Officers’ and City’s appeal dismissed by U.S. 5th Circuit because their dismissal “with prejudice” argument inapplicable when inmate could still get conviction reversed

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Kerry Max Cook v. City of Tyler, Texas, et al., 19-40144, 2020 WL 5268509 (5th Cir. Sept. 4, 2020)

This is an appeal and cross-appeal from a dismissal of Cook’s §1983 claim seeking damages suffered from a series of wrongful prosecutions, convictions, and imprisonment, which the U.S. 5th Circuit affirmed.

Kerry Cook filed a §1983 claim, alleging official misconduct via a series of wrongful prosecutions, convictions, and imprisonment. However, the district court, citing Heck v. Humphrey (512 U.S. 477 (1986)), found that a malicious prosecution §1983 claim does not accrue until his conviction is formally terminated in his favor, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacates his conviction, and the State dismisses the indictment against him. The district court dismissed Cook’s suit “with prejudice to the claims being asserted again until the Heck conditions are met…” The City and officer Defendants appealed the dismissal as being without prejudice, insisting the dismissal must be with prejudice. Cook asserted the dismissal was not final, not appealable, and therefore the 5th Circuit lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

The 5th Circuit analyzed two questions: 1) whether the dismissal was with or without prejudice, and 2) whether the dismissal was final and appealable. To the first question, the 5th Circuit found that the dismissal language is taken near verbatim from non-prejudicial language recommended in Johnson v. McElveen (101 F.3d 423 (5th Cir. 1996)), when a trial court is dismissing a case under the condition that it may be reasserted if the Heck conditions are met. To the second question, the 5th Circuit held the dismissal was not final, and thus not appealable because the district court contemplated Cook satisfying the Heck conditions at a later date. The 5th Circuit contrasted this court’s Heck dismissal with other, appealable, dismissals where the issue to be determined was whether Heck was even applicable.

If you would like to read this per curiam opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Davis, Jones, and Willett.

The First Court of Appeals held employment discrimination claims cannot be brought under the TCHRA in state court where the same claims were previously dismissed in federal court.     

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Suran Wije v. David A. Burns and Univ. of Texas, No. 01-19-00024-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] September 3, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this employment discrimination claim, the plaintiff sued a University official and the University for discrimination after he was unable to be re-employed by the University.  The Court of Appeals held that the University retained its immunity.

The plaintiff was an employee at the University from 2000-2005.  While there he made complaints regarding IT issues to his boss.  Years after resigning from the University in 2005, the plaintiff attempted to get a new position at the University but was unsuccessful.   The plaintiff found out he had been “blacklisted.” He sued the University in federal court after receiving a right to sue letter from the EEOC.  The plaintiff alleged that he was being discriminated against by the University and that his personnel file had misinformation in it.  The federal court dismissed his claims with prejudice and so he filed his claims in state court.  The claims included TCHRA claims, a 1983 claim, fraud, defamation, and negligence claims under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The trial court granted the University’s plea to the jurisdiction and the plaintiff appealed.

The State and state agencies, like the University, retain their immunity from federal sec. 1983 claims.  Moore v. La. Bd. of Elementary & Secondary Educ., 743 F.3d 959, 963 (5th Cir. 2014).  University officials also retain immunity.  The TCHRA contains an election of remedies and disallows suits under the TCHRA if the claims involved have already been adjudicated by a different court.  Tex. Labor Code § 21.211; City of Waco v. Lopez, 259 S.W.3d 147, 155 (Tex. 2008).  The Texas Tort Claims Act claims must be negligence claims that cause injury to a person or damage to property under its narrow waiver and does not allow for intentional tort claims. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ch. 101.   The Court of Appeals held that the University’s immunity had not been waived for any of the claims because: (1) they retain immunity for sec. 1983 claims; (2) his TCHRA claims were barred because they had already been brought to another court; and (3) neither his negligence or intentional tort claims met the requirements of the Texas Tort Claims Act.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Goodman, Landau, and Hightower.  Opinion by Justice Richard Hightower.

U.S. 5th Circuit holds no deliberate indifference alleged requiring jailers to protect inmate from attack by another inmate

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Torres v. Livingston, 19-40470, 2020 WL 4933063 (5th  Cir. Aug. 24, 2020).

This is an appeal from a dismissal of an inmate’s § 1983 claims which the U.S. 5th Circuit affirmed.

Christopher Torres worked as an inmate janitor in an administrative segregation unit.  While working, another innate requested an officer to pick up photos that were on the floor just outside his cell. The officer, as a matter of routine in fulfilling inmate requests, directed Torres to go ahead and pick up the photos. While bending over to pick up the photos, the inmate stabbed Torres in his neck. Torres sued a correctional officer and several staff members and administrators per 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly failing to protect him from an inmate attack.

To hold an officer liable under the Eighth Amendment it mush be shown that the officer acted with deliberate indifference to the inmate’s health or safety. The U.S. Fifth Circuit found that Torres did not offer any facts suggesting the jailor knew of and disregarded a substantial risk to his health and safety. As a result, Torres failed to state § 1983 claim. Additionally, Torres’s failure to allege facts amounting to a constitutional violation for a failure to train or supervise.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Justices Smith, Willett and Duncan.  Opinion by Justice Smith.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that sign ordinances cannot treat off-premise and on-premise signs differently if the regulation of such signs includes regulation non-commercial content. 

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Reagan Nat’l Advertising of Austin, Inc.; Lamar Advantage Outdoor Co. v. City of Austin, No. 19-50354 (5th Cir. August 25, 2020).

In this First Amendment sign case, the U.S.  Fifth Circuit held that the distinction between off-premise and on-premise signs is a prohibited content-based distinction under Reed v. Town of Gilbert if the regulation could include non-commercial content.

The plaintiff sign companies desired to digitize their off-premise signs (billboards) in the City. Their applications were denied by the City because the City prohibits the digitization of off-premises signs, but allows the digitization of on-premises signs.  The City defined off-premises sign as, “a sign advertising a business, person, activity, goods, products, or services not located on the site where the sign is installed, or that directs persons to any location not on that site.”  The plaintiffs asserted the distinction between on-premises and off-premises signs was a violation of the First Amendment as a content-based distinction that cannot withstand strict scrutiny.  After the suit was filed, the City amended its sign ordinance.  The City argued that the difference between on-premises and off-premises was content-neutral and that it should only be reviewed under intermediate scrutiny. The trial court held that the ordinance was valid under intermediate scrutiny and the plaintiffs appealed.

There are two levels of scrutiny that are used to review regulations that implicate free speech.  Strict scrutiny is used to review content-based regulations that regulate non-commercial speech.  To pass strict scrutiny, a City must prove that “the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., 576 U.S. 155, 171 (2015).  Intermediate scrutiny is used when the content is commercial or if the ordinance is content-neutral.  Centr. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 561 (1980).  To pass intermediate scrutiny, a City has to prove that the regulation directly advances a substantial government interest and is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.  See Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of New York, 447 U.S. 557, 561 (1980). Content-based commercial speech may be regulated if it meets an intermediate level of scrutiny.  Id.  Any regulation of speech other than commercial speech must meet strict scrutiny.  Reed, 576 U.S. at  163, (2015)(“Content-based laws—those that target speech based on its communicative content—are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.).

The Court held that the City’s regulation of off-premises signs differently from on-premises signs was not a regulation of commercial speech and was not content-neutral and therefore had to be reviewed under strict scrutiny.  The regulation is content-based because the sign’s content, other than its commercial content, determines whether it falls under a stricter regulation.  The Court held the regulation did not meet the requirements of strict scrutiny and therefore was invalid.  The Court declined to hold whether the lesser level of scrutiny still applied to a content-based regulation that only applies to commercial speech.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Judges Elrod, Southwick, and Haynes. Opinion by Justice Jennifer Walker Elrod.

 

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds trial court lacked jurisdiction involving school district’s disciplinary decision

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This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction filed by Northwest Independent School District.

Plaintiffs sued Northwest ISD on behalf of their minor child, C.R., seeking a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief based on the violation of C.R.’s rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and procedural and substantive due process. Parents allege that Northwest ISD enforced its “zero tolerance” policy when a search team found a substance in C.R.’s vehicle that was alleged to be marijuana. Parents utilized the Northwest ISD three-level appeal process. Ultimately, the consequences for C.R was assignment to an alternative school program and exclusion from drill team. Northwest ISD filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting disciplinary decisions under Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code could not be appealed.  The trial court granted the temporary restraining order and denied the plea to the jurisdiction.  Northwest ISD appealed.

Regarding discipline, the court held Chapter 37 expressly states such decisions are final and cannot be appealed. Therefore, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to consider Northwest ISD’s decision. The Court then held that “students do not possess a constitutionally-protected interest in their participation in extracurricular activities,” such as drill team. Parents’ claim of a constitutionally protected interest in their monetary investment in drill team was therefore invalid. Regarding the due process claims, the Court held that transferring C.R. to an alternative education program did not deprive C.R. of her right to receive an education. Further, there was no due process violation by infringing on C.R.’s right to her “good name and reputation.” Finally, the Court found the appeal process laid followed by Northwest ISD did not implicate due process violations. As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  The panel consisted of Chief Justice Sandee Bryan Marion and Justices Patricia O. Alvarez and Irene Rios.  Opinion by Chief Justice Bryan Marion.  Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Waco Court of Appeals holds an allegation of overzealous code enforcement actions is inadequate to establish a substantive due process violation when regulations are enforceable.

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

House of Praise Ministries, Inc. v. City of Red Oak, Texas, 10-19-00195-CV (Tex. App.—Waco, Aug. 6, 2020).

In this substantive due process case, the Waco Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s grant of a plea to the jurisdiction because the plaintiff did not bring any allegations that rose to the level of a substantive due process violation for code enforcement on its property.

The plaintiff is the owner of a piece of property in Red Oak, Texas that was the subject of code enforcement actions including substandard building declaration in municipal court.  The plaintiff initially brought claims for regulatory taking, procedural due process, and substantive due process based on the municipal court case determining that the buildings on its property were substandard.  In an earlier ruling by the trial court and this court of appeals, the regulatory taking and procedural due process claims were dismissed, but the plaintiff was given the opportunity to replead the substantive due process claim. The plaintiff replead the substantive due process claim including allegations that the City’s offered amortization agreement, overzealous code enforcement actions, and premature lis pendens filing violated its substantive due process rights.  The trial court granted the City’s plea to the jurisdiction related to the substantive due process claim.

To present a substantive due process claim, the plaintiff must prove that the government deprived the plaintiff of a constitutionally protectable property interest capriciously and arbitrarily.  City of Lubbock v. Corbin, 942 S.W.2d 14, 21 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1996, writ denied).  The Court of Appeals held that none of the three allegations met this standard.  The amortization agreement was never entered into by the plaintiff and so did not deprive it of any rights. The Court of Appeals then held that “conclusory allegations that the code enforcement officer enforced the City’s regulations arbitrarily and capriciously are inadequate, standing alone, to support a substantive due process claim.”  The Court also noted that there was no allegation that the regulations themselves were an issue.  Finally, the Court held that a lis pendens filing, which puts potential property purchasers on notice that an action against a property is currently being brought, does not violate substantive due process even if filed prematurely, where no other evidence of capriciousness or arbitrariness in filing the lis pendens.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Chief Justice Gray and  Justices Davis and Neill. Opinion by Justice John E. Neill.

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

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. 5th Circuit holds a board reprimand against an elected official for speech on a matter of public concern is an actionable First Amendment claim under § 1983.

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Wilson v. Houston Community College System, 19-20237 (U.S. 5th Cir. April 7, 2020)

This is a First Amendment/§1983 case where a former member of the board of trustees claimed the College censured him in violation of his First Amendment Rights. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the plaintiff’s First Amendment claims but sustained the dismissal of his declaratory and injunction claim.

Houston Community College System (“HCC”) is a public college system in the Houston area. HCC is controlled by a board of nine publicly elected trustees, one of whom was Wilson. Wilson publicly chastised HCC on various occasions for its policy decisions and even filed multiple state court lawsuits including one to prohibit videoconferencing votes as being illegal under the bylaws and in excluding him from meetings. The Board of Trustees held a hearing and issued a censure resolution which  chastised Wilson for acting in a manner “not consistent with the best interests of the College or the Board, and in violation of the Board Bylaws Code of Conduct.” The censure, the Board emphasized, was the “highest level of sanction available,” as Wilson was elected and could not be removed. Once censured, Wilson brought §1983 claims under the First Amendment, including declaratory and injunctive relief. The trial court granted HCC’s motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of jurisdiction due to a non-distinct injury. In August 2019, Wilson resigned. He was not re-elected.

In the context of free speech, “the governmental action need not have a direct effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights . . . [but] must have caused or must threaten to cause a direct injury to the plaintiffs.” The trial court held the censure did not forbid Wilson from performing his official duties or speaking publicly. Disagreeing with the trial court, the 5th Circuit held  Wilson’s allegation of retaliatory censure is enough to establish an injury in fact.  Further, a free speech violation giving rise to a reputational injury is an injury in fact and properly states First Amendment standing. However, Wilson’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief regarding the application of the Board’s censure and Code of Conduct are moot given they are no longer live controversies.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Davis, Smith and Stewart. Opinion by Justice Stewart.

BOA appeal deadline of 10 days applies to Open Meetings, declaratory judgment, and as-applied constitutional claims, holds Dallas Court of Appeals

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Tejas Motel, LLC v City of Mesquite, by and through its Board of Adjustment, 05-19-00667-CV (Tex. Civ. App. – Dallas, June 4, 2020).

This is an appeal from a Board of Adjustment decision regarding non-conforming status in which the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

The City of Mesquite had two zoning categories of lodging facilities within the City and placed conditions on their uses — Limited Services and General Services, neither of which Tejas Motel (“Tejas”) qualified under. Although the Tejas Motel had been nonconforming since 1997, the City did not specifically address that nonconformance until 2018, when the City passed an ordinance changing the manner in which the City’s Board of Adjustment could amortize nonconforming properties. The BOA held public hearings and scheduled a date for all non-conforming properties to become compliant, including Tejas. The City introduced evidence that the nonconforming use would adversely affect nearby properties.  Tejas then announced an agreement for a May 1, 2019 compliance date and the BOA approved that as a compliance date. Tejas, however, denied receiving a written copy after the BOA decision, which the BOA insists was mailed. Tejas then sued the BOA to invalidate the compliance date. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.

The requirement that one timely file a petition for writ of certiorari to challenge a zoning board decision is part of an administrative remedy, which is provided by the Texas Local Government Code and must be exhausted before board decisions may be challenged in court. Under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §211.011 Tejas had ten days from the date the decision was filed to challenge the decision. The Board’s July 31 written “Decision and Order” triggered the statutory deadline. Tejas did not file by the deadline, thereby precluding the court from obtaining jurisdiction. This included challenges brought under the Texas Open Meetings Act, declaratory judgment claim and as-applied constitutional challenges.  Tejas also failed to state any viable federal claims. Although a city is not immune from federal constitutional claims, a trial court may grant a plea to the jurisdiction if a constitutional claim is not viable. Tejas had no constitutionally protected, vested due process interest in continuing to use the property in violation of the city’s ordinances, especially when it acquired the property knowing the restrictions.  As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Molberg, Carlyle, and Evans.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Carlyle.

Possible suspension of officer’s license does not toll the statute of limitations for Sec. 1983 claims against an officer

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Haule  v.  Travis County and Spinner, No.  03-19-00250-CV (Tex.App.–Austin May 28, 2020) (mem. op.).

[Special guest summary author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs, Texas]

This case involves claims under §1983 and state law claims based on Haule’s attempt to report a crime to Travis County Officer Michael Spinner.  The court of appeals held that the statute of limitations had run against all of Haule’s claims.

Haule attempted to file a criminal complaint against the Caldwell County District Attorney based on a previous prosecution.  She called the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, claiming that the District Attorney had told her that he would put her in jail if she complained to the State Bar of Texas.  The Sheriff’s Office sent Officer Spinner to take her statement.  In his report, Officer Spinner referred to Haule as potentially mentally ill and intoxicated.  After Haule complained about Officer Spinner’s report, the Sheriff’s Office responded to Haule’s complaint in a letter stating that: (1) her claim was not sustained; (2) that the Travis County Sheriff’s Office did not have authority over the Caldwell County District Attorney; and (3) that she should contact the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office or the Attorney General’s Office.  Seven years after receiving the letter from Travis County, Haule filed suit in Travis County District Court, alleging Section 1983 claims and general state law claims that appeared to include negligence, fraud, malicious prosecution, and defamation against Travis County and Officer Spinner.  The County filed a motion for summary judgment that the claims were frivolous, and the district court granted the motion.  Haule appealed.

The court of appeals reviewed all of the claims under each statute of limitations to determine whether any of the claims, even if substantiated, remained viable.  The court first discussed Haule’s briefing and noted that it was unclear that Haule’s claims were able to be pursued.  However, based on the information provided, the court reviewed the statute of limitations for §1983 claims, fraud, defamation, and others and determined that all of the statute of limitations had passed.  Haule argued that the statute limitations should be tolled because: (1) the report stating that she was mentally ill and/or intoxicated was “ongoing” and (2) Officer Spinner’s license was suspended during the period in question.   The court stated that the report was not ongoing and that even if Officer Spinner’s license had been suspended, it would not toll the statute of limitations. The district court’s judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Rose, Justices Baker and Triana.

U.S. 5th Circuit holds statute of limitations was not jurisdictional, but trial judge should have reviewed matters raised at pretrial hearing under MSJ standards and dismissed the claims

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Bradley v. Sheriff’s Department St. Landry Parish, 18-30600, (US 5th Cir – May 7, 2020)

This is a §1983/malicious prosecution case where the U.S. 5th Circuit dismissed a defendant’s claims against the law enforcement and related officials who prosecuted him.

Bradley was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery.  He was arrested and housed in the St. Landry Parish Jail, then released that same day on bond.  After being released, he was detained in another jurisdiction under an unrelated offense. While under this second incarceration, he was transported back to the  St. Landry facility for one night so he could attend a hearing related to the conspiracy charge. He was later tried by a jury and acquitted four years later. Bradley sued the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department and related officers alleging malicious prosecution, wrongful arrest and wrongful detention. The magistrate, sitting by consent, found he lacked jurisdiction to hear the civil suit and dismissed the claims based on the statute of limitations.

The U.S. 5th Circuit held the magistrate judge erred in concluding that, if Bradley’s § 1983 claims were barred by limitations, subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims was lacking. Section 1983 provides a federal cause of action but does not contain an express limitations period. The Supreme Court directs trial courts to look to state law personal injury claims for the limitations.  The court held that statutes of limitations of this nature are procedural, not jurisdictional.  However, while the magistrate may have had jurisdiction, the defendants raised the limitations defense in their pretrial order submission.  As a result, prior to going to trial, it was required for the trial judge to evaluate the claims under a summary judgment standard (noting the magistrate gave the parties notice and an opportunity to respond to his inquiry on limitations).  When a cause of action under § 1983 accrues is a question of federal law. For a false imprisonment claim, the accrual date begins when the imprisonment ceases. In Bradley’s case, the day as his arrest is the accrual date. Bradley’s wrongful arrest claim is barred by limitations, even if he contends that damages flowed from that false arrest until he was found not guilty.  Bradley’s brief does not cite decisions regarding limitations for post-process pretrial detention claims. As a result, the wrongful detention claims also were filed outside the limitations’ period. Since Bradley points to no concealment of fact, no tolling of the limitations applies. Suits brought under § 1983 require the deprivation of a right guaranteed under the United States Constitution.  The magistrate held that “[t]here is no constitutional right to be free from malicious prosecution,” and therefore Bradley “ha[d] no such federal claim.”  The court recognized that a malicious prosecution claim could be viable if it is linked to a specific constitutional right. However, Bradley does not articulate any such right or any link. Simply asserting he has a constitutional right to be free of malicious prosecution under the 5th and 14th Amendments are all conclusory assertions devoid of any specifics. Such is insufficient to establish a claim. Further, Bradley inadequately briefed his “malicious prosecution” claim.  In essence, the 5th Circuit held the trial court had jurisdiction but should have looked at the claims under a summary judgment standard, in which case, all federal claims would be dismissed.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Owen, Justices Clement and Ho.

U.S. 5th Circuit adopts 1st Amendment unbridled discretion/prior-restraint standards in federal suit against Texas Governor

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Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Greg Abbott Governor of the State of Texas, 18-50610, (5th Cir – April 3, 2020)

This is a First Amendment case regarding immunity and viewpoint discrimination where the U.S. 5th Circuit adopted a specific prior restraint test.

The Texas State Preservation Board (“the Board”) is a state agency that preserves and maintains the Texas Capitol and its grounds. Governor Abbott is the chairman of the Board, which allows private citizens to display exhibits within the Texas Capitol building. Such displays must have a public purpose. FFRF is a non-profit organization that advocates for the separation of church and state and educates on matters of nontheism. FFRF learned that a Christian nativity scene had been approved by the Board and displayed in the Texas State Capitol. FFRF submitted an application to the Board regarding a Bill of Rights nativity exhibit, which was also approved. FFRF’s depiction was displayed, but the day before its final display date, Governor Abbott sent a letter to then Executive Director of the Board, Mr. Welch, urging him to “remove this display from the Capitol immediately.” The letter explained that the exhibit was inappropriate for display because “[s]ubjecting an image held sacred by millions of Texans to the Foundation’s tasteless sarcasm does nothing to promote the morals and the general welfare,” “the exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood insofar as it suggests that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson worshipped (or would worship) the bill of rights in the place of Jesus[.]”  This letter resulted in the removal of the FFRF display prior to its scheduled removal date. When FFRF submitted another application for the same display, it was told the display did not promote a public purpose. FFRF sued for declaratory and injunctive relief.  The district court granted FFRF summary judgment on certain grounds and denied it on others.  The parties appealed/cross-appealed.

Governor Abbott and Mr. Welsh argue that the district court’s declaratory judgment is retrospective and therefore barred by sovereign immunity (including 11th  Amendment immunity). They further asserted no prospective relief was proper because the dispute is not ongoing. A litigant may sue a state official in his official capacity in federal court as long as the lawsuit seeks prospective relief to redress an ongoing violation of federal law. FFRF alleged constitutional violations against Abbott and Welsh in their official capacities. Further, they established an ongoing violation and Abbott and Welsh did not technically appeal the viewpoint discrimination finding. Speech cannot be prohibited on the basis of offensiveness, and the defendants have only presented arguments through counsel that their behavior will change.  The district court had jurisdiction to entertain the suit, and the controversy is ongoing.  The district court did not, however, have jurisdiction to award FFRF purely retrospective relief.  The declaration that FFRF’s rights were violated in the past is prohibited to the extent it is an individual claim. The U.S. 5th Circuit remanded for the trial court to determine proper prospective relief.  Next, the court analyzed the unbridled discretion arguments regarding public purpose determinations (i.e. prior restraint arguments). Unbridled discretion runs afoul of the First Amendment because it risks self-censorship and creates proof problems in as-applied challenges. Even in limited and nonpublic forums, investing governmental officials with boundless discretion over access to the forum violates the First Amendment. However, in situations such as where space is limited, certain discretion should be afforded. Because discretionary access is a defining characteristic of a limited public forum, the government should be afforded more discretion to use prior restraints on speech in limited public forums than in traditional public forums. The possibility (including imposed checks and balances) of viewpoint discrimination is key to deciding unbridled discretion claims in the context of limited or nonpublic forums. A reasonableness test would be insufficient, by itself.  In a matter of first impression for the 5th Circuit, the court held that prior restraints on speech in limited public forums must contain neutral criteria sufficient to prevent (1) censorship that is unreasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and (2) viewpoint-based censorship. Because the district court only considered whether the public purpose criteria at issue in this case was reasonable, the issue was remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Davis, Graves, and Higginson, Circuit Judges. Vacated and Remanded in part; Reversed and Remanded in part. Memorandum Opinion by Higginson, Circuit Judge. Attorney for Appellant is Kyle Douglas Hawkins, of Austin, Texas. Attorney for Appellee is Samuel Troxell Grover, of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supervisor entitled to qualified immunity as to one suspended employees 1st Amendment claim but not the other

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Benfield v. Magee, 18-30932, (U.S. 5th Cir. December 17, 2019)

This is a First Amendment in employment action where the U.S. 5th Circuit reversed the denial of the individual supervisor’s qualified immunity defense and dismissed the claims as to one employee, but not the other.

Warren and Benfield worked in Louisiana as paramedics for the Desoto Parish Emergency Medical Services. Louisiana paramedics must complete annual recertification training, which required the approval of the medical director. Warren asserts he suggested changes to the procedures manual which would prevent Magee, their supervisor, from electronically signing in lieu of the medical director. Warren asserts afterward Magee harassed him (including criticizing Warren’s religious beliefs, denying him a promotion, accusing him of inappropriate relationships.)  When a new co-medical director inquired into the Plaintiff’s recertification, they blamed Magee for telling them to electronically falsify the records. Magee suspended Warren and Benfield for falsification.   Warren and Benfield sued Magee directly, claiming that he suspended them for exercising their First Amendment free-speech and free-association rights.  The trial court denied Magee’s assertion of qualified immunity and he appealed.

Warren’s letter of changes to the procedure’s manual occurred 19 months prior to his suspension. And while a plaintiff can establish a causal connection with other inferences, Warren’s allegations do virtually nothing to establish a chronology or relationship. He states that this harassment occurred sometime after the June 2015 letter, yet provides no further specificity.  Warran would be unable to overcome the qualified immunity defense without stating with specificity when he was harassed.  As a result, his assertions are insufficient to establish a causal connection and such claims are dismissed. However, Magee made no substantive argument for dismissing Benfield’s free-speech claim, believing Benfield raised only a freedom of association claim. As a result, the denial was proper as to Benfield.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Stewart, Clement and Ho.  Opinion by Justice Clement. The attorney listed for Magee is Edwin H. Byrd.  The attorney listed for Warren and Benfield is Bryce J. Denny.

U.S 5th Circuit holds Plaintiffs had a duty of diligence to inquire about the status of their case – emails mistakenly going to a spam folder was not excusable neglect

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Trevino v City of Fort Worth, 19-10414 (U.S. 5th Cir. December 10, 2019)

This is a custodial death case brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  However, the opinion is one of procedure and excusable neglect in not responding to a motion.

City police stopped Alfredo Cortez and his girlfriend Alisha Trevino for an inoperable brake light. Trevino ingested two baggies of methamphetamine that she had hidden in her pants before the officers could view her in the car. She died later that night. Plaintiffs filed suit against the City and the officers involved in Trevino’s arrest. The officers were dismissed.  The City then filed a motion to dismiss to which the Plaintiffs did not respond, citing computer difficulties in receiving court notices. After the motion was granted Plaintiffs filed a motion for new trial which was denied. Plaintiffs appealed.

Plaintiffs’ counsel failed to register with the court’s electronic filing system, in violation of local rules, which is why he did not receive the notice. The Plaintiffs also concede that the failure to file was within Plaintiffs’ counsel’s “reasonable control.”  Plaintiffs had a duty of diligence to inquire about the status of their case. The fact that the case was not on Plaintiffs’ counsel’s “radar for active cases” does not free Plaintiffs of this duty.  Failure to file a response to a motion to dismiss is not a manifest error of law or fact. Rule 60(b)(1) allows for relief from judgment for “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.” The Supreme Court has explained that the determination of what sorts of neglect will be considered excusable is “an equitable one, taking account of all relevant circumstances surrounding the party’s omission.”  However, “[g]ross carelessness, ignorance of the rules, or ignorance of the law are insufficient bases for 60(b)(1) relief.” In fact, a court would abuse its discretion if it were to reopen a case when the reason is one attributable solely to counsel’s carelessness.  Further, emails mistakenly going to a spam folder do not merit Rule 60(b) relief. Judgment affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Owen, and Justices Southwick and Willett.  Per curiam opinion. The attorney listed for Trevino is Jeffrey M. Wise.  The attorney listed for the City is Lynn Winter.