Eastland Court of Appeals holds City failed to obtain ruling on special exceptions, therefore it could not complain about a lack of factual specificity in the pleadings within its plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Odessa, Texas v. AIM Media Texas, LLC d/b/a The Odessa American, 11-20-00229-CV  (Tex. App. – Eastland, May 13, 2021).

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the Eastland Court of Appeals held the Plaintiff had properly fallen under the jurisdiction of the PIA.

AIM Media, a newspaper company, sued the City for mandamus under the PIA asserting the City failed to timely provide the information requested and improperly redacted information. The City asserted it provided all information and that AIM Media plead conclusory allegations only, with no facts. The City asserts it filed special exceptions to the bare pleadings then filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed.

The court noted the City challenged the pleadings only, so the pleadings were taken as true for purposes of the plea. The PIA allows a requestor to sue for mandamus.  While the court appeared to acknowledge that a lack of factual allegations can be grounds for a plea, the court held the City failed to obtain a ruling on their special exceptions. As a result, whether the special exceptions properly put AIM Media on notice of any jurisdictional defects was not before the court. Taking the pleadings as true, the court held AIM Media pled the minimum jurisdictional requirements.  The plea was therefore properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey, Justice Trotter and Justice Williams. Opinion by Chief Justice Bailey.

Texas Supreme Court holds ordinance initiative ballot language is misleading because it did not account for exceptions

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In Re: Linda Durnin, et. al, 21-0170 (Tex. March 2, 2021)

This is an original proceeding mandamus action where the Texas Supreme Court held petitioners were entitled to mandamus to make sure the City Council’s ballot language properly complied with the intent of the citizen-initiated petition to adopt an ordinance.

Petitioners brought an initiative petition requiring the City Council place on the ballot for the May 2021 election an ordinance regarding camping in public places (including sidewalks) and aggressive solicitation for money. The City Council called the election for the initiative.  When the Council approved the ballot language, it stated the ordinance creates a criminal offense and penalty for anyone sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors.  Petitioners sued for mandamus asserting, among other things, that the ballot language inaccurately reflects the ordinance to be voted upon.

The Texas Supreme Court held the wording of the proposed ordinance does not apply to just anyone. The ordinance contains certain exceptions for common uses of the sidewalk. Thus, only a subset of those who engage in the covered behavior—not just anyone—can be penalized under the ordinance. In this regard, the word “anyone” in the Council’s ballot language threatens to “mislead the voters” by misrepresenting the measure’s character and purpose or its chief features. The court issued mandamus to strike the word “anyone” for two locations in the ballot. However, the Court disagreed with the Petitioners noting that they did not meet the burden necessary for an emergency mandamus action to hold the City Council lacked the ability to select the language. The proposition correctly states that the ordinance creates criminal offenses and penalties. The Court held “Relators would prefer that this aspect of the ordinance appear less prominently in the proposition, but it is not [the court’s] job to micromanage the sentence structure of ballot propositions. [It’s] job is to ensure voters are not misled…”  The only defect the Court believed needed adjusting was the word “anyone” as it does not account for exceptions.

The dissent agreed the language was misleading, but would not have reached that issue. It believed the Petitioners clearly established the charter prevents the City Council from deciding the ballot language.  Instead, the City should be required to cite the caption language contained in the proposed ordinance.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Blacklock delivered the opinion of the court. Justice Boyd dissented (found here)  and was joined by Justice Devine and Justice Busby.

13th Court of Appeals holds remainder of employment contract was consequential damages, not amounts due and owed, therefore no waiver of immunity exists for breach

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Edinburg Housing Authority, Dr. Martin Castillo, Gabriel Salinas, Simon Garza, Marissa Chavana, and Juan Guzman v. Rodolfo Ramirez, 13-19-00269-CV, (Tex. App – Corpus Christi Feb. 25, 2021)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a housing authority’s motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds in an employment dispute. The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals reversed the denial and dismissed the case.

Ramirez signed a three-year employment contract with the Housing Authority to be its Executive Director and was extended for another three years, to end in 2021. However, in 2018 the board of the housing authority terminated Ramirez. Ramirez sued the Authority as well as individual commissioners (hereinafter “Authority Defendants”) for breach of contract, as well as constitutional due course of law, equal protection, and declaratory judgment relief. The Authority Defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 91a citing a lack of jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion and the Authority Defendants appealed.

The court first decided that, contrary to the individual commissioner’s assertion, the court did have interlocutory jurisdiction to hear the appeal involving them individually as well as in their official capacities. Section 51.014(a)(5) of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code allows interlocutory appeal for the denial of a motion for summary judgment based on an individual’s immunity.  While the underlying motion was a motion to dismiss as opposed to an MSJ, the court determined they are treated the same for purposes of §51.014(a)(5). Next, suits brought pursuant to a Texas constitutional provision are limited to equitable relief and do not allow a claim for monetary damage.  This applies to the entity as well as individual employees and officials. Ramirez’s constitutional claims should have been dismissed because they sought only the recovery of monetary damages. Next, to trigger the waiver of immunity for contract claims under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 271.152, a plaintiff must claim damages within the limitations of the chapter, i.e. balances due and owed, but not paid. Consequential damages are specifically excluded. Ramirez does not claim that the Housing Authority and its Commissioners failed to pay him for work he completed as the Housing Authority’s Executive Director. Rather, Ramirez seeks recovery of the wages he would have earned had his employment contract continued through the end of its extended term. These future wages would be considered “lost profits,” which are “consequential damages excluded from recovery.”  As a result, no jurisdiction exists as to the contract claim. The court then determined Ramirez’s constitutional claims against the commissioners, individually, cannot be brought against them as private actors. Because the individual commissioners are not the State or an entity thereof, these claims cannot stand. Further, Ramirez signed a contract with the Authority, not the individual commissioners. As a result, the commissioners cannot be individually sued for breach of contract. Finally, Ramirez had the opportunity to amend and failed to correct any defects. As a result, he is not entitled to amend.  Finally, the court determined the Authority Defendants were entitled to attorney’s fees and remanded to the trial court for such a determination.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras, and Justices Hinojosa and Silva. Reversed and remanded. Opinion by Justice Hinojosa. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Homeowners Association Had Standing to Sue Planning and Zoning Commission for Mandamus Relief

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 Escalera Ranch Owners’ Ass’n, Inc. v. Schroeder, 07-19-00210-CV, 2020 WL 4772973 (Tex. App.—Amarillo Aug. 17, 2020, no pet. h.)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s order granting the plea to the jurisdiction.

In April of 2018, the City of Georgetown’s Planning and Zoning Commission (“Commission”) approved a plat for a new 89-home subdivision to be located adjacent to and north of an existing residential subdivision known as Escalera Ranch. The sole means of access to the new subdivision was through a residential street that provides access to and through the Escalera Ranch. The homeowner’s association of Escalera Ranch (“Association”) sued the Commission under mandamus seeking to invalidate the plat. The Association also requested a temporary injunction to halt the development of the subdivision. The Commission filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted and the Association appealed.

To enjoin the actions of a governmental body, an individual must plead and prove a “special injury,” by alleging how the person has been damaged beyond the same damage to a member of the general public. The Association alleged new residential subdivision would create a material increase in traffic as one street would serve as the sole inlet for both subdivisions. The association also alleged the added congestion creates a potential safety risk to the safety and welfare of neighborhood residents because the street served as the only emergency vehicle access to the neighborhood. Based upon those allegations, the court found Association’s members have an interest peculiar and distinguishable from the general public. Further, the Association alleged the Commission abused its discretion by approving a plat that did not comply with the City’s fire code. The court found the act of approving the plat was ministerial only if the plat conformed to applicable regulations, and if it does not conform, the act is not ministerial. If the Commission approved a plat that failed to comply with applicable regulations, it could constitute an abuse of discretion, subject to mandamus relief.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Justices Pirtle, Paker and Doss.  Opinion by Justice Parker.

Corpus Christi Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff does not have standing to bring suit, or merit a temporary injunction, where the plaintiff has not alleged an injury distinct from the public at large.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Concerned Citizens of Palm Valley, Inc. v. City of Palm Valley, 13-20-00006-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi, August 13, 2020) (mem.op.).

In this taxpayer suit, the plaintiffs allege that the City is spending money on a private golf course in an unconstitutional manner, but the Court held that the denial of a temporary injunction was appropriate because the plaintiffs failed to show an injury distinct from the general public.

The plaintiffs are a group who oppose the City’s use of funds on a private golf course.  They sued the City under Texas Constitutional Article 3, Section 52 that states that A City cannot spend money on private property.  The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment preventing expenditures as well as temporary and permanent injunctions.  The trial court denied the temporary injunction because there was insufficient proof that the City was in violation of the Texas Constitution.  The plaintiffs appealed.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order, but on the ground that the plaintiffs have not alleged standing for its claims.

To present a claim for a declaratory judgment or to be able to be granted a temporary injunction, a plaintiff has to prove an injury distinct from the general public.  Austin Nursing Ctr., Inc. v. Lovato, 171 S.W.3d 845, 848 (Tex. 2005).  A citizen cannot bring suit against a governmental entity to require it to follow legal requirements if it does not have a separate injury.  While these arguments were not made by the City, the Court of Appeals held that there was insufficient evidence of a particularized injury for standing for the temporary injunction.  The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the temporary injunction.

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

Dallas Court of Appeals holds comprehensive plan ordinance is subject to referendum petition

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Carruth, et al v Henderson, 05-19-01195-CV (Tex. App. – Dallas, July 22, 2020).

This is a mandamus action (and second interlocutory opinion) where the Dallas Court of Appeals issued a mandamus against the City Secretary of the City of Plano regarding a citizen’s referendum petition and granted summary judgment for the plaintiff citizens.

The City of Plano, a home-rule municipality, has a comprehensive plan for land and use development under Chapter 213 of the Texas Local Government Code. The City of Plano’s charter permits qualified voters to submit a referendum petition seeking reconsideration of and a public vote on any ordinance, other than taxation ordinances. After the City passed an ordinance amending and adopting a new comprehensive plan, several citizens submitted a petition to the City Secretary for a referendum to repeal the new plan. The City Council held an executive session and was advised by outside legal counsel that the petition was not subject to a referendum vote. When no action was taken on the petition, the citizens filed suit to compel formal submission to the City Council and to have the City Council either take action or submit to a popular vote. The City Secretary filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. The citizens appealed.

The legislature may preempt municipal charters and ordinances. However, when preempting a home-rule charter, the language must be clear and compelling. The Plano City Charter itself excepts only ordinances and resolutions levying taxes from the referendum process. And while Chapter 213 of the Texas Local Government Code regulates the adoption of comprehensive plans, the mere fact that the legislature has enacted a law addressing comprehensive plans does not mean the subject matter is completely preempted (which would have foreclosed a referendum application). The City Secretary claims § 213.003 impliedly withdraws comprehensive development plans from the field of initiative and referendum by mandating procedural requirements, including a public hearing and review by the planning commission before cities can act on such plans. This argument ignores that the statute also allows a municipality to bypass the procedures set forth in subsection (a) and adopt other procedures in its charter or by ordinance. Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 213.003(b). Thus, the legislature did not limit the power of home-rule municipalities to adopt comprehensive plans. Further, comprehensive plans, while linked, are to be treated differently than zoning regulations. So, the cases cited by the City Secretary related to zoning referendums are not applicable. The order granting the City Secretary’s motion for summary judgment is reversed.  Because the original interlocutory opinion (summary found here) held the City Secretary has a ministerial duty to present the petition to the City Council, the law-of-the-case doctrine prevents the panel from holding otherwise. As a result, it must grant the citizen’s motion for summary judgment.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Schenck, Molberg, and Nowell. Opinion by Justice Schenck.  Docket page with attorney information found here.

Texas Supreme Court holds a lack of immunity for coronavirus is not a “disability” for purposes of mail-in election ballots

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In re State of Texas, 20-0394 (Tex. May 27, 2020)

This is a mail-in ballot case. The great folks at the Texas Municipal League already summarized this case, and I try not to duplicate any summaries they beat me to. Their summary is found here and was issued May 28, 2020.

However, since not everyone may have seen the summary and it affects multiple entities, I’ve included this condensed version.

Essentially, the Texas Attorney General filed the lawsuit directly with the Supreme Court, seeking to prevent clerks and other election officials from allowing mail-in ballots for those fearful of contracting the virus responsible for COVID-19. Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances, one being the voter is disabled by statutory definition. The Court emphasized that it takes no side in what is the best policy, as that is for the Legislature. Its job is to interpret the language of the Election Code. Based on the language provided, the Court held  “…a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face.”  As a result, it declined to issue a mandamus against any officials, noting the Court was confident they would comply with the law in good faith, now that the Court has clarified the statutory language.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Chief Justice Hecht delivered the opinion of the court. Justices Guzman, Boyd and Bland delivered separate concurring opinions.

PIA case remanded because mayor and city secretary did not do a search of personal emails or phones for public business

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James E. Horton v. Ron Welch, Individually and Ron Welch, as Mayor of the City of Caney City, Texas, 12-19-00381-CV, (Tex. App – Tyler, April 8, 2020)

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the Tyler Court of Appeals overruled an order granting the City and mayor’s summary judgment. [Comment: this case was filed prior to the recent PIA statutory changes creating temporary custodians.]

Horton sent two separate requests for numerous records to the City and Mayor Welch (seeking txts, emails, etc.). After Horton paid the required fees, the City, through Welch, gave him what it claims is all the requested records. Horton filed a suit asserting that Welch (as custodian) did not fully comply with his request and asking the trial court to issue a writ of mandamus. Welch filed a no-evidence motion for summary judgment arguing that he provided Horton with all requested records and documents and Horton has no evidence to the contrary. Welch also filed a traditional motion for summary judgment.  The trial court granted Welch’s motions and Horton appealed.

The PIA provides a statutory remedy of mandamus to a requestor when the governmental body refuses to supply public information or information that the attorney general has determined is public information that is not excepted from disclosure. The traditional MSJ was accompanied by an affidavit the city secretary performed a “painstaking investigation” and review of the City’s files and produced all responsive records. The City asserts it is not in possession of any additional records. However, the testimony established the city secretary and mayor did not examine personal accounts upon which council members could have utilized. Under the PIA “is not dependent on whether the requested records are in the possession of an individual or whether a governmental body has a particular policy or procedure that establishes a governmental body’s access to the information.” The PIA provides no guidance regarding the efforts a governmental body must take to locate, secure, or make available the public information requested. However, since the testimony established the mayor and city secretary did not look in private accounts which could have contained such information, a fact issue exists regarding whether or not all responsive information was provided.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Worthen, and Justices Hoyle and Neeley. Reversed and Remanded. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Hoyle. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

 

Texas Supreme Court holds no-evidence MSJ proper to challenge jurisdiction; TOMA waiver of immunity does not include declaratory judgment claims

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Town of Shady Shores v Swanson, 18-0413 (Tex. Dec. 13, 2019)

This is an employment case, but the focus on the opinion is a procedural one.  Importantly, the Texas Supreme Court held 1) a no-evidence motion for summary judgment was proper to raise a jurisdictional challenge and 2) the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) did not waive immunity for declaratory relief, only mandamus and injunctive relief.

Swanson was the former Town Secretary for Shady Shores. She brought claims asserting she was wrongfully discharged. The Town filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted as to the Sabine Pilot and Whistleblower claims. The  Town later filed traditional and no-evidence summary judgment motions (on immunity grounds) as to the Texas Open Meetings Act declaratory judgment claims, which the trial court denied.  The Town took an interlocutory appeal, but Swanson kept filing motions. The trial court granted Swanson leave to file a motion for a permissive interlocutory appeal as Swanson asserted she filed her notice of appeal (for the plea to the jurisdiction) within 14 days of the Town’s notice of appeal for the summary judgments. When Swanson attempted to hold further proceedings and obtain an order on the permissive appeal the Town filed a separate mandamus action (which was consolidated for purposes of appeal). The court of appeals declined to issue the mandamus noting the trial court did not actually sign any orders and noted Swanson did not timely file an appeal and was not granted a permissive appeal. Court of appeals summary found here.

The court of appeals held allowing a jurisdictional challenge on immunity grounds via a no-evidence motion would improperly shift a plaintiff’s initial burden by requiring a plaintiff to “marshal evidence showing jurisdiction” before the governmental entity has produced evidence negating it.  It also held the entity must negate the existence of jurisdictional facts. After recognizing a split in the appellate courts, the Texas Supreme Court rejected the reasoning noting in both traditional and no-evidence motions, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.  Because the plaintiff must establish jurisdiction, the court could “see no reason to allow jurisdictional challenges via traditional motions for summary judgment but to foreclose such challenges via no-evidence motions.”  Thus, when a challenge to jurisdiction that implicates the merits is properly made and supported, whether by a plea to the jurisdiction or by a traditional or no-evidence motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff will be required to present sufficient evidence on the merits of her claims to create a genuine issue of material fact.  Such a challenge is proper using a no-evidence summary judgment motion.  Next, the Court held  the UDJA does not contain a general waiver of immunity, providing only a limited waiver for challenges to the validity of an ordinance or statute.  UDJA claims requesting other types of declaratory relief are barred absent a legislative waiver of immunity with respect to the underlying action. Under  TOMA, immunity is waived only “to the express relief provided” therein—injunctive and mandamus relief—and the scope does not extend to the declaratory relief sought. Thus, TOMA’s clear and unambiguous waiver of immunity does not extend to suits for declaratory relief against the entity. However, Swanson did seek mandamus and injunctive relief as well, which were not addressed by the court of appeals, even though argued by the Town. As a result, such claims are remanded to the court of appeals to address.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with attorney information is found here.

El Paso Court of Appeals reversed mandamus against JP holding rules applicable to justice/municipal courts allow “electronic” judgments

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In re Lujan, 08-15-00286-CV, 2019 WL 1922765, (Tex. App. – El Paso, April 30, 2019).

This is a mandamus case involving and order the Justice of the Peace for Precinct 6 in El Paso to vacate an order falling outside of his plenary power.  This case involves principles of JP and non-record courts and will be of interest to those attorneys who practice in such courts.

The underlying action was a citation for “Possession of Drug Paraphernalia,” a Class C misdemeanor punishable only by a fine.  Villanueva entered a plea of no contest and payment. The court submitted the information into its case management system; but it is important to note  no written judgment was created or signed by Judge Lujan. Four years later, Villanueva requested a withdrawal of his previous plea and a trial. When Judge Lujan refused, Villanueva filed for a writ of mandamus to a county court in El Paso.  The record included a paper copy of the court’s case management system docket entries, Villanueva’s identifying information, his entered plea, the screen shot of the system’s judgment (adjudged “guilty”), the paid fine amount, and receipt of said payment after acknowledgement by Villanueva that it was a “record.” Ultimately, the county court granted  mandamus petition against Judge Lujan, stating that Lujan never entered a written judgment as required by the applicable procedural rules and failed to set the case for trial. At this point, Lujan filed a motion for a new trial and a notice of intent to appeal.

The pivotal focus in this case is the relationship between justice/municipal courts and the Code of Criminal Procedure and Civil Procedure. Justice and municipal courts are controlled by Chapter 45 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The El Paso Court of Appeals held that justice and municipal courts are not governed by provisions outside of Chapter 45 if they are expressly included within Chapter 45 provisions. Further, during the Court of Appeals’ analysis refused to hold justice and municipal courts to standards applicable to “indictments and informations,” since justice (and municipal) courts rely on complaints as their charging instruments.  The interconnectivity is often misunderstood. The El Paso Court of Appeals noted 1) along with Chapter 45, chapters the Texas Government Code also apply including Chapter 27 to justice courts, Chapter 29 to municipal courts not of record, and municipal Chapter 30 to municipal courts of record and 2) in the absence of a specific provision, the remainder of the Code of Criminal Procedure most likely applies to justice and municipal courts. The appellate court found provisions within Chapter 45 considered electronically stored records to have the same effect as documents otherwise required to be written. Specifically, the Chapter provided that electronically recorded judgments have the “same force and effect as a written signed judgment.” As a result, the order of mandamus was reversed.

If you would like to read the opinion in its entirety, please click here.  Panel consists of Chief Justice McClure, Justice Rodriguez and Justice Hughes.  Opinion by Justice Rodriguez.

Texas Supreme Court holds attorney-client privilege applies even when client acts as its own expert

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In Re: City of Dickinson, 17-0020 (Tex. February 15, 2019)

This is a mandamus action of primary interest to litigators where the Texas Supreme Court held the attorney/client privilege protects expert testimony when the client is also the expert.

The City of Dickinson purchased a commercial windstorm policy from Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. In the underlying litigation, the City alleges that Texas Windstorm has not paid all it owes under the policy and sued. In the motion for summary judgment Texas Windstorm included the affidavit of its corporate representative and senior claims examiner, Paul Strickland. Strickland’s affidavit provided both factual and expert opinion testimony on Texas Windstorm’s behalf. Strickland’s affidavit had been revised in a series of emails between Strickland and Texas Windstorm’s counsel and the City sought the drafts in discovery. Texas Windstorm asserted the communications were privileged while the City asserted, as a testifying expert, the communications were not privileged. The trial court ordered Windstorm to produce the communications. The court of appeals conditionally granted a writ of mandamus. The Texas Supreme Court heard the mandamus filed by the City.

Texas Windstorm responds that the expert-disclosure rules do not override the attorney–client privilege and do not require a party to choose between defending itself and maintaining its privileges. It asserted the attorney–client privilege is substantively distinct from the work-product doctrine.  There was no dispute the communications at issue were encompassed within the attorney/client privilege.  The Court declined to create any new privileges in the opinion and confined its analysis to the rules of discovery already in place. Because the discovery rules are part of a cohesive whole, the Court considered them in context rather than as isolated provisions.  While Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 192.3 states a party may discover expert information, it does not expressly permit discovery when the information is protected by the attorney/client privilege. In fact, Rule 192.3(a) expressly contains the phrase “absent some specific provision otherwise” which the Court interpreted to include the attorney/client privilege.  Further, Rule 194.2 permits a party to seek a disclosure on expert information, but such is permissive, not mandatory and is subject to privileged communications. Additionally, the official comments to Rule 194 explain that a responding party may assert any privilege to a Rule 194.2 request except work product. The City’s supporting cases were largely based in the work-product privilege, not the attorney/client privilege. As a result, they are inapplicable. The Court reemphasized some of its more recent opinions holding the attorney/client privilege is a “quintessentially imperative” to our legal system. A lawyer’s candid advice and counseling is no less important when a client also testifies as an expert. As a result, it upheld the mandamus and allowed Texas Windstorm to withhold the communications.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Devine delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with attorney information is found here.

Austin Court of Appeals holds dog owner entitled to jury trial in appeal from municipal court of record

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In re: Linda Pool, 03-18-00299-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, January 23, 2019)

This is a mandamus case where the Austin Court of Appeals conditionally granted the writ requiring a county court-at-law to hold a jury trial on a dangerous dog determination appeal.

Pool owns a dog named Pepper, who allegedly attacked a jogger named Hoffman. An independent hearing examiner took sworn testimony and determined Pepper was a “dangerous dog” under §822.041(2) of the Texas Health and Safety Code. Pool appealed the decision to the Austin Municipal Court. The municipal judge, without a jury, held a hearing and confirmed Pepper was a dangerous dog. Pool appealed to the county court-at-law and requested a jury trial de novo. The state argued that since the Austin Municipal Court is a court of record, any appeal is based on errors in the record and no de novo appeal is possible. The trial court held Pool was not entitled to a de novo review. Pool brought this mandamus action to compel a jury trial.

The court held this was a case of statutory interpretation. Under Chapter 30 of the Texas Government Code, appeals from a court of record are only appeals on the record. Tex. Gov’t Code §30.00014(b).  However, §822.0424 states that a party “to an appeal under Section 822.0421(d)… may appeal the decision… and is entitled to a jury trial on request.”  The court noted that subsection (a) of §30.00014 states an appeal can be had from a judgment or conviction, but subsection (b) (which states an appeal is on the record only) simply references the word “conviction” and not “judgment.”  The court essentially held that a conviction equals criminal matters and a “judgment” equals civil matters for purposes of appeal. Since “judgment” was not mentioned in subsection (b) regarding the form of appeal, the form of appeal is not always on the record. Since §822.0424 states the appellate can make a jury trial request, the county court-at-law was required to grant the request. The court further held, in a footnote, that if the two statutes could not be harmonized, §822.0424 would still win out as the most recently passed provision. It conditionally granted the writ.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Rose, Justice Goodwin and Justice Baker. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Goodwin. The attorney listed for Pool is Ms. Anna Eby.  The attorneys listed for the Travis County Attorney’s Office, real party in interest are David A. Escamilla, Tim Labadie and  Annalynn C. Cox.

December 2018 Condensed Summaries

The problem with December is courts try to get cases off their desk prior to the holiday break. Clients like to get stuff resolved before the holiday break. Which means a lot of stuff happens in December preventing me from keeping up with all of the cases coming out related to governmental entities.  While I do not like to do it very often, I am having to provide a condensed version of the case summaries for December 2018.

  1. 1st District COA holds county courts at law in Harris County are the exception and have exclusive jurisdiction for inverse condemnation claims. San Jacinto River Authority v. Charles J. Argento 01-18-00406-CV (Tex. App. — Houston [1st] Dec. 4, 2018). Opinion click here.  This is 36 page opinion where the First District Court of Appeals in Houston consolidated several cases where homeowners brought takings claims due to flooding. The court held the Legislature gave the Harris County civil courts at law exclusive jurisdiction over inverse-condemnation claims under Texas Government Code § 25.1032(c). Therefore, the district courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims. The district courts do, however, have subject-matter jurisdiction over the homeowners’ statutory takings claims under Government Code Chapter 2007, the Private Real Property Rights Preservation Act.

 

  1. University’s plea to the jurisdiction granted as to ex-employee subject to RIF. Francisco Sanchez, Jr. v. Texas A&M University- San Antonio 04-17-00197-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, Dec. 12, 2018). For opinion click A University employee (Sanchez) was subject to a reduction-in-force and brought discrimination charges after being demoted. Sanchez had two positions, with one being a project lead. He filed his EEOC charge for one position after the 180-day deadline from the date of the adverse action and the other EEOC charge was filed within 180 days for the second position. The court held the continuing violation doctrine did not apply to Sanchez. Further, Sanchez could not establish discrimination through direct evidence. The RIF was a legitimate non-discriminatory reason which was not disputed with competent evidence.

 

  1. Fact that attorney “sent” TTCA claim notice letter is irrelevant; TTCA requires notice to be “received’ within time period. City of San Antonio v. Gabriela Rocha 04-18-00367-CV (Tex App. – San, Antonio, Dec.12, 2018). For opinion click This is a TTCA police vehicle accident case. While the TTCA gives a plaintiff 180 days to provide written notice of claim to waive immunity, the City Charter only provided a 90 day window. And while the affidavit of Rocha’s lawyer notes he “sent” the notice timely, the plain language of the TTCA and Charter require the notice to have been “received” within the time period. So, formal written notice was not received timely. The court then analyzed whether the City had actual notice. After examining the record, the court held nothing indicates the City had actual notice of an injury or property damage. As a result, no waiver of immunity exists.

 

  1. Officer’s F-5 dishonorable discharged sustained since omission of material facts in report qualifies under a discharge for untruthfulness. Patrick Stacks v. Burnet County Sheriff’s Office 03-17-00752-CV (Tex. App. — Austin, 12, 2018). For opinion click here. This is an appeal from an F-5 determination that a sheriff’s deputy was dishonorably discharged. Stacks was terminated after a confidential information who personally observed a stop made by Stacks brought forth testimony of significant omissions by Stacks in his report. Stacks asserted the omissions did not amount to “untruthfulness.” The administrative law judge as the SOAH hearing disagreed and held Stacks was discharged for untruthfulness and therefore the dishonorable discharge should apply. The district court agreed. The court of appeals held the law recognizes the misleading effect of omissions. A failure to disclose a fact “may be as misleading as a positive misrepresentation…” As a result, for F-5 determinations, a discharge for untruthfulness includes a discharge for omitting material information or facts that rendered a statement misleading or deceptive.  The ALJ determination was sustained.

 

  1. Property Owners’ takings claims failed as Authority acted within its federal license under Federal Power Act. Jim Waller, et al v. Sabine River Authority of Texas 09-18-00040-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Dec. 6, 2018). For opinion click This is a flooding/inverse condemnation case. During a federal license renewal process, residents who live downstream of the Toledo Bend Dam presented their suggestions about changing the regulations governing the hydroelectric plant to prevent flooding. The suggestions were not incorporated. Then a historic rainfall event occurred causing flooding and the residents sued for takings claims. The Authority acted within the terms of its license and the flooding was caused by the historic rain levels. Further, Plaintiff’s arguments would impose duties expressly rejected by the federal agency during relicensing. As such, the claims are preempted by the Federal Power Act.

 

  1. Supreme Court remands case to COA to reevaluate based on its holding in Wasson II. Owens v. City of Tyler, 17-0888, 2018 WL 6711522, at *1 (Tex. Dec. 21, 2018). For the opinion click here.  The City of Tyler built Lake Tyler in 1946 and leased lakefront lots to residents in a manner very similar to Wasson. Tenants decided to build a new pier and boathouse extending from their lot onto the water. This caused neighboring tenants to object. The neighboring tenants sued the City after it issued a building permit.  After the intermediate court of appeals issued an opinion, the Texas Supreme Court issued the most recent Wasson decision. As a result, the Supreme Court send remanded the case back to the court of appeals in order analyze the case under the four-part test.

 

 

  1. Declaratory Judgment action was first filed, so later filed negligent action must be abated. In re: Texas Christian University, 05-18-00967-CV, (Tex. App. – Dallas, December 21, 2018). For opinion click here. Two negligent/medical malpractice claims were filed, one in Tarrant County and one in Dallas County. The cases are inherently interrelated. The central facts to both lawsuits involve the circumstances surrounding a student athlete’s injury during the September 2015 football game, the subsequent treatment from JPSPG physicians, and the alleged harassment and pressure he felt from TCU’s coaching staff to return to play. To resolve uncertainties regarding the hospital’s liability regarding the athletic event, TCU filed its declaratory judgment action seeking declarations regarding the construction and validity of the Health Services Contract.  As a result, the “first filed” rule dictates the later filed lawsuit by the student must be abated.

 

  1. Texas Supreme Court details statutory construction to determine emergency medical response exception to liability. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Denton, et al., v D.A., et al. 17-0256 (Tex. December 21, 2018). This is a medical malpractice case, but deals with the emergency medical responder provision of the Texas Medical Liability Act, similar in wording to the emergency responder provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act.  Utilizing statutory construction principals, the court noted punctuation and grammar rules can be crucial to proper construction. The Court focused on the prepositional phrase “in a” hospital, and determined the phrase placed before each contested text indicates the Legislature intended for each phrase to be treated separately. The Plaintiff’s construction argument would require the Court to ignore the second use of the prepositional phrase “in a” and renders that language meaningless. The Court declined to use external aides for construction (including the legislative history). While the Texas Code Construction Act allows a court to rely on such aides, even for unambiguous statutes, the Court held it is the Court, as the high judicial body, who decides when such aides will be used, not the Legislature. Further, statements explaining an individual legislator’s intent cannot reliably describe the legislature body’s intent. By focusing on the language enacted, the Court encourages the legislature to enact unambiguous statutes, it discourages courts from usurping the legislature’s role of deciding what the law should be, and it enables citizens to rely on the laws as published. As a result, based on the language in the statute, the Plaintiffs must establish willful and wanton negligence when their claims arise out of the provision of emergency medical care in a hospital obstetrical unit, regardless of whether that care is provided immediately following an evaluation or treatment in the hospital’s emergency department or at some point later, after the urgency has passed.

 

  1. Dog owner could seek injunction stay of municipal dangerous dog court order in county court at law. The State of Texas by and through the City of Dallas v. Dallas Pets Alive, Nos 05-18-00084-CV and 05-18-00282-CV. For the opinions click here and here. Rusty, a pit bull/terrier mix dog, bit and injured a two-year-old child at an adoption event. The City determined Rusty was a dangerous dog under Texas Health & Safety Code § 822.002 in municipal court. The adoption center filed an appeal but also filed for injunctive relief in county court at law to stop the municipal court’s order, which the county court at law granted. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction as to injunction order which was denied. The majority opinion held where the state initiates litigation, it has no immunity from suit. Further, the appellate court (i.e. county court at law) has jurisdiction to protect its own jurisdiction (i.e. involving the subject of a pending appeal). The court held the county court at law had jurisdiction to hear the dangerous dog appeal from municipal court and the injunction was propepr. Justice Lang dissented and would have held the county court at law would not have jurisdiction over the appeal.

Mandamus action: Pre-suit discovery precluded as petitioner did not support the petition with evidence and trial court failed to issue mandatory findings

In Re: City of Tatum, Texas, 12-18-00285-CV (Tex. App. – Tyler, December 21, 2018)

This is a writ of mandamus original proceeding where the Tyler Court of Appeals conditionally granted the City’s relief and precluded a potential party from taking pre-suit depositions pursuant to Rule 202.

Peterson filed a petition for a pre-suit deposition of the police chief pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 202. The grounds for the deposition are that Peterson asserts a Tatum police officer sexually assaulted her when the officer arrived in response to a call for assistance at the home. She alleged that the City knew the officer “exhibited indicators” of this type of behavior; negligently hired, trained, controlled, supervised, and monitored the officer; did not have a policy to prevent such behavior and she anticipated being a party to a lawsuit involving the City. The City objected.  The trial court signed an order allowing the deposition and the City filed this original mandamus proceeding.

Pre-suit discovery is not intended for routine use; it creates practical and due process problems because discovery demands are made of individuals or entities before they are told of the issues. Rule 202.4 states a trial court must order a pre-suit deposition to be taken only if it finds: (1) allowing the deposition may prevent a failure or delay of justice in an anticipated suit (to be used if the purpose is to collect evidence for a lawsuit )or (2) the likely benefit to investigate a potential claim outweighs the burden or expense of the procedure (to be used in order to investigate if a claim even exists). The verified statements in a Rule 202 petition are not considered competent evidence. Peterson presented no evidence to support possible claims to investigate or collect. That a party (i.e. City) may be in possession of evidence pertinent to the subject matter of the anticipated action or to the petitioner’s potential claims does not alleviate the petitioner of her burden of providing evidence to support a Rule 202 request for pre-suit depositions. Further, the order does not contain the findings required to make it a proper order. The Texas Supreme Court has made clear that Rule 202.4 findings cannot be implied from the record and the findings are mandatory. Because the requirements of Rule 202.4 are mandatory, the City’s failure to object in the trial court does not result in waiver. The court conditionally granted the writ and stated an unconditional writ will issue only if the trial court’s order is not corrected.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Memorandum opinion by Justice Neeley. The attorney for the City is listed as Darren K. Coleman.  The attorney for Peterson is listed as Ron Adkison.

Amarillo Court of Appeals holds no jurisdiction exists under PIA unless university “refuses” to supply information

Texas Tech University v. Dolcefino Communications, LLC dba Dolcefino Consulting, 07-18-00225-CV (Tex. App. – Amarillo, December 4, 2018).

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the Amarillo Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction and held Texas Tech University properly complied with the PIA.

Dolcefino Communications, LLC (“Dolcefino”) requested various records from Texas Tech under the PIA. Texas Tech produced some but did not produce all the records requested. Dolcefino filed a petition for mandamus relief under Tex. Gov’t Code §552.321. Texas Tech filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. Texas Tech appealed.

The Legislature has prescribed that all statutory prerequisites to suit are jurisdictional in suits against governmental entities.  While the PIA waives immunity to a limited extent, the waiver is not all encompassing. Under the PIA, a requestor may file suit only upon showing that the governmental body “refuses to supply public information” or “refuses to request an attorney general’s decision.”  Such are statutory prerequisites to suit. The lion’s share of Dolcefino’s requests at issue were deemed “withdrawn as a matter of law” by Texas Tech. Dolcefino do not respond in writing to the itemized statement of costs or provide a bond within the time period. Dolcefino did not (1) accept the estimated charges, (2) modify its requests, or (3) send a complaint to the attorney general.  Dolcefino and Texas Tech did engage in what Dolcefino characterizes as a “back-and-forth” regarding the charges due.  However, an ongoing parleying over price does not provide a basis for overriding the statutory scheme for responding to an estimate of charges. The request was properly considered withdrawn. The court also dismissed Dolcefino’s argument Texas Tech waived the withdrawal language since estoppel does not run against a governmental entity.  Regarding the remaining portions of the request, Texas Tech asserts no responsive documents exist. However, a movant in a plea to the jurisdiction must assert and support with evidence the trial court’s lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The court analyzed the emails back and forth with Dolcefino where Texas Tech asserted it did not have certain specific documents. Dolcefino asserted the statements were conclusory and not competent evidence. The court held “[a]s sparse as this additional data may be, it nevertheless insulates Texas Tech’s reply from a potential attack as conclusory.” Texas Tech produced some evidence that it was not “refusing” to provide public information to Dolcefino.  As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panelconsists of Chief Justice Quinn, Justice Campbell, Justice Parker. Opinion byJustice Parker. The attorneys listed for Texas Tech are Eric A. Hudson and EnriqueM. Varela.  The attorneys listed forDolcefino are Michael K. Hurst, Julie Pettit, David B. Urteago, David Coale.