Texarkana Court of Appeals holds county court at law has jurisdiction to hear PIA mandamus against city, despite district court language in PIA

Kenneth Craig Miller v. Gregg County, 06-17-00091-CV (Tex. App. – Texarkana, March 20, 2018).

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) lawsuit in which the Texarkana Court of Appeals flipped back and forth between sections of the Government Code before modifying the trial court’s order regarding release of certain records held by Gregg County (“County”).

Miller sought a PIA request to allegedly “expose the depth and degree of the intimate relationships”  between City of East Mountain Police and Deputies of the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office. Miller filed a suit under the PIA seeking a writ of mandamus in County Court at Law #2 to compel Gregg County to disclose certain police phone log information.  The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted.  Miller appealed.

The PIA states “A suit filed by a requestor under this section must be filed in a district court for the county in which the main offices of the governmental body are located.” TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 552.321(b) (West 2012).  “District courts are always the courts of exclusive original jurisdiction for mandamus proceedings unless the constitution or a law confers such jurisdiction on another tribunal.” Miller asserts §25.0003(a) of the Texas Government Code states “In addition to other jurisdiction provided by law, a statutory county court exercising civil jurisdiction concurrent with the constitutional jurisdiction of the county court has concurrent jurisdiction with the district court in: (1) civil cases in which the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $200,000, excluding interest, statutory or punitive damages and penalties, and attorney’s fees and costs, as alleged on the face of the petition…” However, the Texas Legislature expressly amended the PIA in 1999 and added the requirement a suit be brought in district court. The Court of Appeals held this created a “condition precedent” to bringing a PIA mandamus action under Government Code §311.016(3). The Court of Appeals stated the question for it, then becomes, does §552.321(b) trump other sections of the Government Code. After a statutory construction analysis, the Texarkana Court held §552.321(b) does not deprive a county court at law of its jurisdiction under §25.0003(a). That being said, the Court then analyzed the evidence submitted and the extent to which the County searched for responsive phone records requested.  The County presented uncontroverted evidence that no responsive documents exist. As a result, the trial court properly granted the plea, but based on the challenge to jurisdictional facts, not the jurisdiction of a county court at law.  The court then modified the judgement, taking out references to dismissal of claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, which were not present in Miller’s prayer for relief.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice III Morriss,
Justice Moseley and Justice Burgess. Opinion by Justice Moseley. The attorney listed for the County is Robert S. Davis.  The attorney listed for Miller is Andrew R. Korn.