U.S. Fifth Circuit holds court can dismiss claims sua sponte when party has had ample opportunity to amend deficient pleadings

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Anokwuru v. City of Houston, et al., No. 20-20295 (5th Cir. March 16, 2021)

This is a racial discrimination/§1983 case where the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.

The Houston Police Department was investigating an alleged “gang rape.” The victim identified three suspects, one named “Idris” and the other two with nicknames “Jay” and “CheChe.” The suspect “Jay” provided a statement, naming Anokwuru by his first name of “Chidera” as being involved in the incident. Based on the statements of the victim and “Jay,” the Houston Police Officer M. Francis decided to proceed with charging Anokwuru with the incident. Following indictment, the victim definitively responded that Anokwuru was not one of the three assailants and the case was dismissed by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Via an original complaint, a series of amended complaints, and multiple motions for leave to amend, Anokwuru filed a §1983 claim against the City of Houston and Officer Francis, claiming false/wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and that the City had a policy of “failing to train, supervise, and discipline its employees.” The City filed an original (and amended) Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. The trial court dismissed Anokwuru’s claim but did so without granting the City’s motion. Anokwuru appealed.

The Fifth Circuit first addressed Anokwuru’s substantive claims. The false arrest, equal protection, malicious prosecution, and “failure to train” claims were all dismissed due to Anokwuru’s failure to properly allege the required elements for each respective alleged violation. Addressing the procedural arguments, the Fifth Circuit’s decision to deny Anokwuru’s fourth request to amend his complaint was not an abuse of discretion when his proposed amendment presented no new allegations or claims. Finally, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s sua sponte decision to dismiss Anokwuru’s claims because Anokwuru had multiple opportunities to put forth his best case, he filed multiple responses to the City’s arguments, and was even given notice of the magistrate judge’s recommendation to dismiss his claims – to which Anokwuru responded – before the district court dismissed his claims.  Such is within the trial court’s discretion.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Circuit Judges Stewart, Higginson, and Wilson. Opinion by Circuit Judge Wilson.

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds receipt of payment or exclusive use of premises are not substantial factors to determine invitee status under TTCA for premise defect case

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City of San Antonio v. Nadine Realme, 04-20-00119-CV (Tex.App.—San Antonio, March 17, 2021)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Plaintiff alleges a premises defect claim against the City. The Court of Appeals reviewed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction, ultimately affirming the denial.

Plaintiff Realme paid to participate in a 5K run/walk that took place on the City’s streets and sidewalks. The event itself was sponsored by private entities and Realme’s participation fee was directed to the private entities. She followed the pre-designated route and, along that route, between the sidewalk and the street, she tripped on a metal object protruding from the ground, causing bodily injury. She sued the City.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and argued that Realme was not an invitee, but rather a licensee under premise defect standards. As a result, the City had to have actual knowledge of the dangerous defect. The crux of the City’s argument was two-fold: that the City did not receive payment for Realme’s use of the premises, that other – nonpaying – members of the public also had access to the area and, therefore, Realme was not an invitee under the TTCA. The trial court denied the City’s plea to the jurisdiction, which the City then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The specific TTCA provision that the Court of Appeals focused upon states that the City owes to Realme “only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property unless the claimant pays for the use of the premises.” The Court of Appeals overruled the City’s argument after analyzing the plain language of that provision to come to the conclusion that the language makes no distinction between who received payment for use of the premises or even whether the payment was for the exclusive use of the premises. The fact that the City did not receive payment is immaterial.  On appeal, the City also raised a new issue that Realme’s claim is barred by immunity under the Recreational Use Statute. However, the Court of Appeals found that the City did not provide Realme the opportunity to develop the record or conduct discovery on the Recreational Use argument at the trial level, nor show how Realme would be unable to demonstrate jurisdiction through that avenue even if given the opportunity. The Court of Appeals refused to address for the first time on appeal. In construing Realme’s pleadings in her favor and considering the evidence admitted, the Court of Appeals found there was a material fact issue on the question of immunity, affirmed the denial, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

If you would like to read this Memorandum Opinion, click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez and Justices Alvarez and Rios. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rios.

Dallas Court of Appeals holds Plaintiffs failed to challenge all grounds on which dismissal could have been granted; therefore dismissal is affirmed

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Chris Carter and Karen Pieroni v. Dallas City Plan Commission and City of Dallas, 05-20-00190-CV, (Tex. App – Dallas, March 1, 2021)

This is a Confederate monument case where the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

After a Confederate monument was originally scheduled for removal from a City cemetery, Plaintiffs brought suit to prevent its destruction. Through asserted the City violated its own codes, violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, the Texas Monument Protection Act and a few others. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted, except to claims under the Texas Antiquities Act. Plaintiffs appealed after non-suiting the remaining claim.

No judgment may be reversed on appeal unless the error complained of probably caused rendition of an improper judgment. TEX. R. APP. P. 44.1(a)(1). To appeal, an appellant must challenge each independent ground asserted in the plea. The City asserted three grounds in its plea to the jurisdiction: standing, governmental immunity, and the political question doctrine. The political question doctrine is not necessarily a component of or necessarily entwined with either of the other two grounds. Plaintiffs challenged standing and immunity, but not the political question doctrine. Because the Plaintiffs did not challenge each independent, standalone ground on which the dismissal of their claims could properly have been based, the court affirmed the granting of the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Myers, Osborne, and Carlyle. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Carlyle. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Austin Court of Appeals holds City’s diligent search established no actual knowledge of premise defect, therefore no waiver of immunity exists

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City of Austin v Brandy Credeur, 03-19-00358-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, February 11, 2021)

This is a premise defect case where the Austin Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the case.

Credeur was injured when she fell walking along a city sidewalk in front of private property owned by Riedel. She asserts she stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street, stepped on a cement block covering a pipe, and then onto an “adjacent, improperly sealed water valve cover,” both of which were obscured by Riedel’s “overgrown lawn.” She sued the City, Riedel, and a utility company. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed.

Texas courts “consistently treat[] slip/trip-and-fall cases as presenting claims for premises defects.” The court considered Plaintiff’s rendition of facts and even added a photo of the area in the opinion. Even assuming that the sidewalk, in this case, was “sufficiently related to the street” to come within the realm of special defects, the court held the alleged defect was not on the sidewalk itself but in the grass near the sidewalk.  Credeur stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street, walking through an area not intended for pedestrian use, and thus the defect she encountered cannot be considered to have posed a danger to the ordinary users of the sidewalk.  As a result, it is not a special defect, but a premise defect.  The City produced evidence that employees did a diligent search of all reports made to the City which could have notified it of the defect prior to Credeur’s injury and found none.  Without actual knowledge of the defect, no waiver of immunity exists. [Comment: the court went into detail about all the City did to establish a lack of knowledge, which can be a good roadmap for other entities having to establish the same type of fact.] The City’s evidence detailed what the City did in response to discovery to find reports and that all departments which might have a report were searched. Credeur has not identified another City employee or department that might have received a report about the alleged defect. As a result, Credeur failed to raise a fact question as to notice and the City’s plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Byrne, Justice Triana and

Justice Smith. Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Byrne

 

Plaintiff must prove the TWC’s decision is unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious to overturn a denial of unemployment benefits. 

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Van Deelen v. Tex. Workforce Comm’n, No. 14-18-00489-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th]  January 26, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s judgment granting the TWC’s summary judgment motion on an unemployment benefits case, the 14th Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because there was substantial evidence of the plaintiff’s termination being caused by employment misconduct.

The plaintiff, a teacher, sued the Texas Workforce Commission and the School District (his employer) when he was denied unemployment benefits because his termination was for misconduct.  The evidence presented was that the plaintiff was terminated from the school district for: (1) assault of a supervisor; (2) misconduct toward school staff and students; and (3) misrepresentation on his employment application.  After the plaintiff was terminated, he applied for unemployment compensation from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).  A TWC Appeal Tribunal held that the plaintiff was terminated for mismanagement of a position of employment and was therefore not entitled to unemployment compensation.  The full TWC affirmed the decision of the tribunal.  The plaintiff appealed to the trial court, which upheld the decision of TWC and rendered summary judgment for TWC and the school district.  The plaintiff appealed.

Section 201.012 of the Texas Labor Code provides for denial of unemployment compensation by the Texas Workforce Commission if the employee is terminated for misconduct.  The Court reviews a TWC unemployment compensation decision for whether the decision is based on substantial evidence. See Tex. Lab. Code § 212.202(a); McCrory v. Henderson, 431 S.W.3d 140, 142 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.).  To reverse a decision of the TWC on unemployment benefits, the plaintiff has the burden to show that the TWC’s determination is not supported by substantial evidence.  See Collingsworth Gen. Hosp. v. Hunnicutt, 988 S.W.2d 706, 708 (Tex. 1998).   The primary issue is whether the evidence considered by the TWC reasonably supported the decision of the TWC, and the decision may only be overturned if the decision is unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious.   The Court of Appeals held that the evidence of misconduct was sufficient to uphold the TWC’s decision even though there was evidence contrary to the TWC’s decision.

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

 

Property owner not entitled to de novo review of nuisance determination says Austin Court of Appeals

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Mark Groba v. The City of Taylor, Texas, 03-19-00365-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Feb. 3, 2021)

In this nuisance abatement case, the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Groba, a real property owner, was subject to an enforcement action in the Municipal Court of Taylor, acting in an administrative capacity.  The court conducted a hearing and issued an order granting the City’s application to declare Groba’s property a nuisance under chapter 214 of the Texas Local Government Code. The municipal court later issued an order declaring that Groba failed to comply with its original order to clean up the nuisance. The City then filed a Chapter 54 lawsuit to enforce it’s ordinances and the orders in district court. The City sought injunctive relief related to its nuisance determination, including authorizing the City to demolish the building and charge the costs for doing so to Groba. The City also sought civil penalties.  The trial court issued an injunction order allowing the City to demolish the building, which the City did.  The day after the demolition, Groba filed a counterclaim for declaratory judgment and trespass, arguing that he was entitled to a jury trial on the nuisance determination. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted. Groba appealed.

After receiving a copy of the municipal court order, Groba did not appeal and, thus, did not comply with the jurisdictional prerequisites for judicial review of the nuisance determination.  Groba asserted he was entitled to de novo review of the City’s nuisance determination, and even if he had failed to timely appeal the nuisance determination, the City is estopped from asserting a jurisdictional challenge to his request for a jury trial because the City “misled” him by filing “multiple proceedings” and by dismissing the criminal municipal-court case after he had requested a jury trial. A property owner aggrieved by a municipality’s order under § 214.001 may seek judicial review of that decision by filing a verified petition in district court within thirty days of receipt of the order. A court cannot acquire subject-matter jurisdiction by estoppel. The City’s enforcement of an ordinance may be estopped, but only in exceptional circumstances that are not present. But subject-matter jurisdiction is still not conferred through estoppel.  Further, contrary to Croba’s assertions, the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in City of Dallas v. Stewart, 361 S.W.3d 562 (Tex. 2012) does not give him an unconditional right to de novo review of a nuisance determination. A de novo review is required only when a nuisance determination is appealed, which Croba did not perform.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Byrne, Justice Baker and Justice Triana. Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Byrne.

Austin Court of Appeals holds temporary injunction order need not set a specific trial date, but must place the case for trial on the court’s calendar, otherwise the order is void

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Hegar, Comptroller of Public Accounts of State of Texas, et al., v Zertuche Construction, LLC, 03-19-00238-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Jan. 22, 2021).

This is a tax collection case, but the main thrust is the procedural ruling on injunctions where the Austin Court of Appeals held that Zertuche Construction’s temporary injunction order was void due to a lack of trial setting.

The Comptroller audited Zertuche’s sales-and-use tax report, determined it owed additional taxes, and imposed penalties and interest. After a decision upholding an assessment of approximately $2.6 million, Zertuche submitted a written protest letter and followed the procedural steps for challenging the holding. Zertuche filed suit challenging the assessment and seeking an injunction to prohibit the Comptroller from taking action to collect the taxes owed under the assessment. The Comptroller responded by filing a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court conducted a combined hearing on the Comptroller’s plea to the jurisdiction and Zertuche’s application for a temporary injunction to enjoin tax collection. The trial court issued a temporary injunction order prohibiting tax collection, but did not rule on the plea. The Comptroller and AG appealed.

Rule 683, dealing with temporary injunction orders,  requires that an order granting a temporary injunction state the reasons for its issuance and set “the cause for trial on the merits with respect to the ultimate relief sought.” See Tex. R. Civ. P. 683. The trial court’s order stated “[t]he parties will set this matter for trial as soon as possible after the resolution of EBS Solutions [case pending in Texas Supreme Court] if Defendants’ Plea to the Jurisdiction and Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction is denied by this Court.” Thus, rather than set a date for trial, the order provides that the parties will set the matter for trial. Although a specific trial date need not be set in the order, the order must “set the cause for trial on the merits” and that “rule 683 implicitly requires the injunction to order the cause be calendared on the trial court’s docket.” Because the temporary injunction order does not set the cause for trial on the merits the Court of Appeals determined the order was void.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of e Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Kelly. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Kelly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

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

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

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

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

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