Probate judge can proceed with claims against commissioners but cannot get past payments due

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry and County Commissioners Ryan Dennard, Joe Guisti, Stephen Holmes and Ken Clark, in their Official Capacity as the Galveston County Commissioners Court v. Kimberly Sullivan, Judge Probate Court of Galveston County 14-15-00161-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.], April 5, 2016)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction where the 14th Court of Appeals held a probate judge has jurisdiction to sue the county commissioners over certain court budget operations.  And while limited mainly to county matters, the court made an important distinction about when matters morph from future prospective relief into past relief for monetary damages precluded by sovereign immunity.

When Judge Kimberly Sullivan submitted her proposed budget to the Galveston County Commissioners Court, she included compensation for her services from the “contributions fund,” a dedicated fund that “may be used only for court-related purposes for the support of the statutory probate courts in the county.” The commissioners court eliminated this payment from the budget for Sullivan only, and Sullivan sued the members of the court in their official capacities under a state constitutional provision that grants district courts “general supervisory control” over the commissioners’ court. See TEX. CONST. art. V, § 8.  The County Commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. They appealed.

The court first addressed a variety of objections to Judge Sullivan’s response to the Commissioners’ plea, all of which were properly denied. The court then went through a history of funding for the court and that the administrative fee traditionally paid for the probate judge was not done so out of the County’s general fund but out of a contribution fund specifically for probate courts. Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 25.00213(b).  Sullivan alleges the Commissioners exercised control regarding a fund over which they had no jurisdiction, and they acted arbitrarily and capriciously in voting to eliminate the administrative payment. She seeks declaratory relief, recovery of damages sustained in the past, and the issuance of a writ of mandamus to prevent future damages.  Under the Texas Constitution, the district court has supervisory jurisdiction to determine if the Commissioners are not properly performing ministerial acts and whether they abuse their discretion in instances of discretionary operation. The court noted there is a different standard between abuse of discretion and exceeding authority, both of which were properly alleged by Judge Sullivan. The court held Article V, §8 waives immunity from suit for such supervisory claims against the county commissioners. However, since the case was instituted and on appeal, the 2014-2015 budget ended. Suit is permitted for prospective relief only.  Therefore, for the past budget year, any claim Judge Sullivan would have for monetary damages is precluded by sovereign immunity, while claims requiring future payments still qualify. Interestingly, the court noted that when the plea was denied, that ruling was entirely correct, but due to the passage of time, the 14th Court is modifying the judgment.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Boyce, Justice Christopher and Justice Busby. Opinion by Justice Christopher.  The attorneys for Judge Sullivan are Alton C. Todd and Mark W. Stevens.  The attorneys listed for the County Defendants are Jason Eric Magee, James P. Allison and Phillip Lile Ledbetter.