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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Court of Appeals held that no implied authority exists for actions of a state agency without a showing that the implied authority is required to effectively perform a statutorily expressed responsibility.   

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Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell, et al. v. S.O., et al., No. 03-19-00131-CV (Tex. App.—Austin September 4, 2020).

In this ultra virus University case, the plaintiff sued University officials for exceeding their authority in attempting to revoke her Ph.D after she had already graduated from the University.    The Court of Appeals held that the University did exceed its authority in attempting to revoke her earned degree because they do not have specific statutory authority to revoke degrees and the authority to revoke degrees is not essential to its statutory authority to award degrees.

The plaintiff was awarded a Ph.D in 2008.  In 2012, the University conducted an investigation and attempted to revoke her Ph.D for academic misconduct in 2014.  The plaintiff sued the University stating that her due process rights were violated by the University’s procedure.  The University undid its revocation and instituted a different procedure to investigate the possibility of revoking the plaintiff’s degree again.  In response to the University’s renewed efforts, the plaintiff sued the University in this suit as an ultra vires claim.  The University defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing they had the authority to revoke the degree because its rules allowed it and because the authority to revoke degrees is implied with the authority to award degrees.  This case has been through the appellate process once on the issue of ripeness.  The appellate court held that her complaint was ripe and the case was sent back to the trial court.  Upon return, the trial court granted-in-part and denied-in-part the plea.  In this appeal, the issue is whether the University has the authority to revoke degrees, the basis of the plaintiff’s ultra vires claim.

An ultra vires claim waives immunity if the plaintiff can show that an official’s conduct exceeded their granted authority.  Houston Belt & Terminal Ry. Co. v. City of Houston, 487 S.W.3d 154, 158 (Tex. 2016).  State agencies, like the University, only have the authority that they are given by statute and may only adopt rules pursuant to their statutory authority.  Pruett v. Harris Cnty. Bail Bond Bd., 249 S.W.3d 447, 452 (Tex. 2008).  State law gives a University the authority to “award” a degree, but not to revoke one.  Tex. Educ. Code § 65.31(b).  Authority can be implied if the agency needs the power in order to allow the agency to effectively carry out the functions necessary for its expressed authority.  Tex. Mun. Power Agency v. Pub. Util. Comm’n, 253 S.W.3d 184, 192-93 (Tex. 2007).   The Court of Appeals held that the authority to award degrees does not require the authority to revoked degrees, and therefore revoking a degree after a student has earned it and graduated is an ultra vires act waiving sovereign immunity.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of attorney’s fees from the plaintiff.  Even though the plaintiff prevailed, the legal questions were ones that needed to be decided and an appellate court gives a trial court wide discretion in determining attorney’s fees so long there is no abuse of discretion.

Justice Kelly issued a concurring and dissenting opinion stating that the University does have the authority to revoke a student’s degree, but that the claims are not ripe.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Kelly. Opinion by Justice Thomas Baker.  Concurring/dissenting opinion by Justice Kelly can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Antonio Court of Appeals holds governmental immunity bars both suit and liability where the ‘only plausible remedy’ is invalidation of a government contract.

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City of San Antonio v. Patrick Von Dohlen, et al., 04-20-00071-CV (Tex. App.—San Antonio Aug. 19, 2020)

 This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction and Rule 91a motion to dismiss filed by the City of San Antonio.

Plaintiffs Patrick Von Dohlen, Brian Greco, Kevin Jason Khattar, Michael Knuffke, and Daniel Petri sued the City of San Antonio (“City”) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  Plaintiffs alleged that the City violated Government Code Chapter 2400 by continuing to exclude Chick-fil-A from operating a restaurant in the City’s airport based on Chick-fil-A’s financial support for “certain religious organizations that oppose homosexual behavior.”  Section 2400.002 of the Texas Government Code specifically prohibits governmental entities from taking any adverse action against any person or business based on “membership in, affiliation with, contribution, donation, or other support provided to a religious organization.”  This legislation took effect on September 1, 2019, more than five months after the San Antonio City Council voted to implement an amended concession agreement that required Chick-fil-A to be replaced with a different vendor.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting governmental immunity, and a Rule 91a motion to dismiss for lack of standing, both of which the trial court denied.  The City then appealed.

The Fourth Court of Appeals determined that although a plaintiff may properly sue for declaratory and injunctive relief when the governmental entity and its officers acted without legal or statutory authority, such a suit is precluded by governmental immunity if the purpose or result is to cancel or nullify a valid contract with the entity.  In this case, the court examined the nature of the plaintiffs’ claims and held that even though the plaintiffs purportedly sought only prospective relief against the City, the only plausible remedy for their claims was nullification of the amended concession agreement.  The court agreed with the City and found that plaintiffs’ suit sought to “undo and invalidate a contract previously approved by the city council, compel the City to re-open the contract approval process, and require the City to re-award the contract to a subcontractor that will operate a Chick-fil-A restaurant in the airport.”  Furthermore, where the “only plausible remedy” for the plaintiff’s claim is invalidation of a government contract, governmental immunity bars both suit and liability.  As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Taxpayer lacked standing to challenge Houston drainage fee ordinance despite charter election invalidity

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Elizabeth C. Perez v. Sylvester Turner, et al., 01-16-00985-CV (Tex. App. – Hous. [1st Dist], Oct. 15, 2019)

This is a long standing/multi-opinion dispute challenging the City of Houston’s drainage fee ordinance. Prior summaries found here and here. In this substituted opinion (for an opinion issued in August of 2018), the First District affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Voters in the City of Houston adopted a dedicated charter amendment for a “Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets.” It then adopted a regulatory ordinance. One source of funding was a charge imposed on properties directly benefitting from the drainage system. The ballot language for the charter amendment was originally held misleading and invalid. After several disputes from the subsequent ordinance occurred, Perez  brought this ultra-vires claim and sought a judgment declaring the drainage fee ordinance invalid (yet again); an injunction against the assessment, collection, and expenditure of taxes and fees pursuant to the ordinance; and reimbursement, “on behalf of herself and all other similarly situated persons or entities,” of taxes and fees assessed and collected pursuant to the ordinance and paid “under duress.”  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting Perez lacked standing because she had suffered no particularized injury separate from the public, which was granted. Perez appealed.

The prior judicial declaration that the Charter Amendment is void does not address the Drainage Fee Ordinance. Thus, to the extent that Perez’s claims are based on her allegations the prior opinions invalided the ordinance, such are misplaced. The charter amendment was only needed to shift a portion of ad valorem tax revenue from debt services and was not required for authority to pass a drainage fee ordinance. Local Government Code Chapter 552 provided independent authority for such an ordinance. Perez has pleaded that she paid “illegal” drainage fees, she has cited to no authority declaring illegal the Drainage Fee Ordinance. Further, Perez has to demonstrate she “suffered a particularized injury distinct from that suffered by the general public” by the drainage fees collected.  The municipal fees were assessed to property owners across the City. The payment of municipal fees, like the drainage fees assessed against Perez’s properties here and numerous other properties in the City, does not constitute a particularized injury. Taxpayer standing is an exception to the “particularized injury” requirement.  However, it is not enough for the plaintiff to establish that she is a taxpayer— the plaintiff “may maintain an action solely to challenge proposed illegal expenditures.” A litigant must prove that the government is actually expending money on the activity that the taxpayer challenges; merely demonstrating that tax dollars are spent on something related to the allegedly illegal conduct is not enough.  Perez asserts the fees were collected illegally.  However, she was unable to establish the City is actually making any “measurable, added expenditure” of funds on illegal, unconstitutional, or statutorily unauthorized activities. As a result, she is not entitled to taxpayer standing. The plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Keyes, Justice Lloyd and Justice Kelly. The attorneys listed for the City are Collyn A. Peddie and Patricia L. Casey.  The attorneys listed for Perez are Dylan Benjamen Russell, Andy Taylor  and Joseph O. Slovacek.

Developer properly pleaded claims County failed to maintain roadways, Fort Worth Court of Appeals says

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Wise County, et al v. Katherine Mastropiero02-18-00378-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, August 9, 2019)

In this case, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held that the district court had jurisdiction to hear a property owner’s claims the County must maintain roads in her subdivision.

Mastropiero (the developer) began to develop Prairie View Estates, a subdivision in Wise County. In Phase Two of the subdivision, the county refused to maintain the roadways. The plat described several roads and stated that the roads were “dedicate[d] to the public.” Mastropiero alleged that the owners, residents, and members of the public have used the roads continuously ever since. The final plat was then endorsed and filed in the County’s records.  Mastropiero asserted she did not have to file a maintenance bond after the  County accepted the roads but that the County was required to maintain the roads. She sued for a failure to maintain, and the County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

Article V, § 8 of the Texas constitution provides that the district court has supervisory jurisdiction to review certain actions of the County Commissioners Court. Mastropiero has alleged that the Commissioners Court failed to perform a clear statutory duty.  The County asserted it never “accepted” the dedication and thus has no statutory duty. Recording a map or plat showing streets or roadways does not, standing alone, constitute a completed dedication as a matter of law. But acceptance does not require a formal act; implied acceptance is also sufficient, including use of the roads by the public. The determination of whether a dedication has been accepted is a question of fact. As a result, from a jurisdictional standpoint, Mastropiero properly pleaded a cause of action against the County. Additionally, the suit against a single commissioner, but only in her official capacity, is the same as a suit against the County. A suit to compel prospective action is viable in an ultra vires suit, as is raised here.  The plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Birdwell, Bassel and Womack. Memorandum opinion by Justice Birdwell. The attorney listed for the County is James Stainton. Ms. Mastropiero appeared pro se.

Eastland Court of Appeals holds erroneously calling the police is a discretionary act exempting employees from ultra vires claims

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The University of Texas of the Permian Basin et al. v. Michael Banzhoff, 11-17-00325-CV (Tex. App. – Eastland, May 31, 2019).

This is an ultra vires and abuse of process case where there Eastland Court of Appeals held the University of Texas at Permian Basin (UTPB) retained governmental immunity.

UTPB hired Banzhoff as a golf coach but terminated him within a year. He was issued a criminal trespass notice not to attend UTPB sporting events. Shortly after his termination, Banzhoff was arrested at the Odessa Country Club for criminal trespass.  Banzhoff sued UTPB, the athletic director (Aicinena) and the interim coach who replaced him (Newman) alleging seven different causes of action. Aicinena and Newman moved to be dismissed under §101.106(e) of the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) and UTPB filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court granted the dismissal as to Aicinena and Newman, and partially granted UTPB’s plea. The trial court allowed the abuse of process and ultra vires claims to proceed. UTPB filed this interlocutory appeal.

As to the abuse of process claim, no waiver of governmental immunity exists for such a tort. To fall within the ultra vires exception, “a suit must not complain of a government officer’s exercise of discretion, but rather must allege, and ultimately prove, that the officer acted without legal authority or failed to perform a purely ministerial act.”  Suits complaining of ultra vires actions must be brought against government officials in their official capacity and may seek only prospective injunctive remedies. In this case, UTPB—a governmental entity—is not a proper defendant to Banzhoff’s ultra vires claim. As to the individuals, the general allegations in the pleadings are insufficient to plead an ultra vires claim against Aicinena or Newman.  Further, Banzhoff failed to plead any facts that support a finding that Aicinena or Newman exceeded any delegated authority, did not perform a ministerial duty, or violated Banzhoff’s constitutional rights.  The court expressly noted the criminal trespass notice in the record was not issued by either Aicinena or Newman and that there was no specific allegation either man called the police regarding Banzhoff’s presence at the Odessa Country Club. However, even if the court were to take Banzhoff’s allegations as true, “he fails to explain how issuing a criminal trespass notice or calling the police—even if done erroneously—are anything but discretionary actions by Aicinena or Newman.”  As a result, the plea should have been granted in its entirety.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey, Justice Willson and Wright, Senior Justice.   Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Bailey.  The attorneys listed for Banzhoff are Gerald K. Fugit and M. Michele Greene.  The attorneys listed for UTPB are Enrique M. Varela and Eric Hudson.

Texas Supreme Court holds navigation district retains immunity from suit by State, but ultra vires claims against commissioners can proceed to trial

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Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District, et al. vs. State of Texas, 17-0365 (Tex. May 10, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a sovereign immunity/regulatory control case where the Texas Supreme Court held the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District (“District”) retained immunity from suit against the claims brought by the State of Texas. However, the District’s commissioners were not immune from the ultra vires claims.

The District leased part of a navigation stream to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, LLC (“STORM”) for specific oyster production. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (“Department”) asserted the Department had exclusive authority to regulate oyster production in Texas and sued the District to invalidate a lease issued to STORM.  In the 1950s, the State of Texas conveyed more than 23,000 acres of submerged land to the District, which has become prime for oyster cultivation. After the lease was issued to STORM, the company sent no-trespass notices to holders of any oyster-production permits. These permits authorize a holder to “plant oysters and make private beds in public waters.”  STORM claimed exclusive use of the leased submerged land. While the District agrees the water above the submerged land belongs to the State, it asserts it owns the fee simple in the land and can lease its exclusive use. The Department sued the District to invalidate the lease and individual District commissioners for ultra vires acts associated with the lease. The Department also sought monetary damages for “restitution.” The District and commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was partially denied.

The Court first addressed the Department’s claim for monetary damages. It held that Under §311.034 of the Government Code (Texas Code Construction Act), the use of the term “person” in a statute does not waive immunity.  And while the Parks and Wildlife Code allows the Department certain rule-making authority, the Department cannot waive immunity by rule which is not contained within the statute.  Since nothing in the applicable Parks and Wildlife Code waives immunity, no waiver for declaratory and monetary claims exists. The Department cannot circumvent the immunity by labeling a claim for monetary damages as “restitution.”    Next, the Court held an ultra vires claim cannot be brought against the District. However, it can be brought against the commissioners. The Court held the Department properly pleaded that the commissioners acted beyond their lawful authority by entering into the lease. The statute creating the District provided it with “rights, privileges and functions” but only those conferred by law. Unlike a home-rule municipality, which gets its power from the Texas Constitution, the District is a creature of statute and must look to the Legislature for its authority. Considering the entire regulatory system as a whole, the Court held the powers of the District are limited to navigation. While the statute allows the District to lease land and regulate marine commerce, the question of whether oyster cultivation qualifies may be precluded when comparing the exclusive power granted to the Department. The Department shall regulate the taking and conservation of fish, oysters, and other marine life. The ultra vires claims against the commissioners to prospectively enjoin the lease are permitted to go forward.  However, the Court was careful to explain that its holding only allows the State’s claims to go to trial, not whether the State will ultimately win on the present facts.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here.  Opinion by Justice Blacklock. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

DA allegedly terminated for refusing to withhold exculpatory evidence cannot bring Sabine Pilot cause of action

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Hillman v Nueces County, et al., 17-0588 (Tex. March 15, 2019)

This is an employment related suit where the Texas Supreme Court held the County was immune from a suit brought by a former assistant district attorney

Hillman, a former assistant district attorney, filed suit alleging that the County wrongfully terminated his employment because he allegedly refused his supervisor’s order to withhold exculpatory evidence from a criminal defendant charged with intoxicated assault. Specifically, a witness statement noting the Defendant was not intoxicated at the time of the assault. Hillman was terminated for failing to follow instructions, presumably related to the disclosure. Hillman sued.  The trial court dismissed the case and the court of appeals affirmed. Hillman filed the petition for review.

Hillman essentially brings a Sabine Pilot cause of action, which allows suit against an employer for terminating an employee who refused to perform an illegal act. However, historically, sovereign/governmental immunity is not waived for a Sabine Pilot cause of action. The Court declined to abrogate or clarify the lack of waiver. Alternatively, Hillman asserted immunity was waived under the Michael Morton Act (2017 legislative changes to Tex. Code Crim. Proc. § 39.14(h) on criminal discovery and disclosure). However, the Act does not address governmental immunity. It serves obvious purposes separate and apart from any wrongful-termination issues. Finally, Hillman requested the Court abrogate the immunity doctrine. The Court held that having existed for more than six hundred years, the governmental-immunity doctrine is “an established principle of jurisprudence in all civilized nations.” Although courts defer to the legislature to waive immunity, the judicial branch retains the authority and responsibility to determine whether immunity exists in the first place, and to define its scope. To hold that governmental immunity does not apply to Sabine Pilot claims, the Court would have to trespass across the boundary between defining immunity’s scope (a judicial task) and waiving it (a legislative task).  It declined to do so.

The concurring opinion agreed with the majority opinion, but Justice Guzman wrote separately to emphasize, to the Legislature, more is required if the purposes behind the Michael Morton Act are to have a full impact. But she agreed such additional actions must come from the Legislature.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Boyd.  Concurring opinion (found here) by Justice Guzman, joined by Justices Lehrmann and Devine.

Board of Adjustment’s plea on declaratory judgment claim granted as UDJA is a redundant remedy says Austin Court of Appeals

 

City of Wimberley Board of Adjustment v. Creekhaven, LLC; and William D. Appleman, 03-18-00169-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, October 18, 2018)

This is a board of adjustment appeal case where the Austin Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims.

Campbell owns property next to Creekhaven and requested setback variances for construction of a pole barn which the Board of Adjustment granted with conditions. Creekhaven filed suit challenging the BOA’s order. While the trial court’s order in the case was pending, a deadline imposed by the order passed without Campbell having satisfied the requirements. According to the Board’s order, if Campell failed to comply by the deadline, the variance expired automatically. Campell filed a second variance request, which was also granted with the same conditions. Creekhaven amended its petition asserting the BOA had to make a determination on the first variance lapsing before granting a new variance. The BOA filed a plea to the jurisdiction as to the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (“UDJA”) claims which was denied. The BOA appealed.

The UDJA does not create a cause of action, but is a mechanism for adjudicating disputes already ripe. The UDJA waives immunity only to challenge the validity of an ordinance. It does not waive governmental immunity when the plaintiff seeks a declaration of rights under a statute or other law. Creekhaven seeks a declaration regarding the legal effect of the first variance. To the extent that Creekhaven’s request for a declaration that the variance has expired depends on a finding that Campbell failed to comply with various city ordinances by a certain date, it constitutes a request for a declaration interpreting those ordinances.  Therefore, no waiver of immunity exists. Creekhaven also tried arguing that its UDJA claim asserts ultra vires acts by the Board members such that governmental immunity does not bar the claim and are barred by res judicata.  However, the doctrine of res judicata, as an affirmative defense, would not deprive the BOA of authority to consider Campbell’s request for a variance. Thus, it would not render the BOA members’ actions ultra vires. Finally, to the extent Creekhaven’s UDJA claims seek to overturn the Board’s orders regarding the variances Campbell has requested, the doctrine of redundant remedies prevents it from seeking that relief. Its option is to pursue invalidation under Chapter 211 of the Texas Local Government Code. As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Rose, Justice Puryear and Justice Field. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Field. The attorneys listed for the City are Mr. Gunnar P. Seaquist  and Ms. Kelli Fuqua.  The attorney listed for the Plaintiffs is Mr. Jimmy Alan Hall.

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trial court properly awarded attorney’s fees to school district as plaintiffs should have reasonably known the individual officials were absolutely immune

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Farr et. al. v Arlington ISD, 02-17-00196-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, July 19, 2018)

In this asserted ultra vires case, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the school district defendants’ plea to the jurisdiction.

The Plaintiffs comprise of students, employees, and parents who asserted they were exposed to poor air quality at the school causing dizziness, nausea, and a host of other ailments. In addition to suing the school district, the individual board of trustees, the superintendent, and several private parties. They originally sued for negligence, gross negligence, and other claims, but after a host of court proceedings, the primary focus ended up centering on injunctive relief. The school district officials counterclaimed for attorney’s fees. They filed a plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss which the trial court granted. The Plaintiffs appealed.

The court first held the Plaintiffs did not bring a true ultra vires claim. The Plaintiffs did not allege the individual school officials acted outside of their authority. Next, the court held the last live pleading omitted the claims against the officials in their official capacities. As a result, ultra vires injunctive relief is not applicable. Next, in the education context, attorney’s fees can be viewed as sanctions. Under a sanctions analysis the strictures of the loadstar method of calculations is not applicable. The record demonstrates sufficient evidence to support the sanction. Given the officials retain absolute immunity from suit, a reasonable attorney should have known a suit against them was improper.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Sudderth, Gabriel, & Kerr. Opinion by Justice Gabriel.