Texarkana Court of Appeals holds the vote and decision not to vote on District business cannot be an ultra vires claim

Kilgore Independent School District, et al. v. Darlene Axberg, John Claude Axberg, Sheila Anderson, and the State of Texas 06-17-00060-CV (Tex.App— Texarkana, October 12, 2017)

This is an appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction where property owners brought ultra vires and invalidity claims arising from the school district’s repeal of a homestead exemption. The Texarkana Court of Appeals reversed-in-part and affirmed-in-part.

Kilgore Independent School District (“KISD”) voted to repeal KISD’s local option homestead exemption (“LOHE”). That repeal came just fourteen days after Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill No. 1 (“SB1”), which could potentially increase the statewide homestead exemption and forbid a local taxing authority from repealing existing LOHEs. SB1 raised the level of property values on which a school district is not allowed to tax from the first $15,000 to the first $25,000. Property owners sued alleging KISD’s repeal was invalid because it violated state law, that taxes subject to the LOHE had been illegally collected, and that KISD officials committed various ultra vires actions. KISD and the officials filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. The KISD Defendants appealed.

It is not an ultra vires act for an official to make an erroneous decision while staying within its authority.  When an official is granted discretion to interpret the law, an act is not ultra vires merely because it is erroneous. It is only when these improvident actions are unauthorized does an official shed the cloak of the sovereign and act ultra vires.  If the conduct is based on the misinterpretation of the boundaries of his authority, it can give rise to an ultra vires claim.  As to the superintendent of schools, the Plaintiff failed to plead and support an ultra vires claim.  The superintendent could not and did not vote on the repeal and was improperly included merely because she was the head of the district.  Additionally, the Plaintiff failed to plead proper ultra vires claims against the Trustees. The vote or nonvote of an individual Trustee, by definition, cannot be an ultra vires act since their entire authority is to vote on district business.  But the Board is the body which makes the determination and it is the collective decision which is the act of KISD. Without the authorization of the Board, a single Trustee lacks the authority to repeal or reinstate the LOHE. The act of voting, or refraining from voting, by the Trustees as a collective body, was not outside the Trustee’s authority in this case.  However, as to KISD, the court held it was not immune from the Plaintiff’s suit. Sovereign immunity does not apply when a suit challenges the constitutionality or validity of a statute or other government enactment and seeks only equitable and/or injunctive relief.  And while a party cannot circumvent immunity by disguising a claim for money damages as a declaratory judgment action, immunity will not defeat a claim seeking the refund of illegally collected taxes or fees paid under duress. Further, the Plaintiff was not required to exhaust administrative remedies under the Tax Code because all questions in the lawsuit are questions of law. Finally, the Plaintiff was not barred by an election of remedies because the ultra vires claims against the officials and the claims against KISD are distinguishable and separate from one another.  As a result, the plea should have been granted as to the officials and denied as to KISD.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of Chief Justice III Morris and Justices Moseley and Burgess. Chief Justice III Morriss delivered the opinion of the court.  To see the attorneys listed for the Appellant and Appellee’s click here .