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.

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds one city was not entitled to a plea to the jurisdiction in condemnation suit brought by adjoining city

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Town of Westlake, Texas v. City of Southlake, 02-21-00241-CV  (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Dec. 23, 2021)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the Town of Westlake’s plea to the jurisdiction in a case where the City of Southlake filed condemnation proceedings against the Town of Westlake.  The Fort Worth court of appeals affirmed the denial. [Comment: warning, this is a long opinion – 49 pages.]

The City of Southlake moved to condemn approximately 1400 feet of land owned by the Town of Westlake. In Southlake, a residential development was principally within Southlake, but abutted the boundary with Westlake. Immediately inside Westlake’s eastern town limit is a right of way owned and maintained by Westlake that abuts the lanes of Farm-to-Market Road 1938, but the actual road is owned by the State of Texas. The construction of the present configuration of FM 1938 was a cooperative effort of Southlake, Westlake, Keller, and Tarrant County.  Westlake opposed for years the developer’s requests for access across Westlake’s ROW as only one access to the development currently exists and the developer needed two. Westlake claims that the present condemnation action brought by Southlake is an attempt by Southlake to use its powers of condemnation to gain access to FM 1938 that the developer has not been able to negotiate. Southlake followed the condemnation procedures outlined in chapter 21 of the Texas Property Code and the commissioners awarded Westlake $22,000 for the condemnation. Westlake filed a motion to dismiss which was denied. Then, just before the award was filed with the district court, Westlake filed a plea to the jurisdiction in the district court. The court noted the plea was not a plea, but should have been a motion opposing the taking and denied the plea.  Westlake filed this interlocutory appeal in response. Southlake filed a motion to dismiss at the court of appeals level.

With regard to Southlake’s motion to dismiss, the trial court’s jurisdiction was triggered once the commissioners’ findings were filed, even if Westlake “jumped the gun” and filed the plea before the commissioners’ filing.  There is no consequence for filing early. As a result, the matter is properly before the appellate court. Next, regarding Westlake’s plea, Westlake first argues no waiver of immunity exists under §251.001 of the Local Government Code, however the court noted the language allows condemnation regardless of whether the property is already public or private, whether it is inside the city or outside, and possesses safeguards to prevent abuses. Because the statute allows condemnation of public property, it must, therefore include a waiver of immunity for the owning entity. Comparing the langue in §251.001 to similar provisions of the Utility Code (which the Texas Supreme Court previously ruled constitute a waiver of immunity), the court held immunity is waived for Westlake.  While case law states that when one governmental entity is condemning property owned by another governmental entity, the condemning entity must establish the “paramount importance” standards (i.e. it has a public need greater and will not destroy the public nature).  However, the paramount importance doctrine is not jurisdictional. With regards to Westlake’s argument that § 311.002 of the Transportation Code (giving cities exclusive control over streets and highways) the record has not been established enough to make the determination of whether the condemnation will interfere with such streets (since Westlake owns only the adjoining ROW). The record was also not sufficiently developed to establish whether Southlake could establish a valid public purpose.  As a result, the plea was within the trial court’s discretion to deny.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Justices Birdwell, Bassel, and Womack.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Bassel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amarillo Court of Appeals holds fire marshal’s office employs firefighters who are entitled to civil service protection

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City of Amarillo, Texas, et al. v. Nathan Sloan Nurek and Michael Brandon Stennett, 07-20-00315-CV, (Tex. App – Amarillo, Nov. 18, 2021)

This is a civil service case where the Amarillo Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial judgment holding the fire marshal’s office was entitled to civil service protection.

Plaintiffs sued the City and various officials trying to hold the Amarillo Fire Marshal’s Office (“FMO”) should be classified as a civil service position.  In the City, firefighters are classified positions, but the FMO is not classified.  As such, employees within the FMO are civilians who are not afforded civil service protections. The FMO performs fire prevention duties such as checking building plans, inspecting businesses, and investigating suspicious fires. FMO employees are certified by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. Following a bench trial, the trial court entered a final order declaring that positions within the Amarillo FMO are civil service positions, but denied the promotional relief sought. The trial court ruled the firefighter’s association (“Association) was the necessary real party in interest, not the individual Plaintiffs and the claims were therefore precluded.

Both parties agree that the determination of whether a particular position is a “fire fighter” position depends on whether the position meets the definition identified in Texas Local Government Code section 143.003(4).  The City’s argument appeared to turn on whether the position was one of “fire suppression” and not other duties. The express language of section 419.032 distinguishes “fire protection personnel” from “fire suppression.”  The testimony established  FMO positions require substantial knowledge of firefighting. The trial court heard evidence that the FMO was moved within the Amarillo Fire Department in 1989, the FMO is part of the Fire Department for budgeting purposes, and the FMO is listed as part of the Fire Department within the City’s Organizational Structure. As a result, the trial court properly determined the position should be classified as a firefighter. Next, the City actively argued that the association lacked standing to participate in the case and Plaintiff’s agreed. The court did not see any basis for the trial court holding the association’s inaction established the defenses of laches, estoppel, or limitations. The trial court also made findings that the City proved that using non-classified employees in FMO positions was motivated by good faith, was more satisfactory to the public, and was based on more than monetary savings.  However, the standard requires that the City provide a good-faith reason to justify the use of non-classified personnel over civil servants, rather than assessing the qualifications of particular individuals to serve in those positions. Therefore, the City is not entitled to a good-faith defense for the use of non-classified personnel.   And while the court of appeals found the Plaintiff’s general relief was not precluded, the trial court did not consider the entitlement on the merits. As a result, certain relief matters were remanded.

Panel consists of Chief Justice Quinn, and Justices Parker and Doss. Affirmed, reversed, and remanded to trial court. Opinion by Justice Parker can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Notice of a termination is the date on which the 180-day clock starts for claims of employment discrimination under state law regardless of internal appeals of the termination.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Monte Alto I.S.D. v. Patricia Orozco, No. 13-21-00136-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi Nov. 4, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s denial of the school district’s plea to the jurisdiction, the school district appealed that the trial court did not have jurisdiction because the plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies and thus did not waive the school district’s immunity as it relates to an employment discrimination claim.  The Thirteenth Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment because the plaintiff was outside the 180-day window for filing a suit after the allegedly discriminatory act.

The plaintiff sued the school district after being terminated.  The plaintiff received her notice of termination (nonrenewal) by letter on May 1, 2018.   Plaintiff requested a hearing on May 14, 2018, and then participated in a hearing on August 29, 2018, where the board voted to uphold the termination.  She filed her discrimination charge with the EEOC on February 25, 2019.  In the claim, she stated that the latest date of discrimination was on August 29, 2018, but she did not state there was a continuing act of discrimination. After receiving the right to sue letter, Plaintiff filed suit on February 10, 2020.  The school district filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that Plaintiff did not file her charge of discrimination within 180 days after her notice of termination on May 1, 2018.  The trial court denied the school district’s plea to the jurisdiction and the school district appealed.

For a political subdivision to have its immunity waived for an employment discrimination claim, the plaintiff must exhaust all administrative remedies.  City of Waco v. Lopez, 259 S.W.3d 147, 149, 154 (Tex. 2008).  To meet this requirement under state law, a plaintiff has to file the employment discrimination claim with the EEOC or the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory employment action.  Tex. Lab. Code §§ 21.201(a), (g), 21.202(a).  The exhaustion of remedies is completed when the TWC/EEOC issues a right-to-sue letter.  Continuing employment discrimination can extend this deadline, but discrete acts of discrimination, such as a termination, is not considered a continuing action.  The court of appeals held that the discrete act of the termination (nonrenewal) of the plaintiff and the accompanying notice of the termination was the last discriminatory act that triggered the 180-day deadline and that the deadline was not extended by the internal hearings seeking to overturn the termination.  Because the plaintiff did not file her EEOC claim within 180 days after her notice of termination, she had not exhausted her administrative remedies or waived the school district’s immunity.  The court of appeals granted the plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claim.

The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment and dismissed the claim because the plaintiff failed to file her employment claim with the EEOC in the time allotted for exhausting her administrative remedies.

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

 

First Court of Appeals holds 380 development agreement was an agreement for goods and services (waiving immunity) but dismissed all other claims brought against the City by the developer

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Town Park Center, LLC v. City of Sealy, Texas, Janice Whitehead, Mayor, Lloyd Merrell, City Manager and Warren Escovy, Assistant City Manager, 01-19-00768-CV, (Tex. App – Hou [1st], Oct. 28, 2021)

In this contract dispute, the First Court of Appeals in Houston affirmed in part and reversed in part the City’s plea to the jurisdiction. This is the third lawsuit involving the parties and underlying dispute.

Town Park Center and the City executed a “380” Economic Development Agreement (“the EDA”) to develop a commercial shopping center on Town Park’s property. Town Park Center agreed to develop and construct the shopping center according to a development plan that the City had approved. The City agreed to pay annual economic development grant payments (based on sales tax collections) to Town Park Center “as an incentive to comply with this Agreement.” Town Park Center first filed suit against the City and officials, asserting breach of contract and other claims. The basis was an assertion the EDA required the City to sell stormwater detention capacity to Town Park and failed. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted as to the city but not the individual officials. The officials appealed but Town Park non-suited. Town Park then filed a second suit against other officials, but which was otherwise identical.  Town Park later non-suited, only to file a third suit seeking mandamus, declaratory, injunctive relief, takings, ultra vires claims and claims under the “vested rights provision” of Local Government Code chapter 245. The factual allegations were nearly identical to the first and second suit. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and argued immunity as well as res judicata “ish” arguments. The trial court granted the plea and Town Park Center appealed.

The court noted that res judicata is an affirmative defense and could not be raised in a plea to the jurisdiction. It declined to consider the arguments through the lens of a summary judgment noting the trial court consideration lacked the hallmarks of a true summary judgment proceeding, including the required 21 days’ notice of a hearing date. However, the City also raised immunity defenses. The court held the EDA constituted a contract for goods or services which can trigger a waiver of immunity. The EDA included a provision for Town Park Central to build and dedicate a road to the City as part of the development, which therefore constitutes a service.  The trial court therefore erred in granting the plea as to the breach of contract claim. However, as to the Chapter 245 vested rights claim, Town Park Center did not identify any City order, regulation, ordinance, rule, or other requirement in effect when its rights in the project vested that mandates the sale of the capacity at issue. With no change in order or rule, Chapter 245 is inapplicable. As to Town Park’s takings claim, it failed to establish the City’s refusal to allow the purchase of detention capacity deprived them of the beneficial use of the property. Specifically, the court noted Town Park Center finished the development and sold it to host a grocery store. The City, therefore, did not deprive it of all economic use of the property. As to the ultra vires claims, the court first chastised the parties for failing to follow proper pleadings rules, making the determination more difficult on the court, specifically by labeling various amended pleadings as supplemental pleadings. Considering the pleadings as filed, the court held the City officials ended up joining the City’s plea as part of a supplement (without objection from the other side). Merely failing to comply with a contract does not give rise to an ultra vires claim.  While Town Park Central points to a city resolution allowing for detention capacity purchases, it does not mandate the sale of detention capacity. It instead only provides that the City may sell detention capacity, which is discretionary. As a result, the ultra vires claims were properly dismissed.

In short, the court reversed the dismissal of the breach of contract claim, ultimately affirmed the dismissal of all other claims, and remanded for trial.

Panel consists of Justices Kelly, Guerra, and Farris. Opinion by Justice Farris can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

The plaintiff failed to show that damages were insufficient in a condemnation case where there was sufficient evidence supporting the judgment of the trial court.  

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Castellanos v. Harris County, Texas and City of Baytown, Texas., No. 01-20-00414-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Oct 7, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s judgment in a condemnation case, the First Court of Appeals in Houston affirmed the trial court’s judgment because there was sufficient evidence to support the amount in their judgment as it related to the condemned property.

The plaintiffs’ property was the subject of a condemnation case including a road easement, water line easement, a temporary construction easement, and damages for the remainder of the project. After the trial court issued its judgment, the plaintiffs appealed arguing that the amount of compensation in the judgment should have been higher and that their suggested jury instruction regarding compensation to make changes to the home post-condemnation should have been given.

The Texas Constitution requires adequate compensation to any property owner whose property is taken by a governmental entity.  Tex. Const. art. I, § 17(a).  This value is determined by fair market value on the date of the taking which can take into account both the current use and the highest and best use.  See Crosstex N. Tex. Pipeline, L.P. v. Gardiner, 505 S.W.3d 580, 611 (Tex. 2016).  When only a portion of the property is taken both the value of what is taken and the damages to the remainder are both used to determine compensation.  Morello v. Seaway Crude Pipeline Co., LLC, 585 S.W.3d 1, 29–31 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, pet. denied).  In addition, to complain about a jury instruction on appeal, the plaintiff needs to make such objection at the trial.  Tex. R. Civ. P. 274; Tex. R. App. P. 33.1.  To properly bring a claim that a ground of recovery or defense was not considered, the avenue would have been a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a motion to disregard a jury finding. Those motions were not filed.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial jury’s compensation amount because the plaintiffs did not prove that the evidence presented at trial required a different fair market value for the property and did not properly object to the lack of award for changes to the house post-condemnation.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because the plaintiffs failed to conclusively establish that the amount of compensation was insufficient.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Kelly, Guerra, and Farris.  Opinion by Justice Kelly.

 

Passenger in pickup truck injured during a car accident failed to timely sue within limitations says First District Court of Appeals

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Andre Gibbs v. The City of Houston, 01-20-00570-CV, (Tex. App – Houston [1st Dist], Oct. 12, 2021)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the First Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s motion for summary judgment.

Brannon was driving a pickup truck when she collided with a Houston Police Department SUV, driven by a City employee. Gibbs was one of six passengers riding in the pickup truck.  Brannon sued the City, which the other passengers joined, but Gibbs was not named in the amended petition. After the statute of limitations passed, Gibbs was joined in a later petition. The City filed a motion for summary judgment against Gibbs asserting the statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion and Gibbs appealed.

The party suing a governmental entity has the burden to establish jurisdiction by pleading—and ultimately proving—not only a valid immunity waiver but also a claim that falls within the waiver. the City argued that neither it nor its employee could be liable to Gibbs under Texas law because Gibbs’ claims are barred by limitations. Thus, the City argued, Gibbs’ claims do not fall within any TTCA waiver.  Gibbs asserted the “inadvertent omission” exception which is based on excusable inadvertence or mistake.  However, the exception was created when existing parties were inadvertently dropped from suit, then added back later. In this case, Gibbs joined as a party in the suit for the first time after limitations expired.  Ordinarily, an amended pleading adding a new party does not relate back to the original pleading. Since Gibbs was not added until after the limitations expired, it was proper for the court to grant the City’s summary judgment.

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

Tyler Court of Appeals holds EEOC complainant’s deadline to file suit begins to run when his complaint is received by the EEOC, not when the appeal is perfected

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Gunter P. Coffey v. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 12-21-00015-CV, (Tex. App – Tyler, Oct. 6, 2021)

This is an employment discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation claim in which the Tyler Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order granting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Coffey was employed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (the Department).  Coffey submitted an intake questionnaire to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging a host of charges.  Coffey was later terminated. He received a “right-to-sue” letter from the EEOC. He then brought suit. The Department filed a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting, among other reasons, Coffey failed to file suit within two years of filing his EEOC discrimination charges. The trial court granted the plea and Coffey appealed.

Coffey contends that the two-year statute of limitations begins to run from the date that the charge is perfected, not the dates the relevant charges of discrimination were filed.  Under listed case law, the timeliness of the complaint shall be determined by the date on which the complaint is received by the EEOC.  The court noted the underlying record made clear the dates the complaints were filed and received by the EEOC.  Therefore, because Coffey filed this suit more than two years after the date his First and Second Charges were received by either the EEOC or TWC, the trial court properly granted the Department’s plea.

Panel consists of Chief Justice Worthen, and Justices Hoyle and Neeley. Affirmed. Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Worthen can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

 

Tyler Court of Appeals holds a motion for new trial did not extend the time to perfect an accelerated appeal

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SignAd, Ltd. V. The City of Hudson, 12-21-00056-CV, (Tex. App – Tyler, Sept. 15, 2021)

This case is mainly procedural, and the Tyler Court of Appeals held SignAd failed to timely file its notice of appeal, either as an interlocutory appeal or of a final judgment.

This is a billboard construction case where the City sought injunctive relief and civil penalties asserting SignAd violated its local ordinances. SignAd asserted counterclaims for declaratory judgment, compensation for loss of the billboard if ordered to remove it, inverse condemnation, unenforceability of the ordinance against SignAd, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The trial court issued various orders but the order of contention is a January 19, 2021 order granting the City’s first amended motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The parties disagree as to whether the January 19th order was a final order or is interlocutory. The order contained various findings including that SignAd lacks standing to bring its counterclaim for declaratory judgment, SignAd’s billboards exceed the size limitations for commercial signs, and that SignAd cannot maintain its billboards under the ordinance even if it achieved a total victory in this case.

The court of appeals held if the order is an appealable interlocutory order, the notice of appeal was due to be filed within twenty days after the judgment or order was signed, i.e., February 8.  SignAd filed its notice of appeal on April 13th.  SignAd’s motion for a new trial did not extend the time to perfect an accelerated appeal. But even if not interlocutory a notice of appeal must be filed within thirty days after the judgment is signed or within ninety days after the judgment is signed if any party timely files a motion for new trial. However, any motion for new trial was due to be filed by February 18. SignAd filed its motion for new trial on February 22. The certificate of service attached to the motion for new trial reflects that it was served on February 16; however, the motion is file marked February 22. Thus, the motion was late and did not extend the time for filing the notice of appeal.  And an “order overruling an untimely new trial motion cannot be the basis of appellate review, even if the trial court acts within its plenary power period.”  As a result, the court of appeals dismissed the appeal for want of jurisdiction.

Panel consists of Chief Justice Worthen, and Justices Hoyle and Neeley. Dismissed for Want of Jurisdiction. Memorandum Opinion per curiam can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

13th Court of Appeals holds City sufficiently complied with TOMA and Tax Code in 2019 when it adopted its annual tax rate

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Leftwich v City of Harlingen, 13-20-00110-CV (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi, Sep. 9, 2021).

This is a declaratory judgment suit to declare the city violated procedural requirements when it adopted its tax rate in 2019. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals held no alleged violation constituted a waiver of the City’s immunity.

Leftwich alleges the City violated several statutory requirements in 2019 when it adopted its tax rate, including (1) the published notice failed to conform to the “date, time[,] and location” requirements of Texas Local Government Code § 140.010(c),  (2) the City failed to meet the deadline to adopt the tax rate (requiring a vote on proposed tax rate “not be earlier than the third day or later than the [fourteenth] day after the date of the second public hearing”); (3) the City violated TOMA by not allowing public comment “before or during” the consideration of the of the tax ordinances and various other procedural deficiencies. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted. Leftwich appealed.

The court first noted that TOMA’s waiver of sovereign immunity only extends to mandamus or injunctive relief for actual or threatened violations of TOMA, not to suits for declaratory relief.  Further, under TOMA, substantial compliance is sufficient. The location of a meeting may be sufficient without including the full street address, name of the city, or meeting room, so long as the notice sufficiently apprises the public of the location.  Here, the term “town hall” sufficiently put the public on notice of the location of the meeting. No general waiver of immunity exists under the UDJA.  Plaintiff sought a judgment “declaring that the[o]rdinances are invalid and void ab initio” due to appellees’ alleged TOMA and tax code violations. The alleged TOMA violation during the meeting focused on the City Council not taking public comments before voting on the first reading of the tax ordinance. However, the mayor was clearly heard on camera, prior to the final vote on the first reading of each ordinance, asking for discussion, to which no one responded. Assuming, arguendo, that the mayor’s call for discussion was not clearly directed to the public, Leftwich would remain unsuccessful as that was only the first reading. The ordinance was not adopted until the second reading. Only an action taken in violation of TOMA is voidable.  Under the tax code, no requirement exists that two publications exist for public hearings, only that two public hearings are held and that notice is published. Under § 26.06(e) of the Texas Tax Code, the City was required to hold a meeting to vote on the tax ordinances not “earlier than the third day or later than the [fourteenth] day after the date of the second public hearing.” However § 26.06(e) provides no authority for a court to enjoin the collection of taxes for failure to comply with § 26.06(e), which is what Plaintiff seeks.  Plaintiff further asserts the councilmember making the motion failed to follow the specific quoted language for the motion contained within the statute. However, after reviewing the record, the court concluded the motion followed the important parts of the statutory language, verbatim.  Leftwich next asserted the City failed to properly post the necessary tax information on the City’s website.  However, Leftwich failed to present evidence that would raise a fact issue as to whether the City previously posted the notice to the website. The court concluded the undisputed language which was present meets the requirements of Texas Tax Code § 26.05(b)(2), which requires the notice be published after the ordinance is adopted. Leftwich failed to allege jurisdiction under TOMA or the Tax Code for any alleged violation.  Finally, while Plaintiff attempts to bring a First Amendment claim, he failed to brief the claim and therefore waived it.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Justices Benavides, Hinojosa and Silva. Memorandum opinion by Justice Silva.

Trial court’s granting of City’s plea to the jurisdiction considered void because it should have issued its order in the separate case created by the plaintiff’s bill of review

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 Clayton Richter, Dorothy Richter, and Jonathan Richter v. City of Waelder, Texas,13-20-00494-CV and 13-20-00495-CV, (Tex. App – Corpus Christi – Edinburg, August 12, 2021)

This is a flooding case, but the opinion focused entirely on procedural problems where the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal, noting the court lack jurisdiction over the appeals because the ultimate merits of this case were adjudicated in the wrong trial court proceeding.

The Richters sued the City of Waelder (the City) for various causes of action after leaks in the City’s waterpipe caused multiple flooding incidents on the Richters’ property. The trial court granted the City’s plea to the jurisdiction, but the Richters later filed a bill of review. The trial court granted the bill of review, but then again granted the City’s plea under the original cause number. The Richters appealed the granting of the plea and the City cross-appealed the granting of the bill of review.

A bill of review is an equitable proceeding to set aside a judgment that is not void on the face of the record but is no longer appealable or subject to a motion for new trial. When a trial court grants a bill of review and sets aside a judgment in a prior case, the subsequent trial on the merits must occur in the bill of review proceeding, not in the underlying case in which the judgment is vacated.  By proceeding as it did, the trial court created two jurisdictional problems: (1) the bill of review judgment does not fully adjudicate the Richters’ suit; and (2) the trial court signed the judgment in the original cause after its plenary power expired. The trial court’s bill of review judgment fails to address the merits of the Richters’ claim. Therefore, it is not a final, appealable order. The granting of the plea in the original proceeding is void because the court had lost plenary power under that cause number.    Since the court of appeals only has appellate jurisdiction over either final judgments which are timely appealed (not present here) or authorized interlocutory orders (also not present because of a lack of plenary power), the court of appeals has no jurisdiction over either appeal. Essentially, the court’s opinion results in the trial court having to consider the plea to the jurisdiction under the cause number for the bill of review and not the original case.

Panel consists of Justices Longoria, Hinojosa, and Tijerina. Memorandum opinion by Justice Hinojosa can be found here. Docket pages with attorney information found here.

Pro se appellant could not prevail on summary judgment appeal when he failed to appeal each ground for summary judgment.

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   Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Elezar Balli v. Officer Florentino Martinez, et al., No. 14-20-00030-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] August 10, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendant officers, the 14th Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because the pro se plaintiff failed to challenge all grounds for the summary judgment and the court was required to affirm the summary judgment on the unchallenged grounds.

The plaintiff sued the officers of the Clute Police Department for tort and 1983 claims pro se after he was arrested for domestic violence and transported to jail.  While being transported the plaintiff struggled against the officers, knocked the officers down, bit the police chief, threatened the officers, hit his head on the inside of the back seat of the police car, and damaged the police car.  During the arrest, the officers tased the plaintiff.  The officers tried to use a pillow to protect the plaintiff’s head in the backseat of the car.  The defendant officers argued that: (1) the amount of force was objectively reasonable as a matter of law; (2) they were entitled to qualified immunity; and (3) the plaintiff’s conviction for assault for biting the police chief barred his claim for damages.  The trial court granted the defendant officers’ summary judgment without specifying the grounds and the plaintiff appealed the summary judgment.  The trial court also dismissed the state law claims since under Section 101.106(f) of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, the plaintiff was required to bring suit against the City rather than the officers.  The City and Police Chief were dismissed from the case because they were not properly served and the trial court had no jurisdiction over them as defendants.  The plaintiff did not appeal these holdings.

Under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 166a(c), for a summary judgment to be overturned, an appellant has to prove that any and all grounds for summary judgment were not meritorious.  If the appellant does not challenge every ground for which summary judgment was granted, then a court of appeals has to uphold the summary judgment.  The appellant in this case only appealed the issue that his conviction for assault barred his claim and failed to challenge the other two grounds.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendant officers because the pro se plaintiff failed to appeal on all of the summary judgment grounds.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Zimmerer, Bourliot, and Spain.  Opinion by Justice Jerry Zimmerer.

Dallas Court of Appeals holds trial court had jurisdiction for BOA appeal only, but no monetary or constitutional claims could survive the board’s plea

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City of Dallas, et al v. PDT Holdings, Inc., et al. 05-21-00018-CV  (Tex. App. – Dallas, August 24, 2021).

This is an appeal from a board of adjustment decision where the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.

PDT Holdings, Inc (“PDT”) applied for a permit from the City to build a duplex on its property in Dallas.  PDT submitted building plans, which were approved and began construction. However, a City inspector cited PDT and issued a stop work order on the grounds that the structure did not comply with the thirty-six-foot height restriction. PDT adjusted the plans down to 36 feet, but was then told the actual height restriction was twenty-six feet due to the residential proximity slope (RPS) ordinance after it had completed 90% of the construction.  PDT sought a variance for the height restriction (three story duplex) but the variance was denied by the board of adjustment (“BOA”).  PDT appealed to district court but also sought a variety of monetary damages caused to the project. The matter was temporarily abated by agreement and the parties resubmitted to the BOA (with all new members), which again denied the request. The BOA filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. The BOA appealed.

A district court has subject matter jurisdiction only to decide whether the Board’s decision was illegal under section 211.011.  The BOA argued the original appeal to district court was timely but attempted to assert PDT had to appeal the 2nd denial and failed to do so. The Board cites no authority for this requirement other than the general requirement that a petition for writ of certiorari must be filed within ten days of the Board’s decision. The court held the second BOA decision did not change the substance of the controversy between the parties or the issues before the trial court.  Further, nothing demonstrates the trial court lost jurisdiction over the first decision, over which it would still be allowed to proceed. As a result, the trial court properly denied the plea as to the illegality question only. The court next held that it must evaluate jurisdiction based on each claim. PDT did not specify what cause of action entitled it to recover damages or cite express authority waiving governmental immunity for recovery of damages. The plain language of section 211.011(f) does not authorize an award of damages. Further, there is no implied right of action to recover money damages for violation of the due course-of-law provision of the Texas Constitution. The Texas Constitution authorizes suits for equitable or injunctive relief only. But this limited waiver of immunity exists only to the extent the plaintiff has pleaded a viable constitutional claim. The court agreed with the BOA that PDT  does not have a vested property right in obtaining a variance from the RPS ordinance.  The mere existence of a building permit does not render an ordinance unenforceable. A person does not acquire a vested right in a building permit issued in violation of an ordinance. Here, jurisdiction exists for judicial review of the Board’s decision under section 211.011 only. The plea should have been granted for all other claims.

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

El Paso Court of Appeals holds since city appealed denial of a plea to the jurisdiction, but not the final judgment entered at the same time, court could not hear the appeal

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The City of Brady and Brady Police Department v. William Dale Scott, 08-20-00155-CV (Tex. App. – El Paso, Aug. 16, 2021).

The El Paso Court of Appeals determined it did not have jurisdiction to hear an interlocutory appeal from a Chapter 47 suit to determine ownership of property.

This case started when City police seized $11,450.00 from Scott when searching his home. Scott was investigated for a type of fraud after complaints came that he was operating some form of scam.  Several years later, Scott filed suit specifically under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art 47.01 et seq, which allows for a specific hearing to determine person with the superior right to possession of property. His Chapter 47 petition complained that although the police opened a case file in the matter and provided him with a receipt stating that it had taken $11,452 in cash from him, the police never returned the cash to him. Criminal charges were never filed. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court denied the plea in the same order it issued a final judgment granting Scott’s relief. The City filed an interlocutory appeal.

The City asserts the funds were not seized as part of a criminal investigation, but to determine their ownership. The City asserted it no longer has the funds as they were disposed of under article 18.17 of the Code of Criminal Procedure allowing for disposing of funds when the owner is unknown. Under that article, the police placed an advertisement in the local Brady newspaper stating that it had cash in excess of $500 in its possession, and that anyone claiming the money had 90 days to contact them. After no one responded the department obtained an order awarding the funds to the City of Brady from a Brady Municipal Court judge. The City alleged that Scott only had 30 days to appeal or otherwise contest the municipal court’s disposition order, and that doing so was a “statutory prerequisite” to filing a Chapter 47 petition.  The City also asserted that the notice setting hearing only set the plea, and not a final determination on the Chapter 47 suit. The trial court ruled on both matters in the same order. The City filed an interlocutory appeal, appealing only the denial of the plea. The El Paso court held when a trial court has already entered a final judgment, an appellate court has no jurisdiction to hear a governmental body’s interlocutory appeal from an order denying its plea to the jurisdiction, and the governmental body must instead pursue an appeal from the final judgment.  Since the City’s appeal did not timely appeal the final judgment or file an appeal bond for a Chapter 47 appeal, the court has no jurisdiction to hear the City’s arguments. The case is therefore dismissed.

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