Attorney fees awards in favor of a defendant are not an abuse of discretion where the plaintiff does not make a prima facie case of his claims.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Carl Frederick Rickert, III v. Kayla S. Meade and City of Bonham, 06-02-00002-CV (Tex. App.—Texarkana, July 30) (mem. op.).

In this § 1983 case on an attorney fees award, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of attorney fees in favor of the defendant City because the plaintiff did not establish even a prima facie case.

The plaintiff was terminated from his City employment after a co-worker filed a sexual harassment claim against him based on an allegedly consensual relationship.  The Texas Workforce Commission determined that the sexual harassment claim against the plaintiff was baseless.  The plaintiff sued the City under § 1983 asserting entitlement to a name clearing hearing.  The trial court dismissed the claim for lack of evidence and awarded attorney’s fees to the City.  The plaintiff appealed the attorney fee award.

In order for an attorney fee award to be upheld against a plaintiff in favor of a defendant, it has to be shown that “the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation even though not brought in subjective bad faith.”  Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 14 (1980) (per curiam) (quoting Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 421).  The plaintiff’s action was based on the lack of a name clearing hearing after his termination.  A terminated individual has the right to a name clearing hearing where the employee’s “good name, reputation, honor, or integrity” is questioned during a termination.  Bledsoe v. City of Horn Lake, Miss., 449 F.3d 650, 653 (5th Cir. 2006) In this case, the plaintiff provided no evidence that he was denied a name clearing hearing, or that he even requested one. Evidence was presented that he was provided a chance to be heard at a hearing prior to termination.  The Court of Appeals held this lack of evidence was sufficient to show that the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Morriss and Justices Burgess and Stevens.  Opinion by Ralph K. Burgess.

Fort Worth Court of Appeals analyzes the law-of-the-case doctrine and determines private property owners did not establish claims against a city regarding fee simple land ownership

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City of Mansfield, et al., v Saverings, et al, 02-19-00174-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, July 16, 2020)

In this lengthy opinion, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds certain private property owners did not establish a right to declaratory relief regarding fee-simple ownership of lots over which the City exercised some regulatory control, asserting they were public paths.

A developer filed a final plat in Tarrant County, creating a planned housing development—The Arbors of Creekwood – Gated Community (the Development) located in the City, but which had two HOAs. An amended plat divided the lots into R1 and R2 lots. All R2 lots were in the floodplain, which was governed by City ordinance. The developer created a lake and connected jogging paths ending at the lake. The developer testified the paths were for public use.  The boundary line for the R2 lots abutting the lake was to the north of the lake; thus, the lake was not included within the boundaries of these R2 lots. The developer executed a declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (the Declaration) for the Development and filed them in Tarrant County. The Declaration stated the HOAs owned fee-simple title to private streets in the Development and “common properties” which had a complicated definition. In 1997, the Arbors HOA forfeited its right to do business and became a terminated entity. The surviving HOA asserted the Arbors HOA property lots (R2) automatically transferred to it. In January 2012, the City began planning for a “possible future trail connection” to the jogging path. Construction on the bridge began in 2013 and opened on January 25, 2014. Some owners of R1 lots noticed an increase in people using the jogging path and trespassing on the R1 lots. The R1 owners sued seeking a declaration they owned the R2 lots as common properties, and seeking to quiet title The Court of Appeals issued an interlocutory opinion in review of a temporary injunction noting the R2 lots were included in the definition of “common properties.” The R1 Owners also raised claims against the City Defendants for trespass and inverse condemnation.  The City Defendants filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment, including arguments that the facts and law had substantially changed since the interlocutory order. They argued the R1 owners did not have a right to possess the R2 lots (which were originally owned by the defunct HOA) and that they did not have a private right to enforce a city ordinance on floodplain development. The trial court denied the City Defendants’ motions and granted the partial summary judgment of the R1 owners. The City Defendants appealed.

The court first went through a detailed analysis of the evidence submitted, objections to the evidence, and what constituted judicial admissions. The court held the law-of-the-case doctrine only applied to claims fully litigated and determined in a prior interlocutory appeal; it did not apply to claims that have not been fully litigated. The law-of-the-case doctrine is flexible and directs the exercise of court discretion in the interest of consistency but does not limit its power.  The interlocutory opinion (which was a complicating obstacle) did not address the R1 Owners’ UDJA claim regarding title to the R2 lots, only a probable right of relief for trespass claims based on an undeveloped record. The court noted they were substantially different arguments, issues, law, and review standards. [Comment: For a good analysis of the doctrine and its boundaries, read this section of the case.]  The City argued the R2 lots owned by the defunct HOA could be distributed only under the terms of the articles of incorporation and could not pass to the live HOA automatically. The court agreed with the City that the R1 owners did not establish a proper conveyance under the articles.

Next the court turned to the floodplain ordinance, where the R1 owners asserted the City failed to follow its own ordinance by obtaining studies before constructing structures in the floodplain connecting the jogging paths. The City Defendants’ argument no private cause of action to enforce the ordinance exists is one of standing. The R1 Owners did not challenge the validity of the ordinance but rather asserted that they wanted a construction of the ordinance and enforcement of it against the City Defendants. The R1 Owners did not have a right to enforce the ordinance through a UDJA claim, which only waives immunity for ordinance invalidation.  Alternatively, under the record, the R1 owners did not establish the City violated the ordinance. The City Defendants proffered summary-judgment evidence raising a fact issue on their substantial compliance.  Finally, since the court held the R1 owners could not bring a UDJA claim, the attorney’s fee award was reversed.

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

14th Court of Appeals reverses jury award in excessive force case against County, but upholds portion against deputy

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Harris County, et al, v Coats, et.al, 14-17-00732-CV, (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.], February 6, 2020)

This is a § 1983/wrongful death case where the 14th Court of Appeals reversed in part a jury award against the County and its deputy. [Comment: this is a 49-page opinion].

Jamail and his girlfriend were using cocaine when Jamail felt ill.  Jamail exited through a window and called 9-1-1 from a public phone. However, when the EMTs arrived, Jamail ran from the area to a nearby Burger King. Deputy Saintes arrived after a disturbance call, handcuffed Jamail and walked him to the ambulance. When they neared the ambulance, Jamail became combative and attempted to run. Multiple deputies arrived and assisted Saints to subdue Jamail. EMTs gave Jamail an injection of a sedative. Jamail was seen breathing normally. The parties dispute whether Deputy Vailes’ boot was on Jamail’s nose and mouth at the time.  However, after a short while, he could not be roused. He was transported to a nearby hospital where he died. The family sued. Multiple individuals and parties settled out or were dismissed based on immunity.  A jury trial was held against the County and Deputy Vailes. The jury found for Jamail’s family. The County and Deputy Vailes appealed.

The court first determined no policy, custom, or practice of the County existed to establish § 1983 liability on the entity. Normally, single incidents cannot create a policy, custom, or practice. As far as constable’s go, the fact a constable’s jurisdictional reach is throughout the county does not support the trial court’s conclusion that the Precinct Four Constable is a law enforcement final policymaker for Harris County. Jamail’s burden was to identify a final policymaker who speaks on law enforcement matters for the local government unit at issue—Harris County, not simply a precinct.  As to Deputy Vailes, the court held some evidence existed that Deputy Vailes placed his boot on Jamail’s face when he was already handcuffed. The law was sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand (as did those who testified) that stepping on the nose and mouth of someone who is lying on the ground, likely sedated, handcuffed, and unresponsive, with enough force that the person’s neck touches the ground, would constitute an excessive-force violation. Therefore, Vailes was not entitled to qualified immunity on that claim. However, the evidence was insufficient Vailes’ actions caused Jamail’s death.  Deputy Vailes argues that Jamail died because of acute cocaine toxicity, as the medical examiner concluded following Jamail’s autopsy. In cases alleging medical injury or death, expert testimony regarding causation is generally the norm and Jamail’s family did not produce any regarding the cause of death.  The fact Vailes’ boot was placed on Jamail, when he was already non-responsive is insufficient to justify the jury award against Vailes as to Jamail’s death. Because of the alterations to the judgment, the court remanded for a reconsideration of the attorney fee award.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Christopher Justice Wise, and Justice Jewel. Opinion by Justice Jewel.

Plaintiff ordered to pay attorney fees after non-suiting claims against individual governmental officials under Texas Citizens’ Participation Act

Shillinglaw v. Baylor Univ., 05-17-00498-CV, 2018 WL 3062451, at *1 (Tex. App.—Dallas June 21, 2018, no pet. h.) (mem. op).

This is a Texas Citizens’ Participation Act ( “TCPA) case where the individual governmental officials were awarded fees and costs after the Plaintiff non-suited them individually in an employment dispute.

In 2008, Baylor University hired Shillinglaw, as Director for Football Operations. Baylor later suspended then terminated Shillinglaw after charges of sexual harassment and an investigation occurred. In early 2017, Shillinglaw sued various officials in Dallas County asserting claims of “libel, slander, tortious interference with existing contract” and other torts. The individuals filed motions to dismiss per the TCPA under which the recovery of costs & attorney’s fees, is mandatory. Shillinglaw non-suited his claims against the individuals. Shillinglaw sued Baylor in McLennan County court and demanded the court order Baylor to arbitration, per an arbitration agreement in his employment contract.  However, he did not request that the court in Dallas County compel arbitration until after suit was filed. The Dallas County district court dismissed the motion to compel arbitration and awarded fees and costs against Shillinglaw and for the individuals.  Shillinglaw then filed this appeal.

Shillinglaw contends the dismissal orders should be reversed because the case should have been sent to arbitration. Shillinglaw urges the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts the TCPA because, as applied here, the TCPA discriminated against arbitration. However, because he sought arbitration after filing suit, he waived the right to arbitration.  Further, the individuals never agreed to arbitrate, only the employer.

The TCPA requires the award of reasonable attorney’s fees to the successful party. Shillinglaw failed to establish, and the record does not show, that the trial court erred in its award. The judgement was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justice Bridges, Justice Myers and Justice Schenck. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Schenck. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.