El Paso Court of Appeals holds non-appearance jurors failed to show waiver of immunity in contempt/fee challenge case but should be allowed to amend.

Joshua Luttrell, et al v. El Paso County, et al., 08-16-00090-CV (Tex. App. – El Paso, December 20, 2017).

There is no way to categorize this case in a single sentence. In the thirty-nine page opinion, the El Paso Court of Appeals addressed a challenge to El Paso County’s use of a special assignment judge who would issue and handle all contempt proceedings when a juror would fail to appear for duty. Long opinion means long summary — sorry.  The Court held the County retained immunity based on the pleadings, but the Plaintiff should be afforded the opportunity to amend. The case was remanded.  For government attorneys or those suing governments, this opinion provides a good basis and starting point for various immunity issues and Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (“UDJA”) claims.

Appellants filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and others, naming Judge Woodard and El Paso County, requesting a declaration that their contempt judgments were void for lack of jurisdiction and that Judge Woodard imposed court costs and fees in an “illegal” manner.  Apparently, when a juror failed to respond to a jury summons in a particular court in El Paso County, that court would either “refer” or “transfer” the matter to Judge Woodard for the purpose of allowing him to conduct contempt proceedings against the recalcitrant juror.  The collective jurors sought to have their court costs and fees removed and the process stopped.  The case has many implications and court performed various analyses of statutes discussing the power of the courts and the counties. By the time the case hit the Court of Appeals, Judge Woodard had been dismissed under judicial immunity and the only issue was the immunity of the County. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted. The collective jurors appealed.

The court began with a history of governmental immunity and transitioned into immunity in declaratory judgment proceedings. The court cited various cases noting the UDJA only waives immunity if the validity of a statute (or ordinance) is in play. The Appellants failed to identify a statute being challenged. Their pleadings “reveal that the true nature of their claims center on their belief that the actions of Judge Woodard and/or the County violated existing law, i.e., that they were held in contempt in violation of their due process rights, and that they were accessed illegal court costs and fees…”  Such claims cannot be brought under the UDJA. Additionally, the UDJA may not typically be used to collaterally attack, modify, or interpret a prior court judgment. The contempt proceedings were declared to be criminal in nature, not civil. Civil courts may only exercise “equity jurisdiction” in cases involving criminal proceedings in a “narrow” set of circumstances, which are not present here. The UDJA is the wrong vehicle for making a challenge to the validity of a criminal contempt judgment.   There is a line of cases stating the UDJA can be used to collaterally attack void judgments. The proper method to collaterally attack a criminal contempt judgment as being void is through either a petition for a writ of habeas corpus when the contemnor has been subjected to jail time, or a petition for a writ of mandamus when, as here, the contemnor is subjected only to a fine. Such are exclusive mechanisms.

Appellants also sought the recovery of the fines, fees and costs, which they believe Judge Woodard wrongfully imposed.  However, Appellants’ request for a “refund” cannot be brought in a UDJA proceeding in the absence of legislative permission. When fees are paid in the context of a judicial proceeding, the aggrieved party may challenge the imposition of those fees (illegal or otherwise) in the context of those proceedings, thus satisfying the requirements of due process.  When a party pays an illegal tax or fee “under duress” in an administrative matter they may challenge it, but these were judicial proceedings. In a judicial proceeding, once a defendant pays the fee, it is voluntarily given. To avoid paying the fee, the defendant must challenge it in the proceedings or utilize another system established for the challenge.  Appellants had other means of challenging the validity of the costs and fees imposed on them. They could have challenged it in the proceedings, filed a mandamus or brought claims under Article 103.008 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides a separate statutory remedy to correct erroneous or unsupportable court costs.  They failed to do so.  As to Appellants attempted ultra vires claim, they only named the County. Such claims must be brought against an official.    Additionally, claims of judicial court action versus county administrative action, falls outside the scope of any takings claims under the Texas Constitution. As to the Appellants §1983 claims, a judge has judicial immunity from a lawsuit brought under §1983, and therefore cannot be named as the “person” who violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, when the lawsuit is based on the judge’s judicial actions.  A county may only be held liable in a §1983 case if the plaintiffs are able to demonstrate that the county had an “official policy or custom” that caused them to be subjected to a denial of a constitutional right.  Appellants have not alleged in their current pleadings that the County had any policy or custom that deprived them of their federal constitutional rights and only allege Judge Woodard acted without authority. There is nothing in the pleadings or the record to suggest that Judge Woodard was executing any county policies and, to the contrary, everything points to him acting in his judicial capacity (for which he is immune from suit).  Finally, the  court noted that while the panel “expresses no opinion” as to whether the Appellants can successfully amend, they recognized the should be given the opportunity. The court ends by stating “[w]e do caution Appellants, however, that any amendment to their pleadings must focus on the liability of the County as the only remaining party in the proceeding, with the recognition that Judge Woodard is no longer a party to the proceedings, and expressly explain what actions the County took that would render them liable to Appellants.”   The case was then remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel includes Chief Justice McClure, Justice Rodriguez and Senior Judge Larsen. Opinion by Justice Rodriguez.  The docket page with attorney information is found here.