San Antonio Court of Appeals holds city ethics commission properly ruled complainant’s filing was frivolous and could award sanctions

Lakshmana Viswanath v. The City of Laredo, 04-20-00152-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, April 14, 2021)
This is an appeal from a city ethics commission determination where the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the commission’s finding but reversed the award of attorney’s fees.
Viswanath is the founder of a government watchdog group known as Our Laredo, who ran for city council and was defeated by Councilman Martinez in 2018. In 2019, a member of Our Laredo, Victor Gomez, filed an ethics complaint with the City’s Ethics Commission against the Co-City Managers arguing they were required to “ensure” that Councilman Martinez forfeit his seat due to an alleged conflict of interest. They did not file a complaint against Martinez, but against the Co-Managers. Viswanath filed an additional ethics complaint against the Co-City Managers arguing they unfairly advanced the private interest of certain developers at the expense of the general population by recommending that City Council pass two ordinances. The Commission dismissed both complaints, concluding they did not allege violations of the Laredo Ethics Code and therefore did not invoke the Commission’s jurisdiction. After finding both complaints frivolous, the Commission publicly admonished Gomez and ordered Viswanath to pay the maximum civil fine—$500.00—plus $7,900.68 in attorney’s fees to the Commission’s conflicts counsel. Viswanath filed a verified petition in district court appealing the Commission’s decision and seeking a declaratory judgment. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Viswanath appealed.
The court of appeals first held that the City’s ethics code allows an appeal to district court and requires a suit against the City. It, therefore, waived the City’s immunity from suit, but only for the limited purposes spelled out in the Ethics Code and that the proper mechanism for that is the UDJA. Under this mechanism, the trial court must review the Commission’s decision under the substantial evidence rule. At the initial hearing, Viswanath testified he was involved in filing both the complaint about Councilman Martinez and the complaint about the ordinances. Viswanath testified that the objection he raised was that the Co-City Managers “made the wrong recommendation”—a recommendation which was ultimately accepted by City Council. He was informed by several city officials that city management could not conduct the investigation he requested or provided the remedy he sought. Based on this evidence, the Commission could have reasonably determined that Viswanath was aware the Co-City Managers lacked authority to perform the investigation or grant the relief he requested, yet still filed his complaint in a groundless and harassing action. Substantial evidence supported the Commission’s decision, so the trial court was required to affirm it as a matter of law. The court also determined that the Commission was authorized to require a complainant who files a frivolous complaint to pay a civil penalty, the respondent’s fees, and any other sanction authorized by law. As a result, the Commission has the authority to aware the Commission’s attorney’s fees be paid as an “other sanction” allowed by law. However, the record does not show what evidence was presented to substantiate the fee amount. As a result, that portion is reversed and remanded for the trial court to determine a proper award amount.
If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice Martinez, Justice Chapa and Justice Watkins. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Watkins.