City plea was not a challenge to jurisdiction but an argument on merits so it should have been denied holds Amarillo Court of Appeals

Richard Zambrana v. City of Amarillo, 07-13-00058-CV (Tex. App. – Amarillo, October 8, 2014)

This is a civil service case regarding a firefighter where the Amarillo Court of Appeals reversed the granting of a plea to the jurisdiction and sent the case back to the trial court.

Zambrana was an Amarillo firefighter charged with a Class A misdemeanor for domestic violence, but he entered into an agreed suspension with conditions tied to the outcome of the criminal charges. Zambrana was convicted and pursuant to the agreement, it acted as an automatic resignation. However, contrary to the agreement (which waived rights to appeal), Zambrana attempted to appeal, but the Commission refused to process the appeal based on the agreement. Zambrana argued the conviction was not final, and the agreement contemplated a final conviction, not simply a conviction at the trial court level. Zambrana filed a mandamus action to force the City to commence the appeal process and declare his rights under the contract. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting immunity as this was a contract dispute. The trial court granted the plea and Zambrana appealed.

The court first noted the City’s plea was really not a challenge to the court’s jurisdiction but an assertion Zambrana’s claims lacked merit. Courts have mandamus power to compel actions by public officials and that is what Zambrana asserted. The court makes a dicta statement that the court has jurisdiction to hear the declaratory judgment claim, but does not analyze why. Essentially, the court just decided the plea did not challenge the court’s jurisdiction so all parts were improperly granted. [Comment: I believe the mandamus ruling is probably correct based on the information presented in the case. Since the Texas Supreme Court’s holding in Tex. DOT v. Sefzik,355 S.W.3d 618 (Tex.2011) states that court’s lack jurisdiction under the Uniform Declaratory  Judgment Act to declare rights absent a challenge to an ordinance, I’m not sure the court of appeals’ holding on the declaratory judgment issue is correct. ]

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Quinn, Justice Campbell, Justice Pirtle.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Pritle. The attorney listed for the City is Bryan McWilliams. The attorneys listed for Zambrana are Matt Bachop and B. Craig Deats.