condition to re-evaluate variance request after a set number of years

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MVP Raider Park Garage, LLC. V Zoning Board of Adjustment of City of Lubbock, et al, 07-20-00261-CV (Tex. App. – Lubbock, Jan. 12, 2022)

This is a board of adjustment case where the Lubbock Court of Appeals affirmed the BOA’s denial of a variance request.

Raider Park owns a parking garage that provides student parking for Texas Tech University. Under the City of Lubbock’s Code of Ordinances, not more than ten percent of any wall may be devoted to wall signs in the zoning district. Raider Park sought a variance to allow 35 percent of all walls to be used for signage. The BOA ultimately conditionally granted the variance but required stipulations, including a seven-year review and revision requirement of the variance. At the seven-year review, the BOA denied the request to continue the variance permit. Raider Park sued. Both parties filed opposing motions for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of the BOA. Raider Park appealed.

The court first noted the BOA had the authority to require a review and to treat the request to reauthorize the variance as a new request. The City’s ordinances specifically authorize this type of condition. When the Board granted the requested variance in 2012, it did so “subject to” conditions that were expressly stated on the Board’s decision form. The Board referred to the condition as an “experiment” to see if this type of review process worked better and allowed actual data and public reaction to be evaluated. The Board created an opportunity to revisit whether 35 percent coverage was “too much” and if the increase was determined to be unworkable, then the Board could adjust it in the future. The original variance was specifically designed to allow the Board to revisit and revise. The court noted the Board had the discretion to treat the review as a new request and hold public hearings to gauge public reaction. Further, the review process was never challenged as invalid. The court next determined the original variance was not a temporary variance but a variance subject to conditions. If the owner had a problem with the condition, the owner could have appealed the decision. Further, Raider Park points to no authority prohibiting the imposition of such a condition.  As a result, the trial court order is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Pirtle, Justice Parker and Justice Doss. Memorandum opinion by Justice Parker.

A defendant attempting to obtain dismissal for lack of evidence must use a no-evidence motion for summary judgment, not a no-evidence plea to the jurisdiction.

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A defendant attempting to obtain dismissal for lack of evidence must use a no-evidence motion for summary judgment, not a no-evidence plea to the jurisdiction.

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Edinburg Consol. Ind. Sch. Dist. V. Ayala, No. 13-20-00590-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi Dec. 9, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s denial of the district’s no evidence plea to the jurisdiction, the district argued that there was no evidence that the plaintiff applied for a new position at the district.  The Thirteenth Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment on the no evidence plea to the jurisdiction holding that a no-evidence motion for summary judgment was the proper avenue after discovery for the district’s arguments.

The plaintiff worked for the district but was injured in 2013.  He returned to work, but was terminated in 2015.  He filed an employment law claim for his termination but did not follow up on the claim.  Then, the plaintiff alleges that he reapplied to work at the district in 2018 and was not hired.  He sued the district for employment discrimination based on his disability and national origin for not rehiring him.  The district argued that there is no evidence that the plaintiff reapplied.  The district filed a no-evidence plea to the jurisdiction and the trial court denied the plea.  The district appealed.

A plea to the jurisdiction is used to determine a court’s jurisdiction based on what is plead, a prima facie case, not to make a determination on fact issues.  To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, the employee must show: (1) he is in a protected class; (2) he was qualified for the position he applied for;  and (3) he was not hired.  Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Rincones, 520 S.W.3d 572, 583 (Tex. 2017); Donaldson v. Tex. Dep’t of Aging & Disability Servs., 495 S.W.3d 421, 433 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2016, pet. denied).   For national origin discrimination, he also must plead that the district gave different treatment to a similarly situated applicant outside the protected class.  The plaintiff stated these elements in his pleading, but the district argued that he needed to do more than plead the elements and he had provided no proof that he had applied for the position.  As a “fair notice” state, the plaintiff does only need to plead facts or elements to show jurisdiction.  Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp. v. Auld, 34 S.W.3d 887, 896 (Tex. 2000); see TEX. R. CIV. P. 45(b).  The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s denial of the plea to the jurisdiction because the plaintiff had plead sufficient facts to move forward with jurisdiction, although the district does have the ability to file a no-evidence motion for summary judgment.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment and the case was sent back to the trial court.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras and  Justices Hinojosa and Silva.  Opinion by Chief Justice Dori Contreras.

13th Court of Appeals grants mandamus relief to TxDOT – allowed TxDOT to withhold from discovery skid mark and other highway safety statistics

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In re Texas Department of Transportation, 13-21-00214-CV  (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi, Dec. 9, 2021)

In this mandamus action, the 13th Court of Appeals conditionally granted the writ, noting federal law made certain information regarding highway safety data privileged and exempt from discovery.

The Simpson plaintiffs filed suit against TxDOT for survival and wrongful death damages arising from a motorcycle accident that occurred on State Highway 361 causing the death of one individual. The decedent was driving a motorcycle when a Ford F-150 truck veered into the decedent’s lane of travel. When the decedent attempted to avoid the collision and applied his brakes his back tire locked up and he was killed. The Simpson familied sued TxDOT (and others). The Simpsons alleged the roadway was dangerous and subject to “polishing” which a special roadway defect caused by years of travel and increased traffic that results in a decrease in the coefficient road friction.  The Simpsons alleged that TxDOT knew about the defect and was aware of multiple deaths on that stretch of the highway resulting from the defect. The Simpsons sought, through discovery, to compel TxDOT to produce Pavement Management Information System (PMIS) data, including skid testing data.  TxDOT sought a protective order and the Simpsons filed a motion to compel.  The trial court granted the Simpsons’ motion to compel and ordered TxDOT to produce the data. TxDOT initiated this original proceeding.

Since TxDOT is asserting the privilege, it had the burden to establish the privilege. TxDOT asserted 23 U.S.C. § 409 is a federal statute which protects traffic-hazard data that is compiled or collected by the state pursuant to federal highway safety programs from being the subject of discovery or being used as evidence in federal and state court proceedings. This includes the Highway Safety Improvement Program in § 148. See 23 U.S.C. §§ 130, 144, 148. Congress established several federal programs to assist the States in identifying and evaluating roads and highways in need of safety improvements and to provide funding for those projects. The United States Supreme Court concluded that this section “protects not just the information an agency generates” or compiles for the stated purposes, but “also any information that an agency collects from other sources” for those purposes. However, it does not apply to information collected for a different purpose. The Simpsons asserted the information that they requested was used as part of routine maintenance, and thus, the statutory privilege does not apply. However, TxDOT operates the PMIS program through its Maintenance Division, which keeps detailed statistics used for the program.  As a result, it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to order the release of the information.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Benavides and Tijerina. Opinion by Chief Justice Contreras

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds Plaintiffs properly plead constitutional challenges to City’s short-term rental ordinance

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City of Grapevine v. Ludmilla B. Muns, et al, 02-19-00257-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Dec. 23, 2021)

This is an opinion on rehearing where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part the trial court’s order regarding the validity of the City’s short-term rental ordinance. [Comment: warning, this is a long opinion – 50 pages.]

The City asserted its zoning ordinance was written in a way that prevented short-term rentals (STRs), but some “bed and breakfasts” were allowed.  However, there was sporadic enforcement. After an increase in complaints about negative effects from STRs, the City conducted a study.  At the end of the study, the City passed an ordinance banning short-term rentals (STRs) in the entire city. The City provided a 45-day grace period before enforcement would begin. Several property owners and commercial real estate services sued to invalidate the ordinance. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment, which were denied. The City appealed.

The City first contended the Plaintiffs failed to appeal any decisions to the board of adjustment and therefore failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. Generally, a party must exhaust the administrative remedies available under Chapter 211 of the Local Government Code before seeking judicial review of an administrative official’s decision. However, the Plaintiffs did not apply for permits or otherwise receive any enforcement notification to which they must appeal. Statements made about the City’s intent to enforce an ordinance, without more, is not the type of administrative action over which an appeal is triggered. Appealable actions are those actual determinations made in the act or process of compelling a property owner’s compliance with a City ordinance. Information-only statements are not appealable administrative determinations.  Further, the Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance, which does not always require exhaustion. Generally, administrative bodies do not have the authority to rule on the constitutionality of statutes and ordinances. And while constitutional challenges are not “globally exempted” from the exhaustion requirement, if the administrative body lacked the ability to “render a relief that would moot the claim” then no exhaustion is required.  The board of adjustment lacked the authority to grant the Plaintiffs’ the right to conduct an STR, so no exhaustion is required. Next, the City argued that STRs do not fit within the definition of a “single-family detached dwelling” under its zoning code because STRs are not occupied by a single-family but are occupied by groups of people. However, the City’s code defines the word “family” in such a way that it does not require that the people living as a “single housekeeping unit” be related by blood or marriage. It also has no duration of occupancy limit. As a result, by its own wording, the code does not prohibit STRs as long as the occupancy fall within the common and ordinary meaning of “family.”  The City next argued the Plaintiffs did not directly challenge the validity of the STR ordinance (only an interpretation of whether it applied to them) so no declaratory relief can be granted.  However, the court found their retroactivity, due-course-of-law, and takings claims turn on whether the existing code allowed STRs. To that extent, they have a valid justiciable controversy. Under the takings analysis, the court held that although a property owner generally has no vested right to use his property in a certain way without restriction, they have a vested right in the real property, which includes the ability to lease. From a constitutional standpoint, that is sufficient to trigger a protected property right interest for jurisdictional purposes. This, along with the fact the court found that STRs were not expressly prohibited by the wording of the ordinance,  creates a fact issue as to whether the Plaintiffs suffered a taking. The court also noted that, contrary to the City’s arguments, lost profits are a relevant factor to consider in assessing the property’s value and the severity of the economic impact on a property owner. The Plaintiffs pled and submitted evidence to support that STRs “generate higher average rent than long-term leases, even after expenses” and that the STR Ordinance prevents them from “participating in an active, lucrative market for [STRs].” Next, the court did agree with the City that the regulation of STRs is not preempted by the Tax Code, as alleged by the Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs did not point to any provision in either the Tax Code or the Property Code that implies that the legislature meant to limit or forbid local regulations banning STRs. The court then addressed the retroactive law arguments, holding that a “settled” right is different than a vested right and the Plaintiffs asserted the STR ordinance impaired their settled property rights under the common law and under the City’s code to lease their properties on a short-term basis. The issue is not about the “property owners’ right to use their property in a certain way,” but about the owners’ “retaining their well-settled right to lease their property.” Next, in the substantive-due-process context, a constitutionally protected right must be a vested right that has some definitive, rather than merely potential existence. Property owners do not acquire a constitutionally protected vested right in property uses once commenced or in zoning classifications once made. Thus, although the Homeowners have a vested right in their properties, they do not have a vested right under the Zoning Ordinance to use them as STRs.  However, the court found they do have a fundamental leasing right, which is sufficient to plead, jurisdictionally, a due-course-of-law claim. The court clarified in this rehearing opinion, that its holding on this point is limited to the fact a property owner has a fundamental right to lease, but the durational limits may be valid or may be invalid depending on the extent of the regulatory intrusion into that right. The intrusion goes to the merits of the case, which the court declined to address as part of the interlocutory appeal.  In short, the Plaintiffs properly plead all claims for jurisdictional purposes, except a claim under a preemption theory.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consisted of Chief Justice Sudderth and Justices Kerr and Gabriel.  Opinion on rehearing by Justice Kerr.