School District substantially complied with TOMA even though it had a glitch with website postings for five months, says Amarillo Court of Appeals

Rebecca Terrell and Chandrashekhar Thanedar v. Pampa Independent School District, 07-17-00189-CV (Tex. App. – Amarillo, January 9, 2019).

This is a Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”) case where the Amarillo Court of Appeals affirmed a take-nothing judgment in favor of the Pampa Independent School District (“PISD”).

PISD hired Terrell as a teacher on a probationary basis. At the end of the school year, the PISD board voted to terminate her. Terrell brought suit, asserting PISD committed TOMA violations in 21 separate meetings and demanded that all actions taken during those meetings (including her termination) are void. Physical notice for each of the 22 challenged meetings was posted to the inside of an external glass door of the administrative building for PISD in a manner in which the public could view them at any hour. These physical notices identified the date, time, and place of each respective meeting. Meeting notices were also posted to PISD’s website — most of the time. Due to an issue arising from a transfer to a new website for PISD, notice of meetings were not posted on PISD’s website for five months.   PISD was unaware of the website glitch, but upon learning of it, the board took corrective action. PISD also posted notices only on the outside bulletin board and not the one inside its administrative offices.   The trial court issued a take-nothing judgment against the Plaintiffs, and they appealed.

The panel opinion noted the Texas Supreme Court has indicated that substantial compliance with TOMA’s notice requirements is sufficient. To determine whether a governmental entity substantially complied with the requirements of TOMA, courts look to whether the notice fairly identifies the meeting and “is sufficiently descriptive to alert a reader that a particular subject will be addressed.”  Courts are not to determine whether the entity could have posted a better notice in a better manner; rather, they are tasked with determining whether the notice was sufficient to notify the public of the specific meeting and its topics. Physically posting the agendas in a glass case outside the building for all to see at any time was sufficient for substantial compliance under TOMA.  PISD provided sufficient evidence to constitute a good-faith effort to post on the website, explained how the glitch occurred and what was done to fix it.  Appellants next argued that PISD violated TOMA by including only a partial description of the place of the meetings, such as “Pampa High School,” without identifying the meeting room, full street address, or name of the city. TOMA requires that the notice identify the “place” of the meeting. The panel held that while it would be more helpful if the notices had identified the specific room, it deemed the school title descriptions were sufficiently specific to alert the public of the location of the school board meetings. As a result, the take-nothing judgment was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justice Campbell, Justice Pirtle and Justice Parker. Opinion by Justice Parker. Thanedar and Terrell were pro se.  Attorneys listed for the  PISD are Jennie C. Knapp  and W. Wade Arnold.