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.

Zoning amendment was not retroactive and property owner had no vested interest in perpetual use of his property for a specific purpose says Dallas Court of Appeals

 

Hinga Mbogo, et al. v. City of Dallas, et al. 05-17-00879-CV (Tex. App. – Dallas, June 19, 2018)

This is an appeal from an order granting the City Defendants’ plea to the jurisdiction in a constitutional challenge to zoning laws. The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the plea.

Hinga leased land and opened a general repair shop on Ross Avenue in Dallas, Texas, in 1986. At that time, the City’s zoning ordinances allowed automobile-related businesses on Ross Avenue. After performing a study which found automobile-repair shops were a concern in the area based on the connected roads and services in the area, the City amended its zoning ordinance in 1988 prohibiting such uses. At that time, Hinga was fully aware that continuing his business became a “nonconforming use.” In 1991, Hinga purchased the property, expanded and upgraded knowing the property was nonconforming. In 2005 the City again amended the zoning ordinance and codified specific provisions related to non-conforming uses and provided deadlines. A property owner could appeal to the board of adjustment to extend deadlines to comply with the requirements. The BOA gave Hinga a new compliance date of April 13, 2013. Hinga then received a zoning change and SUP which expired in 2015. Hinga applied for a new SUP in February 2016, which was denied. The City filed suit seeking a permanent injunction to prevent operations and sought fines of $1,000 per day. Hinga counterclaimed and brought in various City officials. The City defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted. Hinga appealed.

Hinga argues the City’s ordinances, as applied to him, are unconstitutionally retroactive. A retroactive law is one that extends to matters that occurred in the past. Hinga asserted in 2005 and 2013 he had no notice the City would at some point make his use illegal. However, a law is not retroactive because it upsets expectations based in prior law.  Further, there are strong policy arguments and a demonstrable public need for the fair and reasonable termination of nonconforming property uses. In 2005 the City’s ordinance change allowed the owner of a nonconforming use to apply for a later compliance date if the owner would not be able to recover his investment in the use by the designated conformance date. The ordinance did not change any use but rather, it prospectively altered a property owner’s future use of the property. The 2013 ordinance likewise set a deadline for when it expired. As a result, the ordinances are not retroactive. Additionally, the court noted not all retroactive laws are unconstitutional. Here, any interest that Hinga had in the use of his property is not “firmly vested.” There is no bright-line rule and, generally speaking, an individual has no protected property interest in the continued use of his property for a particular purpose. The process provided likewise did not deprive Hinga of due process or single him out in any respect. The City allowed Hinga to run a business from 1991 through 2015 as either a nonconforming use or under a SUP; however, his use became illegal once his SUP expired. Hinga’s position under his takings argument appears to be that any restriction on his desired use of the property results in unconstitutional damage or destruction to his property. That is simply not the case as he had no vested right to perpetual, guaranteed use of his property in a specific way. As a result the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Bridges, Justice Myers and Justice Schenck. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Bridges. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Trial court had jurisdiction to determine if certain jobs should be classified as civil service, but not to award backpay

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City of Amarillo, Texas, et al. v. Nathan Sloan Nurek and Michael Brandon Stennett, 07-17-00120-CV (Tex. App. Amarillo — March 21, 2018)

This is a civil service lawsuit where the Amarillo Court of Appeals reversed-in-part the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

In Amarillo, firefighter positions have civil service protection and firefighters are contained within the Fire Supersession Department. However, positions in the Amarillo Fire Marshall’s Office (“FMO”) have traditionally been treated outside the protection. Nurek and Stennett were the highest scoring individuals on the promotional exams for positions of an Investigator I (equivalent rank of lieutenant) and Investigator II (equivalent rank of captain) within the FMO. When they were not offered the positions, they sued to declare the positions subject to civil service protection (and therefore eligible for placement via promotional exam). They also sought instatement in the positions and the backpay. The City and the officials sued, filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. They appealed.

Immunity bars a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration of the government’s liability for money damages.  However, that only addresses the Plaintiffs’ claim for backpay. The court held jurisdiction exists for the trial court to examine the City’s failure to classify firefighter positions within the FMO as civil service positions.  Under §180.006 of the Texas Local Government Code, immunity is waived “for claims to recover monetary benefits that are authorized by a provision of…” the Act. However, the claims asserted do not specify the sections which would authorize the payment in the Plaintiffs’ pleadings. “While appellees may prove to be right regarding appellants’ erroneous classification of FMO positions outside of the civil service, it is clear that appellees have not affirmatively pled facts demonstrating that their claims for monetary benefits are authorized by a provision of the Civil Service Act.”  Further, the pleadings do not differentiate between acts of the City and any alleged ultra vires acts of individual officials. Nothing indicates where the City Manager is responsible for civil service job classification. The failure to allege enough jurisdictional facts to demonstrate the trial court’s jurisdiction gives rise to a right to amend the pleadings unless the jurisdictional defect may not be cured by repleading. As a result, part of the plea should have been granted and part was proper to deny, but amended pleadings should be ordered.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Quinn, Justice Campbell and Justice Parker. Opinion by Judge Parker. The attorneys listed for the City Defendants are William M. McKamie, Bettye Lynn and Bryan McWilliams.  The attorney listed for the Plaintiffs is Matt Bachop

State immune from suit asserting failure to follow forfeiture procedures

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The State of Texas v. Antonio Menchaca Jr. and Perla Nevarez 13-16-00602-CV (Tex. App– Corpus Christi February 15, 2018)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction where the 13th Court of Appeals reversed the denial and rendered in favor of the State.

A Cameron County District Attorney’s Office investigator sent notices to two banks that it was investigating potential money laundering by Menchaca  so the banks froze his accounts. Later, the State filed a civil forfeiture action against Menchaca seeking to seize one of Menchaca’s bank accounts. Menchaca subsequently answered and counterclaimed for declaratory judgment relief. Prior to answering Menchaca’s counterclaim, the State nonsuited its civil forfeiture action. The State then answered Menchaca’s counterclaim and filed a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied. The State appealed.

Menchaca actually seeks ultra vires declaratory relief against the State of Texas for failing to comply with the law related to civil forfeitures. However, these types of suits cannot be brought against the State because the State retains its immunity. They must be brought against officials. “Menchaca’s action is defeated by sovereign immunity.”

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Contreras, Benavides and Longoria. Justice Benavides delivered the opinion of the court. The attorney listed for Nevarez is Hon. Eduardo Lucio and Hon. Dennis Sanchez. The attorney listed for Menchaca is Hon. Dennis Sanchez and Hon. Eduardo Lucio. The attorney listed for The State of Texas is Hon. Luis V. Saenz, Hon. Matthew Kendall and Hon. Lena Chaisson-Munoz.