Immunity is not waived for UDJA case against City even if related to contract for services says 4th Court of Appeals

City of Pearsall v. Robert Tobias 04-15-00302-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, April 20, 2016)

This is an employment case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals reversed a trial court judgment awarding a former city manager severance damages.

In 2013 Tobias  entered into an employment contract for the City Manager position. The term was for two years but had a severance package of one year’s salary if he was involuntarily terminated or suspended. Within six months of being hired, the City Council voted to terminate him. When the City refused to provide him the year of severance, Tobias sued. Tobias field a “motion for declaratory judgment” regarding his rights under the contract. The trial court granted the motion and awarded him  $80,400.00 “pursuant to the terms of the severance provision of the employment contract.”  After a slew of motions the City appealed the final judgment in the case asserting the trial court lacked jurisdiction.

The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (“UDJA”) “does not enlarge a court’s jurisdiction; it is a procedural device for deciding cases already within a court’s jurisdiction.” Although the UDJA contains a waiver of immunity from suit, the waiver is limited to claims challenging the validity of ordinances or statutes. Plaintiffs cannot circumvent immunity by characterizing a suit for money damages, such as a contract dispute, as a declaratory-judgment claim.  Immunity is not waived for declaratory judgment claims seeking to establish a contract’s validity, to enforce performance under a contract, or to impose contractual liabilities.  Tobias concedes that his declaratory judgment claim is simply a recasting of his breach of contract claim, but asserts immunity is waived under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §271.152 (waiver of immunity in contracts for goods or services). However, citing to Lower Colorado River Auth. v. City of Boerne, 422 S.W.3d 60, 66- 67 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2014, pet. dism’d), the panel determined Chapter 271 only waives immunity for suits that seek the remedies specifically set out in the statute.   Determining rights of the parties in a contract do not fall under Chapter 271.  As a result, no waiver exists for a declaratory judgment claim relating to a breach of contract cause.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Marion, Justice Martinez and Justice Pulliam. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Martinez.  The attorney listed for Tobias is Reid E. Meyers.  The attorney listed for the City is Albert Lopez.