City and City officials not liable for malicious prosecution in case brought by park vendor

City of Dallas, et al v. Robert Groden 05-15-00033-CV (Tex. App. – Dallas, April 6, 2016).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction in a malicious prosecution case. The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed the denial and dismissed the Plaintiff’s claims.

Robert Groden operated a business from a portable table in the park selling his writings on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Park Manager received complaints about vendors in the park. Groden was arrested for violating a City ordinance on vendor activity in the park. However, the municipal court dismissed the charges. Groden sued various officials for malicious prosecution and declaratory relief then later added the City. The City and City officials filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied.  They appealed.

Groden first argued the court’s interlocutory appellate jurisdiction does not exist for officials sued in their individual capacity.  The court held employees could utilize the interlocutory authority for appeals, regardless of capacity. The court then held that while Groden did not dismiss the City, he filed an amended petition asserting he was not suing the City for damages or torts. The court interpreted that pleading as dismissing his claims against the City so the trial court errored by not granting the City’s plea removing it from the lawsuit in name. Additionally, the declaratory judgment claims against the City (which Groden did expressly bring) do not challenge the validity of an ordinance but complain about the arrest. The City retains its immunity from claims seeking interpretations of ordinances or declarations that City employees violated the law.   Additionally, Groden’s claim for injunctive relief against the City for its “unconstitutional practices” is likewise barred by immunity. Next, Groden alleged that Golbeck’s and Worden’s  actions (assistant police chief and parks manager) in having him arrested and prosecuted were ultra vires and outside the scope of their employment with the City. To the extent Groden sought a declaration that §101.106(f) violates the open courts provision of the Texas constitution the claims are not viable. Subsection (f) of the election-of-remedies provision states that claims asserted against an employee must be dismissed if the complained-of conduct was within the general scope of employment and the plaintiff could have sued the government. An official acts within the scope of his authority if he is discharging the duties generally assigned to him. An assistant police chief has the general duty to enforce City laws and ordinances and arrest those who violate them. Worden presented evidence that his duties as District Park Maintenance Manager included directing complaints or issues related to the parks in his district to the appropriate City official.  Both officials were acting within the course and scope of their employment. And while the City would be immune from intentional torts, the claims he brings against the officials fall within the definitions of §101.106(f).  Therefore, under the election of remedies provision of the Tort Claims Act, the officials are entitled to dismissal. The denial is reversed and judgment rendered for the City Defendants.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Lang-Miers, Justice Brown and Justice Schenck. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Lang-Miers. The attorneys listed for the City are Warren M. S. Ernst, Barbara E. Rosenberg, Patricia M. De La Garza and James B. Pinson.  The attorneys listed for Groden are D. Bradley Kizzia and Anthony Ricciardelli