Suit against councilwoman and City allowed to go forward in zoning denial case

City of Leon Valley, et al v. Wm. Rancher Estates et al. 04-14-00542-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, May 20, 2015).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction arising from the denial of a zoning change. [Comment: There are so many things wrong with this opinion, the only summation which is proper is simply that bad facts make bad law.]

The Appellees own varying interest in land within the City and filed an application to change the zoning to better sell the property. A City councilwoman (“Baldridge”) who is a real estate broker allegedly contacted Appellees stating she had a client who wanted to purchase the property and threatened to use her power on the City Council to block any zoning changes if they did not accept her client’s offer. Appellees did not accept and the City denied the zoning change request. Appellees also asserted the City Defendants trespassed on the property to dig a trench that altered the natural flow of water resulting in flooding. They sued the City and named and unnamed City employees.  The City Defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied. The City appealed.

The court first held that the individual defendants were sued in their individual capacity.  “A person sued only in her individual capacity does not have sovereign or governmental immunity from suit.”  Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code §51.014 (the statute authorizing interlocutory appeals) states the court of appeals have jurisdiction for an interlocutory appeal for an official if the official is appealing a motion for summary judgment.  The court holds individual immunities are affirmative defenses, not jurisdictional defenses.  Since the officials are appealing the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction, that is not authorized under §51.014(a)(5), so their appeal is dismissed. The court then determined there was no waiving of immunity as to the City for the asserted claims under the Water Code, Health & Safety Code, Natural Resources Code, Penal Code, and Property Code, as asserted by the Appellees. Therefore the trial court should have granted the plea as to those claims. The City asserted the Appellees’ claims under the Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”) are not proper because they seek monetary damages for such claims. The City also asserts the pleadings do not indicate TOMA claims against the collective body, only against individuals. The court determined that the assertion of immunity from monetary damages is a claim of immunity from liability, not immunity from suit. Therefore it is improper to raise in a plea to the jurisdiction. The Texas Open Meetings Act waives immunity for claims brought to compel compliance or to void actions taken in violation of the Act. The closed meeting allegations involving individuals is still attributable to the City.  The court then noted that some evidence existed (when taken the light most favorable to the non-movant) that the City failed to properly take minutes of the meetings and did not accurately reflect what occurred. As a result, the trial court has jurisdiction to hear the TOMA claims raised. The court held the arguments regarding a lack of evidence to establish a conflict of interest were not raised sufficiently to give the other side a fair opportunity to respond, therefore they are remanded. The City contends the minutes and agenda for meeting show the city council’s vote on appellees’ zoning request was unanimous. However, the minutes do not conclusively establish the other city council members would have voted the same way had Baldridge abstained, so the plea was properly denied.  The court did hold the City is immune from trespass claims. The court next chided the City holding “[w]ithout reference to any of appellees’ specific requests for declaratory relief, the City argues the trial court erred by denying its plea to the jurisdiction because there is no waiver of immunity ‘for monetary damage relief or relief for interpretation of statutory rights’ under the Declaratory Judgment Act.” Since the court already determined declaratory rights were proper to seek under TOMA, the plea was properly denied as to the declaratory judgment.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Chief Justice Marion, Justice Martinez and Justice Chapa. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Chapa. The attorneys listed for the City are Clarissa Rodriguez and Patrick C. Bernal.  The attorney listed for the various Appellees is Jason Jakob.