Texas Supreme Court holds navigation district retains immunity from suit by State, but ultra vires claims against commissioners can proceed to trial

Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District, et al. vs. State of Texas, 17-0365 (Tex. May 10, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a sovereign immunity/regulatory control case where the Texas Supreme Court held the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District (“District”) retained immunity from suit against the claims brought by the State of Texas. However, the District’s commissioners were not immune from the ultra vires claims.

The District leased part of a navigation stream to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, LLC (“STORM”) for specific oyster production. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (“Department”) asserted the Department had exclusive authority to regulate oyster production in Texas and sued the District to invalidate a lease issued to STORM.  In the 1950s, the State of Texas conveyed more than 23,000 acres of submerged land to the District, which has become prime for oyster cultivation. After the lease was issued to STORM, the company sent no-trespass notices to holders of any oyster-production permits. These permits authorize a holder to “plant oysters and make private beds in public waters.”  STORM claimed exclusive use of the leased submerged land. While the District agrees the water above the submerged land belongs to the State, it asserts it owns the fee simple in the land and can lease its exclusive use. The Department sued the District to invalidate the lease and individual District commissioners for ultra vires acts associated with the lease. The Department also sought monetary damages for “restitution.” The District and commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was partially denied.

The Court first addressed the Department’s claim for monetary damages. It held that Under §311.034 of the Government Code (Texas Code Construction Act), the use of the term “person” in a statute does not waive immunity.  And while the Parks and Wildlife Code allows the Department certain rule-making authority, the Department cannot waive immunity by rule which is not contained within the statute.  Since nothing in the applicable Parks and Wildlife Code waives immunity, no waiver for declaratory and monetary claims exists. The Department cannot circumvent the immunity by labeling a claim for monetary damages as “restitution.”    Next, the Court held an ultra vires claim cannot be brought against the District. However, it can be brought against the commissioners. The Court held the Department properly pleaded that the commissioners acted beyond their lawful authority by entering into the lease. The statute creating the District provided it with “rights, privileges and functions” but only those conferred by law. Unlike a home-rule municipality, which gets its power from the Texas Constitution, the District is a creature of statute and must look to the Legislature for its authority. Considering the entire regulatory system as a whole, the Court held the powers of the District are limited to navigation. While the statute allows the District to lease land and regulate marine commerce, the question of whether oyster cultivation qualifies may be precluded when comparing the exclusive power granted to the Department. The Department shall regulate the taking and conservation of fish, oysters, and other marine life. The ultra vires claims against the commissioners to prospectively enjoin the lease are permitted to go forward.  However, the Court was careful to explain that its holding only allows the State’s claims to go to trial, not whether the State will ultimately win on the present facts.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here.  Opinion by Justice Blacklock. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.