Tyler Court of Appeals holds Tort Claims Act notice must list specific claimants in order to waive immunity

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Leondra Leach v. The City Of Tyler, 12-21-00004-CV (Tex. App. – Tyler June 9, 2021).

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) premise defect case where the Tyler Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing the case for lack of proper notice.

Leach asserts he was injured when a piece of board flew from a City “roll-off” truck as it passed Leach on the roadway. The board struck the truck he was driving and entered the driver’s side window, striking him in the head. Leach’s employer submitted a notice of claim using a Claims Notice form provided by the City, but did not fill in certain fields as to Leach. Leach did not fill out his own form. After Leach filed suit, the City filed a no-evidence motion for summary judgment as to proper notice under the City’s charter and ordinance, which the trial court granted.  Leach appealed.

Ameri-Tex (Leach’s employer) listed itself alone as the “claimant” and omitted Leach’s name from that field. Section 101.101(a) speaks to the governmental unit’s entitlement to receive a notice of a claim along with the damage or injury claimed. Ameri-Tex listed only its property damages under the provision for the amount of claim. The court noted that had Ameri-Tex made some reference to Leach’s damages in the “amount of claim” section, even if such damages were described as “unknown at this time,” its earlier omission of Leach as a “claimant” would be less critical. However, part of the purpose behind the notice provision is that the entity has an awareness of its fault as ultimately alleged and an incentive to investigate the allegations to assess its exposure to liability because it no longer is protected by the shield of immunity.  Without knowledge of the identity of a potential claimant and the knowledge this additional claimant will make personal injury claims as opposed to merely property damage claims, the entity does not have the same incentive. Notice which does not convey the “perceived peril” that would serve the notice requirement’s purpose is insufficient.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Worthen, and Justices Hoyle and Neeley.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Neeley.

 

Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds oral pronouncements from bench cannot be considered when appealing a written order granting Town’s plea to the jurisdiction

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John Artuso v. Town of Trophy Club, Texas, 02-20-00377-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, May 13, 2021)

This is a negligence, taking,  and declaratory judgment action where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the Town’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Artuso sued the Town of Trophy Club for negligence and gross negligence with regard to his home’s placement in the Town’s Public Improvement District No. 1 (PID) and the special assessments imposed in the district. Artuso asserted he timely paid all assessments and even overpaid. He requested the Town credit his account for previously over-assessed amounts, which he characterized as a taking. He claimed that the manner in which the Town apportioned the PID costs was arbitrary and capricious, amounting to a violation of his due process rights, and he complained that the Town had not responded to his assessment-reduction petition. The Town filed two pleas to the jurisdiction, which were granted. Artuso appealed.

Artuso’s argument that the trial court’s oral statements about the grounds for granting the plea were improper. The trial court’s signed order listed no grounds.  The appellate court asserted it could not look to the oral statements in the record, only to the wording of the actual written order. By applying this policy, the courts and parties are relieved of the obligation to “parse statements made in letters to the parties, at hearings on motions for summary judgment, on docket notations, and/or in other places in the record.” Because Artuso has failed to challenge all of the grounds upon which the Town’s motion could have been granted, and failed to brief all grounds, the court of appeals affirmed the granting of the dispositive motions.

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

Termination of as needed contract did not result in any damages under chapter 271, so no waiver of immunity exists

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Heath v. Robert Williamson d/b/a PCNETSYS, No. 05-20-00685-CV (Tex. App.—Dallas, May 3, 2021) (mem. op.).

In this interlocutory appeal from a trial court’s holding denying a city’s plea to the jurisdiction on a contract claim, the Fifth Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and dismissed the case because damages falling under Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code were not part of the claim as an as-needed services contract.

The plaintiff sued the city after his contract with the city for IT services was terminated early.  The agreement provided that the plaintiff would be paid a monthly retainer for IT services “as may be required by the City.”  The agreement was set to terminate in October 2021, but the city terminated the agreement effective April 30, 2019.  Both parties agreed that the plaintiff had been paid for all services already provided.  The plaintiff sued the city for breach of contract arguing that he was owed lost profits and “loss of the benefit/expectation of the contract.”  The city argued that the contract was not properly executed and created an unconstitutional debt.  The trial court denied the city’s plea to the jurisdiction related to the claim and the city appealed.

Chapter 271 of the Texas Local Government Code waives a city’s immunity when there is a claim for certain types of damages related to a written contract including the “balance due and owed”.  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §A271.153.  Immunity is not waived for consequential damages.  The court of appeals held that there was no claim for recoverable damages because there was no balance due and owing as the plaintiff had already been paid for all services rendered.  Thus, immunity had not been waived.  The court also held there was no reason to allow further discovery or allow repleading because the parties were in agreement that all services had been paid for and it was only future payments that the plaintiff was seeking.

The court of appeals vacated the trial court’s denial of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction because no damages that waive contractual immunity had been pled or existed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Reichek, Schenck, and Carlyle.  Opinion by Justice Amanda L. Reichek.

Dallas Court of Appeals holds malfunctioning 911 system did not proximately cause plaintiff’s death

The City of Dallas v. Estate of Yolanda Jeanne Webber, et al., 05-20-00669-CV (Tex. App. – Dallas, April 22, 2021).

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Dallas Court of Appeals held the City was immune from suit.

Yolanda Webber began experiencing shortness of breath while riding in a car with her family.  Despite constant attempts by family and later bystanders to reach the 9-1-1 operator, none were able to get through. While paramedics from a nearby fire station were able to eventually arrive, Webber passed away shortly afterward.  The family brought suit against the City asserting the negligent use of tangible personal property was the proximate cause of her death. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed.

Under the TTCA, immunity is not waived if the property’s condition or use does not proximately cause the injury or death. The Webbers allege the various components of the City’s 9-1-1 system caused Yolanda’s death by preventing her from receiving timely medical attention.  However, a mere delay in treatment resulting from a malfunctioning 9-1-1 system is not a proximate cause of a claimant’s injuries for purposes of immunity waiver. Proximate causation requires that the condition or use of the property must actually have caused the injury.  Property that simply hinders or delays treatment falls short. The plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Burns, Justice Myers and Justice Carlyle. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Carlyle

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds city ethics commission properly ruled complainant’s filing was frivolous and could award sanctions

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Lakshmana Viswanath v. The City of Laredo, 04-20-00152-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, April 14, 2021)
This is an appeal from a city ethics commission determination where the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the commission’s finding but reversed the award of attorney’s fees.
Viswanath is the founder of a government watchdog group known as Our Laredo, who ran for city council and was defeated by Councilman Martinez in 2018. In 2019, a member of Our Laredo, Victor Gomez, filed an ethics complaint with the City’s Ethics Commission against the Co-City Managers arguing they were required to “ensure” that Councilman Martinez forfeit his seat due to an alleged conflict of interest. They did not file a complaint against Martinez, but against the Co-Managers. Viswanath filed an additional ethics complaint against the Co-City Managers arguing they unfairly advanced the private interest of certain developers at the expense of the general population by recommending that City Council pass two ordinances. The Commission dismissed both complaints, concluding they did not allege violations of the Laredo Ethics Code and therefore did not invoke the Commission’s jurisdiction. After finding both complaints frivolous, the Commission publicly admonished Gomez and ordered Viswanath to pay the maximum civil fine—$500.00—plus $7,900.68 in attorney’s fees to the Commission’s conflicts counsel. Viswanath filed a verified petition in district court appealing the Commission’s decision and seeking a declaratory judgment. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Viswanath appealed.
The court of appeals first held that the City’s ethics code allows an appeal to district court and requires a suit against the City. It, therefore, waived the City’s immunity from suit, but only for the limited purposes spelled out in the Ethics Code and that the proper mechanism for that is the UDJA. Under this mechanism, the trial court must review the Commission’s decision under the substantial evidence rule. At the initial hearing, Viswanath testified he was involved in filing both the complaint about Councilman Martinez and the complaint about the ordinances. Viswanath testified that the objection he raised was that the Co-City Managers “made the wrong recommendation”—a recommendation which was ultimately accepted by City Council. He was informed by several city officials that city management could not conduct the investigation he requested or provided the remedy he sought. Based on this evidence, the Commission could have reasonably determined that Viswanath was aware the Co-City Managers lacked authority to perform the investigation or grant the relief he requested, yet still filed his complaint in a groundless and harassing action. Substantial evidence supported the Commission’s decision, so the trial court was required to affirm it as a matter of law. The court also determined that the Commission was authorized to require a complainant who files a frivolous complaint to pay a civil penalty, the respondent’s fees, and any other sanction authorized by law. As a result, the Commission has the authority to aware the Commission’s attorney’s fees be paid as an “other sanction” allowed by law. However, the record does not show what evidence was presented to substantiate the fee amount. As a result, that portion is reversed and remanded for the trial court to determine a proper award amount.
If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez, Justice Chapa and Justice Watkins. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Watkins.

The emergency exception to the Tort Claims Act preserves immunity from car accident damages and injuries caused by a fire hose falling from a fire truck en route to a fire.   

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

Nathan White v. City of Houston, No. 01-20-00415-CV (Tex. App.—Houston  March 25, 2021).

In this appeal from a trial court’s holding that the city retained immunity under the emergency exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act, the First Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because the use of a fire hose on a fire truck headed to an emergency began when the truck left for the emergency invoking both the Texas Tort Claims Act and its emergency exception.

The plaintiff sued the city after his car was damaged and he was injured by a fire hose dragging behind a fire truck en route to an emergency.  The plaintiff sued the city arguing that the dragging hose was missing an integral safety component because there is equipment available that could have ensured that the hose did not fall off the truck while it was in motion.  The plaintiff also argued that because the hose was en route it was in use at the time of the dragging, but was not actually being used in the emergency, so the emergency exception did not apply.  The city argued that because the fire truck was en route that the emergency exception to the Tort Claims Act applied and preserved immunity.  The trial court granted the city’s plea to the jurisdiction m and the plaintiff appealed.

The Texas Tort Claims Act waives a city’s immunity when there are injuries or damages caused by the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle and motor-driven equipment.  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021.  Immunity is not waived for non-use of property.  Once a waiver is established due to use of property, the governmental entity can retain its immunity if the use was during an emergency and the action was “not taken with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Id. § 101.055(2).  The court of appeals held that if the hose being on the truck was sufficient to invoke use under the Tort Claims Act, that use was related to the emergency where the truck carrying the hose was headed.  The court also held there was no evidence of conscious indifference or reckless disregard. The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.

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

Dallas Court of Appeals holds grading of land for sports facility is proprietary in specific situation with land lease

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The City Carrollton, Texas v. Weir Brothers Contracting, LLC, 05-20-00714-CV (Tex App. – Dallas, March 22, 2021)

This is a contractual immunity case where the Dallas Court of Appeals held the City’s lease of certain land was a proprietary function, therefore immunity did not apply.

The City advertised for proposals to bid on purchasing or leasing several acres of City owned land.  The City then executed a land lease with Blue Sky Sports Center of Carrollton, LP (“Blue Sky”) for 30 acres to “operate a multi-use sports, recreational, entertainment, and related service facility.” Blue Sky was required to use the leased premises “solely for the purpose of constructing, maintaining, and operating the Facilities.”  Blue Sky was allowed to enter into sublease agreements for the provision of food and refreshments, a pro shop, an arcade, and several other services. The Lease required the facilities to be open to the public “during reasonable times as is customary for [Blue Sky’s] type of business.” Blue Sky was further permitted to charge fees for use of the facilities. Shortly less than a year later the City and Arthur James, Inc. (“AJI”) entered into a contract for the grading of several acres which included the 30 acres that had been leased to Blue Sky. As compensation, AJI would receive 6.27 acres of the tract. However, during the grading, AJI’s contractor dug into a capped landfill. All work stopped until the City could develop a solution. The City terminated its agreement with AJI due to work not being completed within the specified time period. The City refused to pay the contractor, Weir. Weir obtained an assignment from AJI and sued the City for breach of contract, quantum meruit, promissory estoppel, and tortious interference with contract. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. The City appealed.

The court held the true nature of the dispute revolves around the City’s lease of property for the recreation facility and not the mere grading of a road. Recreational facilities are listed as governmental functions, but Blue Sky’s construction and operation of the facility is not a function of the City or on the City’s behalf. Although the extent to which the bidder’s use of the property would “complement” a nearby public recreational facility owned and managed by the City, nothing in the record suggests the lease with Blue Sky was essential to the City’s operation of that public facility so as to render the act governmental. As a result, the court held the actions were proprietary. The City does not enjoy immunity from suit and the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of e Justices Molberg, Reichek, and Nowell. Opinion by Justice Reichek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds City’s “Paid Sick Leave” ordinance was preempted by state law

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Washington et al. v. Associated Builders & Contractors of South Texas, Inc., et al., 04-20-00004-CV (Tex. App.—San Antonio, March 10, 2021).

In this case, the Fourth Court of Appeals considered the legality of San Antonio’s paid sick leave (PSL) ordinance. The Court held the PSL ordinance was unconstitutional because it established a minimum wage and is inconsistent with Texas Minimum Wage Act (TMWA).

In 2018, various advocacy groups and non-profits initiated a petition to adopt what was labeled the “Paid Sick Leave Ordinance.”  One of the most critical components of the PSL ordinance was that it would require many San Antonio employers to provide paid leave to their employees for sick days, doctor appointments, and for other specifically enumerated reasons.  Under the ordinance, a business’s failure to comply with the provision of paid time off could result in fines.   Instead of sending the ordinance to the electorate under the city charter, the City Council decided to adopt the PSL ordinance verbatim as submitted in the petition. In response, multiple businesses and business associations sought and obtained temporary and permanent injunctions to prevent its enforcement.  The City appealed.

While there were numerous claims asserted the court’s primary focus was to analyze whether the PSL ordinance established a minimum wage, thereby causing the ordinance to be preempted by the TMWA and/or unconstitutional.  The court’s decision turned on whether paid sick leave constitutes a “wage” under the TMWA. The court relied on dictionary definitions and the common meaning of words within the ordinance.  Ultimately, the court held the PSL ordinance was in fact a “wage” and wage regulations are governed by the TMWA. The ordinance was therefore preempted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Opinion by Justice Alvarez. Panel consists of Justices Alvarez, Rios, and Watkins. For more information on San Antonio’s Sick & Safe Leave ordinance and other related items, click here.

 

Fourth Court holds plaintiff’s premise defect claims cannot be brought as tangible personal property claims

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City of San Antonio v. Nolan Anderson, 04-20-00320-CV (Tex.App.—San Antonio, March 10, 2021)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims with prejudice.

Plaintiff Anderson was on crutches and exiting a terminal at the San Antonio International Airport. There was deposition testimony that it was raining that day. He stated that he noticed a rubber mat outside the terminal door, that the ground was wet when he moved his crutches forward and fell, injuring himself. Anderson alleged both a condition/use of tangible personal property (by failing to use a slip-preventing mat) and, alternatively, a defective condition of the premises (because the City should have known it was raining and needed to have made safe an area where one would not expect to find water). During Anderson’s deposition, when asked if he had any reason to believe anyone from the City knew about the water before he fell, replied: “Not that I know of, no, sir.” The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a no-evidence motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted the summary judgment but denied the plea to the jurisdiction. The City then appealed the denial.

The Court of Appeals focused on Anderson’s apparent attempt to couch a premises defect claim as a tangible personal property claim. The TTCA clearly delineates between the two claims such that one claim cannot be both a condition/use of personal property and a premises defect. The former claim was succinctly dismissed because Anderson expressly alleges it is attributed to a failure to use a certain type of mat, which is not a valid claim under the TTCA. As to the latter, none of Anderson’s testimony created a fact issue as to whether City had any knowledge or notice of the water on the ground or mat, which is one required element for bringing forth a premises defect claim. As a result, the denial of the plea to the jurisdiction was reversed and Anderson’s claims were dismissed with prejudice.

If you would like to read this memorandum opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Chapa, Rodriguez, and Valenzuela. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Valenzuela.

Dallas Court of Appeals holds Parkland Hospital did not have actual knowledge of glass pane defect prior to it falling and injuring Plaintiff

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Dallas County Hospital District d/b/a Parkland Health & Hospital System v. Lidia Bravo and Jefrey Bravo, 05-20-00640-CV, (Tex. App – Dallas, March 4, 2021)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed the denial of Parkland’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims.

Plaintiff Bravo visited a sick family member at a Parkland hospital when as he sat in the main lobby, a large glass pane from a second-story walkway suddenly fell on him from overhead, causing him injuries. Bravo sued Parkland for a premises defect. Parkland filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. Parkland appealed.

Under a premise defect theory, a limited duty requires the owner of the premises to avoid injuring the plaintiff through willful, wanton, or grossly negligent conduct and to use ordinary care either to warn the plaintiff of, or make reasonably safe, a dangerous condition of which the owner is aware and the plaintiff is not. Parkland submitted evidence the glass pane was installed prior to October of 2015 and Parkland received no notice of any potential problems with the pane prior to Bravo’s injury. None of Plaintiff’s evidence showed Parkland had any prior actual notice of a dangerous condition or provided a basis from which such notice could reasonably be inferred. As a result, no actual knowledge is evidenced. The plea should have been granted.

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

Amarillo Court of Appeals holds Texas Attorney General immune from County’s claims regarding conceal handgun signs

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Ken Paxton, Texas Attorney General v. Waller County Texas; et al, 07-20-00297-CV, (Tex. App – Amarillo, March 4, 2021)

This is a conceal/carry notice case where the Amarillo Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the Texas Attorney General’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the case.

The Waller County Courthouse has a sign noting a person cannot carry any weapons, including knives and guns, in the courthouse. Section 411.209 of the Government Code prohibits a political subdivision from posting notices barring entry to armed concealed-handgun license holders unless entry is barred by statute.  Terry Holcomb filed a complaint with the County regarding the sign. The County did not remove the sign and instead sued the Texas Attorney General seeking a declaration the signs do not violate §411.209, which was resolved in a prior case. Separate from the declaratory judgment action, the Texas Attorney General brought a mandamus action against Willer County and various county officials. Waller County filed counterclaims seeking declarations. The AG filed a plea to the jurisdiction as to the counterclaims which was denied. The AG appealed.

The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (“UDJA”) is not a grant of jurisdiction, but rather is a procedural device for deciding cases already within a court’s jurisdiction. The UDJA does not allow “interpretation” claims against a governmental entity or official.  The County’s counterclaims seek interpretation of §411.209, not its invalidation. The UDJA does not waive sovereign immunity for “bare statutory construction” claims. To sue the AG for ultra vires claims, the AG must not be exercising his discretion. Because the AG has discretion to bring or not bring an enforcement claim, no ultra vires action is possible.  Section 411.209 of the Government Code authorizes the Attorney General to investigate alleged violations of the statute and decide whether further legal action is warranted. When an official is granted discretion to interpret the law, an act is not ultra vires merely because it is erroneous; “[o]nly when these improvident actions are unauthorized does an official shed the cloak of the sovereign and act ultra vires.” As a result, the counterclaims should be dismissed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Quinn, and Justice Pirtle and Parker. Reversed and Remanded to Trial Court. Opinion by Justice Parker. Docket page with attorney information found here.

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.

An employer cannot discriminate against an individual based on their intent to become pregnant

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

South Texas College v. Arriola, No. 12-19-00222-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi  Feb, 2021).

In this appeal from a trial court’s holding that being able to become pregnant is a protected class under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA), the 13th Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because federal case law related to Title VII has held that being able to become pregnant is a protected class under sex discrimination protections.

The plaintiff sued her employer claiming her employer discriminated against her after she stated that she was trying to become pregnant.  She alleged she was harassed and discriminated against after making this statement by her co-workers and supervisors and was terminated four months after stating she was trying to become pregnant.  Her employer alleged that intending to become pregnant is not a protected class and therefore she had no case under the TCHRA.  The trial court denied the employer’s plea to the jurisdiction related to this issue and the employer appealed.

The TCHRA prohibits sex discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.”  Tex. Labor Code § 21.106(a).  The purpose of the TCHRA is to enact the policies of federal anti-discrimination laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  Due to this purpose, federal case law guides the analysis, especially in cases such as this one where the issue has not been previously decided by Texas courts. Federal cases involving the Pregnancy Discrimination Act have held that the ability or intent to become pregnant are protected classes and discrimination against these individuals is prohibited sex discrimination.  Int’l Union, United Auto., Aerospace & Agric. Implement Workers of Am. v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 499 U.S. 187, 206 (1991).  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that the intent or ability to get pregnant is a protected class as guided by federal case law.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice Smith. Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Byrne