Court has no jurisdiction under PIA until AG issues a ruling says 1st District Court of Appeals

 

City of Houston v. Kallinen et al, No. 01-12-00050-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], August 29, 2013)

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where Kallenen sought to compel through mandamus the release of information regarding the City’s red light camera installations. After a series of rulings, the City filed a motion for new trial and plea to the jurisdiction. The court denied the plea and the City appealed. The First District Court of Appeals reversed and rendered in favor of the City.

Kallinen filed a PIA request and the City sought an AG opinion. Before the opinion was issued Kallinen filed this mandamus suit and asked the AG to refrain from issuing an opinion (and AG agreed). The trial court ultimately ruled the documents should be released and awarded attorney’s fees and the City filed a motion for new trial and plea, which were denied.

The City asserts the AG must issue an opinion before any suit can be filed (i.e. exhaustion of administrative remedies). The court held it is illogical to presume information is “public” when its very status is being challenged in the administrative process. It also stated “it does not stand to reason that information should be considered public when a request [to AG] has been made.” (Helpful for city attorney’s filing requests for opinions to the AG [although the AG probably doesn’t like this holding]). Further, in Tex. Att’y Gen. OR2011-687 the AG determined that it had a statutory directive to issue an opinion in advance of any judicial review. The court then held that its jurisdiction only arises after the AG has issued an opinion. This is a major issue for litigators involved in PIA lawsuits but could be used by the AG to assert that the AG must rule in an opinion on all issues raised in an appeal before the court has jurisdiction to hear them (there are holdings to the contrary, but I’m just pointing out the AG may argue it). As a result, the trial court’s denial of the plea was error and the case is dismissed.  This is not necessarily a full victory for Houston, however, because the AG could come back and opine the release and the City may end up back in court once jurisdiction has been established.  It does, however, remove all the prior rulings from the trial court which have no value (unless they wind up in front of the same judge).

If you would like to read this opinion click here.