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

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.

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.

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.