Fort Worth Court says under premise defect claim plaintiff paid for use of the property even though she was using public sidewalk

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The City of Fort Worth, Texas v. Dianne Posey, 02-19-00351-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, Jan. 16, 2020)

This is a premise liability/Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held a fact question exists as to Posey’s payment for use of the premises so the plea to the jurisdiction was properly denied.

Posey attended a Christmas gift market put on by the Junior League of Fort Worth at the Will Rogers Memorial Center (“WRMC”). Posey asserts she paid for entry to the  Coliseum. The City asserts Posey purchased the entry ticket to enter the gift market from the Junior League and not the City.  After the market event, Posey walked down the public sidewalk to return to her car and tripped over an unknown metal object located in the concrete sidewalk. Posey fell and suffered injuries. Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, the City owes Posey a duty “that a private person owes to a licensee on private property, unless the claimant pays for use of the premises.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.022(a). If Posey paid for the use of the premises, she is an invitee; if not, she is a mere licensee.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on lack of actual knowledge required of a licensee. The plea was denied and the City appealed.

If Posey was a licensee, she must show that the City had actual knowledge of the unreasonable risk of harm created by the obstruction. If she was an invitee, she need only show that the City should have known of the risk—i.e., constructive knowledge. Posey asserts she paid a fee to park at the coliseum, and it is undisputed that the parking fee went directly to the City. Second, Posey offered evidence that she paid a $12 fee to enter Junior League’s gift fair, and Junior League, in turn, paid the City to rent the premises. However, the City asserts Posey fell on a public sidewalk for which she did not have to make any payment. One line of cases would agree with the City that the standard should be “but for” the payment, the claimant would not have access to the area. However, because of the text of the TTCA, the court held Posey “paid for the use of the premises” and the fact others could access the same area without paying is immaterial for statutory construction principles. Further, the statute does not say that the claimant must pay for exclusive or nonpublic use of the premises. Posey introduced multiple forms of evidence—including a contract and testimony from the City’s own representative—showing that the payments also endowed her with the express right to use the walkway to travel between the parking lot and the gift fair. As a result, a fact question exists as to whether Posey is considered an invitee or licensee. The plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Affirmed. Panel consists of Justices Birdwell, Bassel, and Wallach. Opinion by Justice Birdwell. Docket page with attorney information found here.

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds no waiver of immunity for declaratory judgment relief against county for competitive bidding violation

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Tarrant County, Texas v. Jeffrey D. Lerner, 02-19-00330-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, Jan. 9, 2020)

This is a declaratory judgment/immunity case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held the County retained immunity for declaratory claims alleging violations of the competitive bidding statute.

The County had a contract with Dispute Resolution Services of North Texas (DRS) to manage the County’s alternative dispute-resolution services and was valued at over $400,000 per year. When renewing the contract, Tarrant County did not seek competitive bids for the contract. A competitor, Lerner, sued asserting after the last renewal the contract was invalid due to the lack of bidding. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied.

The immunity waiver contained in the competitive bidding statute is specific and narrowly drawn – “Any property tax paying citizen of the county may enjoin performance under a contract made by a county in violation of [the Act].” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code Ann. § 262.033. The court held the Legislature intended to waive immunity for injunctive-relief claims arising from violations of the statute. However, that does not waive immunity for attorney’s fees or any other form of relief. As a result, the court found the County retained immunity for Lerner’s declaratory judgment claims. The plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justices Gabriel, and Kerr. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Gabriel. Docket page with attorney information found here.

No waiver of immunity when non-profit sues to invalidate transfer of real property to city

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City of Houston and Keith W. Wade v. Hope for Families, Inc, 01-18-00795-CV, (Tex. App – Houston [1st Dist.], Jan. 9, 2020)

This is a governmental immunity case where the First  Court of Appeals held the contracting non-profit did not establish a waiver of immunity.

Hope for Families, Inc. (HFF) acquired the property for a community development project financed by the City which fell through.  HFF negotiated a transfer of the property to the City in exchange for debt forgiveness. HFF later sued to invalidate the transfer alleging the City’s negotiator, Wade, committed fraud when negotiating. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied and the City appealed.

HFF asserts “A corporation may convey real property of the corporation when authorized by appropriate resolution of the board of directors or members.” Tex. Bus. Org. Code § 22.255, which it did not do. However, that provision does not grant HFF the right to sue to invalidate a transfer and does not waive immunity. HFF also sued Wade as an individual. While Wade is immune individually (as fraud is an intentional tort), the court held HFF should have the opportunity to replead an ultra vires claim.

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

El Paso Court of Appeals holds concrete barrier and canal at end of roadway is a special defect

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City of El Paso, Texas v. Albert Lopez and Lexby Lopez, 08-19-00056-CV, (Tex. App – El Paso, Dec. 12, 2019)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the El Paso Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Lopez was traveling on his motorcycle at night when the roadway ended with a concrete barrier and canal. There were neither road signs nor any other type of warnings or lighting. Lopez struck the barrier and was killed. The police investigation report noted “the driver . . . failed to stop for the end of the street or roadway and crashed his bike into the canal.” A nearby resident also gave a statement that “there are a lot of cars that crash into the canal” because “[t]here are no warning signs to let you know that the street ends so when people come out the bars they wind up crashing at the canal.”  The investigation listed “lack of signs and illumination” as factors in causing the accident.  Lopez’s family brought a wrongful death claim against the City. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Plaintiffs failed to provide statutory notice of the accident but asserted the City had actual notice of its fault. Citing to the recent Texas Supreme Court case in Worsdale v. City of Killeen, 578 S.W.3d 57 (Tex. 2019), the court held the “critical inquiry is the governmental unit’s actual anticipation of an alleged claim rather than subjective confirmation of its actual liability.” After reviewing the record the court held the  City had actual notice of the claim under the TTCA. Next, the court analyzed whether the concrete barrier was a special defect. Both the canal and the concrete barrier were located on the roadway’s path, neither of which were visible in the dark to ordinary motorists. As a result, the court determined it was a special defect and the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Alley, Justices Rodriguez and Palafox. Opinion by Justice Birdwell. The attorneys listed for the Plaintiffs are Ramon King Jr. and Lloyd Robles.  The attorney listed for the City is Anelisa Benavides.

4th Court of Appeals holds city vendor’s fair maybe proprietary function so trial court properly denied plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Helotes v. Jean Marie Page, 04-19-00437-CV, (Tex. App – San Antonio, Dec. 18, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction in which San Antonio Court of Appeals held the Plaintiff’s injuries were caused during the performance of a potential proprietary function.

A City employee dropped a table while removing it from a parked golf cart. The table allegedly struck the accelerator on the cart, propelling it forward and striking Plaintiff Page. The accident occurred when the City employee was setting up for an event called the “MarketPlace at Old Town Helotes” and is a vendor’s fair where the City rents booths to vendors who sell merchandise and food. The MarketPlace is held on public streets in “Old Town Helotes,” and the streets are closed to traffic. The MarketPlace is sponsored, supervised, regulated, operated, and managed by the City. Page sued the City.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Texas Tort Claims Act  defines proprietary functions as “those functions that a municipality may, in its discretion, perform in the interest of the inhabitants of the municipality.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.0215(b). Proprietary functions are “usually activities ‘that can be, and often are, provided by private persons.’”  Citing to  Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 559 S.W.3d 142 (Tex. 2018) the court of appeals noted it was a factually specific analysis as to whether an activity is proprietary or governmental. A city’s proprietary functions “will often benefit some nonresidents,” but in determining whether the MarketPlace was intended to benefit the general public or the City’s residents, courts focus on whether the activity “primarily benefits one or the other.” The facts demonstrated the primary objective was to assist local businesses by generating community involvement in the Old Town Helotes area which undisputedly “raised funds for the City’s budget.” The revenues were recorded in the MarketPlace budget, and any profits could remain in the MarketPlace line item or be used for other City departments. The City did not provide any evidence the event was necessary for City operations. As a result, “some” evidence exists the MarketPlace may be proprietary.  As a result, the pleadings indicate jurisdiction and the trial court properly denied the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Alvarez, Rios, and Rodriguez.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Alvarez. Docket page with attorney information 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.

Austin Court of Appeals holds Austin’s short-term rental regulations unconstitutional (assembly clause also declared fundamental right entitled to strict scrutiny)

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Ahmad Zaatari v City of Austin, 03-17-00812-CV (Tex. App. —  Austin, Nov. 27, 2019).

This is a dispute regarding the City of Austin’s regulation on short-term rental properties. The Austin Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part the City’s plea to the jurisdiction. [Comment: This is a 43-page opinion and 18-page dissent. So, the summary is a bit longer than normal]

In 2012, Austin adopted an ordinance amending its zoning and land-development codes to regulate Austinites’ ability to rent their properties as short-term rentals.  Several other amendments occurred at different times adjusting the definitions and scope of the codes until, in 2016, Property Owners sued the City for declaratory and injunctive relief to declare the regulations unconstitutional. The Property Owners (which also included the State of Texas as a party) moved for summary judgment while the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a no-evidence motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the Property Owner’s MSJ, denied the City’s plea, but granted the City’s summary judgment.  Everyone appealed.

The City’s plea to the jurisdiction challenges the State’s standing to intervene in this dispute, the Property Owners’ standing to bring claims on behalf of tenants, and the ripeness of the underlying claims. The court held  the State’s standing to intervene in this matter is  unambiguously conferred by the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act which states when the validity of a statute or ordinance is brought, the attorney general of the state must also be served with a copy of the proceeding and is entitled to be heard. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 37.006(b).  The court next held the underlying matters were ripe because some provisions of the 2016 ordinance took effect immediately, while others were not effective until 2022. Facial challenges to ordinances are “ripe upon enactment because at that moment the ‘permissible uses of the property [were] known to a reasonable degree of certainty.’” The court held  the City’s alleged constitutional overreach itself is an injury from which the Property Owners and the State seek relief.  Further, governmental immunity does not shield the City from viable claims for relief from unconstitutional acts. As a result, the plea was properly denied.

The court next determined the trial court erred in several evidentiary rulings, which mainly deal with the public dispute over short-term rentals. The State and the Property Owners filed traditional motions for summary judgment on their claims regarding the constitutionality of the ordinance. The Texas Constitution prohibits retroactive laws. The State contends that the ordinance provision terminating all type-2 operating licenses is retroactive because it “tak[es] away th[e] fundamental and settled property right” to lease one’s real estate under the most desirable terms. While disagreeing on the effect, the City conceded the ordinance retroactively cancels existing leases. Not all retroactive laws are unconstitutional. The Court held the regulation operates to eliminate well-established and settled property rights that existed before the ordinance’s adoption.  Upon reviewing the record the court held the City made no findings to justify the ordinance’s ban on type-2 rentals and its stated public interest was slight. Nothing in the record demonstrates this ban would address or prevent any listed concerns, including preventing strangers in the neighborhood, noise complaints, and illegal parking. In fact, many of the concerns cited by the City are the types of problems that can be and already are prohibited by state law or by City ordinances banning such practices. Further, for four years the City did not issue a single citation to a licensed short-term rental owner or guest for violating the City’s noise, trash, or parking ordinances. The purported public interest served by the ordinance’s ban on type-2 short-term rentals cannot be considered compelling. Private property ownership is a fundamental right. The ability to lease property is a fundamental privilege of property ownership. Granted, the right to lease property for a profit can be subject to restriction or regulation under certain circumstances, but the right to lease is nevertheless plainly an established one.  Based on the practices performed in Austin over the years, short-term rentals have a settled interest and place in the City. The City’s ordinance eliminates the right to rent property short term if the property owner does not occupy the property. As a result, the regulations are unconstitutionally retroactive.

The court then addressed the Property Owner’s claim the regulations violated their right to assembly under the Texas Constitution. After a lengthy analysis, the court held the Texas Constitution’s assembly clause is not limited to protecting only petition-related assemblies and the judicially created “right of association” does not subsume the Texas Constitution’s assembly clause in its entirety.  The right is a “fundamental right” for constitutional analysis purposes and must be examined under a strict scrutiny analysis. The regulation sections challenged limited the number of persons at a rental at any one time, the hours of the day a rental could be used,  number of permitted leaseholders, and various other congregation related activities. The City already has various nuisance ordinances in place to address the negative effects of short-term rentals on neighbors. As a result, the City failed to establish a compelling interest that justifies a different ordinance which is not narrowly tailored. The City has not provided any evidence of a serious burden on neighboring properties sufficient to justify the additional regulations, which therefore violate the assembly clause of the Texas Constitution.

The court reversed that part of the district court’s judgment granting the City’s no-evidence motion for summary judgment and denying the Property Owners’ and the State’s motions for summary judgment. It rendered judgment declaring specific sections of the City Code void.

Justice Kelly  dissented asserting 1) the sections were not unconstitutionally retroactive (with analysis), 2) the Assembly Clause assures Texans the fundamental right to peaceably gather for purposes of meaningful civic discourse without fear of retribution – not to have short-term rentals (which are assembly-neutral zoning regulations that have a rational basis), 3) loud noise, obstructing infrastructure, flouting law enforcement, public disturbances, threats to public safety- all these may make an assembly non-peaceable and can be regulated, and 4) the majority opinion is also out of step with Texas “fundamental right” precedent (i.e. declaring rights fundamental, and thus beyond ordinary democratic give-and-take, is a weighty matter, unjustified in this case).

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

No waiver of immunity for city contract to install sewer lines on property says 4th Court of Appeals

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Twanda Brown v. City of Ingram04-1900508-CV (Tex. App. —  San Antonio, Nov. 20, 2019).  

In this suit, the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction related to counterclaims regarding utility services.  

The City of Ingram (“the City”) sued Brown and eight other defendants, seekingdeclaratory judgment that its ordinances regarding penalties and permits for utilities and wastewater are “valid and reasonable exercises of the City’s police powers.” Brown answered the City’s suit and asserted a counterclaim for breach of contract, alleging the City “breached its Contract for Wastewater Services by knowingly permitting an unqualified, unlicensed subcontractor” to connect her property to the City’s sewer system. Brown alleged the subcontractor’s negligence “sever[ed] a gas line and caus[ed] damages to Brown and her property.” The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted.  Brown appealed.  

The Texas Tort Claims Act makes sanitation, water, and sewer services governmental functions, thereby entitling the City to immunity absent a waiver. The City’s actions of connecting residents to the city’s sewer system is a governmental functionImmunity is waived for breach of contract claims for goods or services provided to the entityBrown’s pleadings allege the purported contract was an agreement to provide goods or services to Brown (i.e. construction and installation of service lines), not the other way around. Because any purported contract does not involve the provision of goods or services to the City, it is not a “contract subject to” the waiver in Texas Local Government Code chapter 271 subchapter I.  

Several days after the trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction, the City filed a motion to strike an affidavit submitted by the City on the basis that counsel for the City learned the affiant made a mistake as to the location of a photograph.  Brown filed an objection but also sought in the alternative, the trial court re-open the hearing. The court noted the record does not reflect whether the trial court ruled on either. However, the court held the issue is irrelevant to the ability to rule on the appeal as it does not change the analysis of the type of contract involved.  Finally, the court denied the City’s request for sanctions as they do not believe the claims “lacked any reasonable basis in law.”   

If you would like to read this opinion click hereThe panel consists of Chief Justice Marion, and Justices Alvarez and Chapa. Opinion by Chief Justice Marion. The attorney for Brown is listed as Roger Gordon.  The attorneys listed for the City are Charles E. ZechScott Micheal Tschirhart  and Llse D. Bailey 

Property owner did not allege viable constitutional claim after County granted neighbor development permit

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Stephen Sakonchick II v. Travis County, 03-19-00323-CV (Tex. App. – Austin Oct. 30, 2019).

This is a constitutional challenge to a construction permit where the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the County’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Sakonchick owned a home on in a neighborhood known as Bee Creek Hills, in Travis County and the City of Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (“ETJ”). Bee Creek’s only means of vehicular ingress and egress is along Canon Wren Drive.  The Overlook is a real estate development featuring a four-story mixed-use office building on the corner of Bee Cave Road and Canon Wren Drive. The Overlook’s owners applied for a basic development permit to construct a parking garage and a second driveway, which was granted. Prior to it being granted, Sakonchick began calling Travis County to voice his objections. Unhappy that Travis County failed to address his concerns before issuing the permit, Sakonchick sued Travis County and The Overlook’s owners pleading various theories and seeking to enjoin the construction of the garage.  Essentially, Sakonchick claims Travis County denied him due process when it issued the basic development permit without first affording him notice or hearing to object. Travis County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the district court sustained after an evidentiary hearing.

As an ostensible property interest, Sakonchick alleges an “ownership of an appurtenant easement” in “the Canon Wren Drive right of way.” But a vested property right is “more than a unilateral expectation” or an “abstract need or desire” on the part of the individual asserting the right. Instead, a vested property right exists when its claimant has “a legitimate claim of entitlement” to the right asserted. He and his neighbors do not, however, have an exclusive right to use Canon Wren Drive to access the neighborhood without encountering traffic or any other inconvenience typically associated with suburban life. Sakonchick did not produce any evidence the proposed parking garage and driveway will jeopardize his ability to access the real property he owns in Bee Creek. Nor has he alleged or produced evidence that the proposed structures will encroach on private property or restrict use of the residential real estate in the Bee Creek neighborhood.  As a result, he has not pled a viable constitutional theory against the County. Further, the record affirmatively negates the existence of jurisdiction over Sakonchick’s claim against Travis County, so Sakonchick is not entitled to replead.  However, the court did modify the dismissal noting it was dismissed “without prejudice” as a dismissal with prejudice constitutes adjudication on the merits and operates as if the case had been fully tried and decided.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Rose, Justices Kelly and Smith.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Smith. Sakonchick appeared pro se. the attorneys listed for Travis County are Mr. Brian P. Casey, Mr. Patrick M. Kelly, and Ms. Cynthia Wilson Veidt.

Even though inmate asserted eye-injury due to laser was accidental, Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds pleadings actually assert battery – no waiver of immunity exists

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Tarrant County, Texas v. Tony Lee Green, 02-19-00159-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Oct. 24, 2019)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the County’s plea to the jurisdiction based on an intentional tort.

While Green was a jail inmate, he asserts Corporal Davis at the jail pointed a temperature gun which utilized a laser for measurements at his left eye, causing injury.   Corporal Davis admits to using a laser temperature gun, but denied the laser impacting Green. Green testified that he does not believe Davis hit him with the laser intentionally.  However, he testified Davis pointed the temperature gun at him as a result of Green telling a joke about Davis moments before. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting Green alleged an intentional tort, even though Green disclaimed the injury was performed intentionally. The trial court denied the plea and the  County appealed.

Although the specific intent to inflict injury is unquestionably part of some intentional torts, a specific intent to injure is not an essential element of a battery, which does not require physical injury and which can involve a harmful or offensive contact intended to help or please the plaintiff. The court noted that accidental injuries can sometimes result from an intentional tort.  The court drew a distinction between criminal and civil analysis for “intentional” conduct regarding battery. Green’s allegations constitute a common-law battery claim because the contact—either offensive or provocative—was an intentional act made in response to Green’s own provocative statement. As battery is an intentional tort, no waiver of immunity exists. The plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Bassel and Justice Wallach. Memorandum opinion by Chief Justice Sudderth. The attorneys listed for Green are Scott H. Palmer and Niles Illich.  The attorneys listed for the County are Christopher Taylor and Kimberly Colliet Wesley.

Texas Supreme Court holds University immune under Recreational Use Statute when bicyclist is hit by motor vehicle driven by University employee

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University of Texas Austin v April Garner, 18-0740 (Tex. Oct 18, 2019.

This is a Recreational Use Statute case where the Texas Supreme Court reversed the denial of the University’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims.

The University of Texas at Austin owns and operates the Colorado Apartments, a student housing complex. Within the complex are four roads that permit two-way traffic around the complex and contain parking spaces that are oriented perpendicularly to the road.  They connect to City of Austin streets. Bicyclists commonly use the road. Garner was traveling by bicycle to the trail head at Eilers Park.  University employee Angel Moreno was backing out from a southwest-facing parking space and struck Garner. Garner sued the University for negligence, contending that the Tort Claims Act waived the University’s immunity by the operation and use of a motor vehicle. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting the application of the Recreational Use Statute (“RUS”), which was denied, and the court of appeals affirmed. The University appealed.

The RUS limits the liability of all landowners—public and private—who permit others to use their property for activities the statute defines as “recreation.” Such landowners are “effectively immunize[d]” from ordinary negligence claims, owing those who use their property for recreation only the duty not to injure them intentionally or through gross negligence. Garner’s only claim against the University sounds in ordinary negligence. She does not allege that the University or Moreno acted with gross negligence, malicious intent, or bad faith.  The court of appeals held the RUS did not apply because under subsection (c) it did not grant permission to use the roads for recreational use. However, under the RUS subsection (f) states “Notwithstanding Subsections (b) and (c), if a person enters premises owned, operated, or maintained by a governmental unit and engages in recreation on those premises, the governmental unit does not owe to the person a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises.” Subsection (f) contains no language (unlike subsection (c)) requiring permission or invitation. Here, it is undisputed that Garner (1) entered premises owned by a governmental unit and (2) engaged in an activity on those premises—bicycling—that qualifies as “recreation” under the statute. As a result, no waiver of immunity applies.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per curium opinion.  For the docket page click here.

Firefighter’s claims against City dismissed since no adverse employment actions occurred; only minor internal decisions

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Billy Fratus v. The City of Beaumont, 09-18-00294-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Oct. 10, 2019).

This is an employment discrimination/retaliation/firefighter case where the Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Fratus was a firefighter who sued for 1) free speech equitable relief and 2) race discrimination and 3) retaliation under Chapter 21 of the Labor Code.  Fratus asserted the Fire Chief, Huff, did not like Fratus was Hispanic and excluded him from meetings, denied him discretionary perks of the job, spoke bad about him, interfered with Fratus’ relationship with his physician while on disability leave, and a host of other assertions centering on personality slights. Fratus also alleged that the City retaliated against him for speaking out against what he believed was Chief Huff’s sexual harassment of another employee, and for disagreeing with Chief Huff’s firing of one employee. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. Fratus appealed.

Fratus’ claims for declaratory relief centered only on past allegations.  As a result, it is actually a claim for monetary damages for which the City is immune. Further, claims for equitable relief for constitutional violations “cannot be brought against the state, which retains immunity, but must be brought against the state actors in their official capacity.” Since Fratus did not sue any individuals, the equitable relief claims are dismissed. To prevail on a retaliation claim based on protected free speech Fratus has to establish, among other things, he spoke out on a matter of public concern. Speech made privately between a speaker and his employer rather than in the context of public debate is generally not of public concern. The record shows Fratus made criticisms to other co-workers, which does not qualify. A retaliation claim is related to but distinct from a discrimination claim, and it focuses upon the employer’s response to the employee’s protected activity. The TCHRA addresses only “ultimate employment decisions” and does not address “every decision made by employers that arguably might have some tangential effect upon employment decisions.”  Actionable adverse employment actions do not include disciplinary filings, supervisor’s reprimands, poor performance reviews, hostility from fellow employees, verbal threats to fire, criticism of the employee’s work, or negative employment evaluations.  The pleadings and record reflect Fratus did not allege any adverse employment decisions, only petty disagreements and internal rifts. Fratus failed to plead a prima facie claim. Fratus’s appellate brief states that he also has an issue under the Texas Open Meetings Act.  However, such does not meet briefing requirements because it lacks citations to the record or to applicable authority and therefore presents nothing for review. As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justices Kreger and Johnson. Opinion by Justice Johnson.  The attorney listed for Fratus is Laurence Watts.  The attorneys listed for the City are Tyrone Cooper and Sharae Reed.

Beaumont Court of Appeals holds firefighter’s last-chance agreement in collective bargaining city deprived trial court of jurisdiction to hear appeal of indefinite suspension

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Michael Scott Nix v. City of Beaumont, 09-18-00407-CV (Tex. App. -Beaumont – Oct. 3, 2019)\

This is an interlocutory appeal in a firefighter suspension case where the Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Nix filed a petition seeking declaratory and equitable relief against the City based on his indefinite suspension from his position as a firefighter. He asserted the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) was invalid because the City allegedly failed to comply with the Texas Open Meeting Act (“TOMA”) requirements when the CBA was negotiated.  He also asserts the “last chance” agreement he entered into with the Fire Chief was invalid. Nix’s last-chance agreement probated part of the suspension, but noted he could be terminated if he violated any terms of the agreement.  Nix’s suspension in 2015 resulted in the last-chance agreement and the Chief determined he violated the sick leave policy in 2017 resulting in an indefinite suspension. Nix asserts in the absence of a valid contract, the suspensions were invalid, depriving him of due process of law and a protected property interest. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.  Nix appealed.

TOMA has a limited waiver of immunity. An action taken in violation of TOMA is voidable, not void. When a department head suspends a firefighter for violating a civil service rule, the suspension may be for a reasonable period not to exceed fifteen calendar days or for an indefinite period. Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code Ann. § 143.052(b). The firefighter may accept the suspension or appeal to the Civil Service Commission. If the firefighter disagrees with the Commission, the employee may file suit in district court. The question of whether the City posted the CBA 2012-2015 negotiations in accordance with TOMA is not relevant because it is the CBA 2015-2020 CBA applicable to his underlying challenge to his indefinite suspension in 2017.  The City provided evidence showing proper postings for the negotiation of the 2015-2020 CBA.  When Nix accepted the last-chance agreement in 2015, he had the opportunity to refuse the Chief’s offer and appeal his suspension to the Commission; however, Nix agreed to waive his right to appeal, including the right to appeal the Chief’s 2017 decision determining that Nix had violated the Agreement. Nix waived all rights he may have to file suit against the City as to any issue directly or indirectly related to the last-chance agreement or to his indefinite suspension.  As a result, the trial court properly granted the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice McKeithen, Justice Horton and Justice Johnson.  Opinion delivered by Chief Justice McKeithen. The attorneys listed for Nix are Melissa Azadeh and Laurence Watts.  The attorneys listed for the City are Sharae Reed and Tyrone Cooper.

12th Court of Appeals holds a regulatory civil enforcement suit did not constitute a taking by a conservation district

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Neches and Trinity Valleys Groundwater Conservation District v. Mountain Pure TX, LLC  12-19-00172-CV (Tex. App. – Tyler, September 18, 2019).

This is a regulatory takings/compliance enforcement case where the Tyler Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a conservation district’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the property owner’s counterclaims.

The District adopted  rules requiring all persons owning a groundwater well to obtain permits to drill and operate the well unless exempt. Mountain Pure owns a spring water bottling plant in Palestine, Texas. Mountain Pure refused to acknowledge that it owns or operates a water well, refused to apply for a permit to operate a water well, failed to file quarterly production reports or pay quarterly production fees and overall refused to acknowledge the District’s authority. Mountain Pure took the position its water came from an “underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth.”  Therefore, the District has no authority to regulate spring water. The District filed a compliance suit against Mountain Pure to which Mountain Pure counter-claimed for tortious interference with their lucrative operating contracts and also asserted a takings claim.  The District filed a plea to the jurisdiction as to the counterclaims which was denied. The District appealed.

Governments must sometimes impose restrictions on and regulations affecting the use of private property in order to secure the safety, health, and general welfare of its citizens.  Although those restrictions and regulations sometimes result in inconvenience to owners, the government is not generally required to compensate for accompanying loss.  However, if regulations go too far, they will be recognized as a taking.

A civil enforcement procedure alone cannot serve as the basis of a regulatory takings claim. A denial of access is compensable if the denial of access is substantial and material. Mountain Pure does not contend that the District’s rules and regulations it seeks to enforce are unconstitutional or otherwise invalid. But it maintains that the District is wrongfully attempting to apply them to its property. The record shows that Mountain Pure’s Palestine plant, after the government action, retains a value of $4,090,000. Mountain Pure cannot contend that the District’s action renders its property valueless. The loss of anticipated gains or future profits is not usually considered in a regulatory takings analysis. “The existing and permitted uses of the property constitute the ‘primary expectation’ of the landowner affected by regulation.”  There is no pleading or evidence which show that the application of the groundwater rules, should they be held to apply, will interfere with production and sale of bottled water from the property. If the District is successful, the enforcement of the production reporting rules would represent a restriction on the property’s use. There is no pleading that the imposition of a three cent per 1000 gallons fee will be so onerous as to affect the present use of the property or significantly diminish its economic viability.  Neither a diminution in property value nor a “substantial reduction of the attractiveness of the property to potential purchasers’ will suffice to establish that a taking has occurred.” Neither the District’s rules nor its attempt at their enforcement has deprived Mountain Pure of any reasonable investment backed expectation for bottling water.  There is no showing that the enforcement of the reporting rules and the accompanying fee will affect production. Mountain Pure’s pleadings do not contain facts that allege a compensable denial of access, nor do they show how the District’s suit forced a cessation of operation. The operating lessee’s termination of its lease purchase operating agreement may have been influenced by the District’s civil enforcement suit. But there are no facts pleaded to show it was required by the District’s action. The District’s suit neither denied access to the spring nor prevented its operation. The court held “[i]t is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Mountain Pure’s inverse condemnation claim is no more that its dismissed tortious interference claim thinly disguised as a taking.”  However, no taking has occurred under the facts. No waiver of immunity exists and the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Worthen, C.J., Hoyle, J., and Bass, Retired, J., Opinion issued by Justice Bass.  The attorney listed for the district is  John D. Stover.  The attorneys listed for Mountain Pure are Danny R. Crabtree and Jeffrey L. Coe.

Since interlocutory appeal by individual officials stayed proceedings, trial court had no authority to grant or deny City’s plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Brownsville, et al.,  v. Brownsville GMS, 13-19-00467-CV (Tex.App. – Corpus Christi, September 27, 2019).

This is a governmental immunity/contract case where a temporary injunction was sought.  The Corpus Christi court out of Edinburg held the trial court’s failure to rule on the City’s plea to the jurisdiction was not a denial of the City’s plea because a simultaneous separate interlocutory appeal was filed, staying the proceedings.

Brownsville GMS, Ltd. (GMS) sued the City of Brownsville (City), the Mayor, and the city commission members complaining of the manner in which the City awarded its waste-disposal contract.  GMS obtained a temporary injunction to preclude the City from acting on the award and an order for expedited discovery.  The individuals filed motions to dismiss based on Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.06(e). The City also filed two pleas to the jurisdiction asserting immunity. The trial court scheduled multiple motions to be heard on August 13, 2019. The trial court denied the motions to dismiss during the hearing. The individuals filed an interlocutory appeal during the hearing for the denial. The trial court did not rule on any other motions during the hearing, as the proceedings were stayed.

The City also appealed and argued that the trial court’s refusal to rule on its pleas to the jurisdiction invokes the implicit ruling doctrine and cites Thomas v. Long, 207 S.W.3d 334  (Tex. 2006). In Thomas, the implicit ruling was predicated on the trial court’s grant of affirmative relief to Long while at the same time failing to rule on Thomas’s plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court did not have authority to grant the relief Long sought unless it affirmatively determined that it had jurisdiction. Here, the trial court became aware that DeLeon filed an instantaneous interlocutory appeal, thereby staying all proceedings. The trial court correctly recognized it did not have the power to rule on the pleas and adjourned the hearing. Because the trial court had no authority to rule on the pleas, it did not implicitly deny the pleas. The appellate court therefore lacks jurisdiction to hear the  City’s appeal.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Benavides, Longoria and Perkes. Memorandum opinion by Justice Benavides.