Third Court of Appeals holds church’s motion for new trial in water rate EDJA case held valid given unique and troubling circumstances in case

City of Magnolia v Magnolia Bible Church, et al., 03-19-00631-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, Dec. 18, 2020)

This is an interlocutory appeal from an order granting a new trial and denying a plea to the jurisdiction in a water rate case in which the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of new trial and the denial of the City’s plea.

This case involves the interplay between the provisions of the Expedited Declaratory Judgment Act (“EDJA”)(which deals with public securities), the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and the constitutional principles of due process. The City adopted an ordinance relating to the City’s water-system rates. In addition to residential and commercial accounts, the ordinance created a new category of water user, the “Institutional/Non-Profit/Tax-Exempt accounts,” which, among others, covered churches.  The Churches opposed the new category and surcharge as being discriminatory under the Tax Code and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TXRFRA”).  The City preemptively filed a validation suit under the EDJA to validate the bonds and rates tied to the bonds, but only notified the public through newspaper publications. It did not expressly notify the church of the suit. The trial court granted the City’s validation of the rates. The Church later filed a regular Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (“UDJA”) claim asserting the rates were discriminatory. When the City informed the Church of the final judgment under the EDJA claim, the church filed a motion for new trial in the EDJA trial court (under Tex. R. Civ. P. 329). The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting the trial court lost plenary power over the case.  The trial court denied the plea and granted the motion for new trial. The City appealed.

Chief Justice Rose held that due process does not require personal service in all circumstances, but any use of substituted notice in place of personal notice—e.g., notice by publication—must be “reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.” Notice by publication is insufficient when the name, address and interest are known.  The EDJA empowers an issuer of public securities to seek an expedited declaratory judgment concerning “the legality and validity of each public security authorization relating to the public securities,” including, as relevant here, the legality and validity of “the imposition of a rate, fee, charge, or toll.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 1205.021(2)(E). Ordinarily, notice by publication satisfies due process as to the parties bound by an EDJA judgment because the EDJA permits only in rem declarations concerning property rights and is notice to the public. However, in this case, the church challenged the application under religious freedom grounds.  Due process, therefore, requires more than notice by publication. Because notice to the Churches was constitutionally insufficient, the resulting judgment was void and can be challenged at any time. Justice Trianna took a slightly different approach, using the text of the EDJA and holding that it does not conflict with Rule 329 (allowing a new trial for persons who did not receive notice) and Rule 329 extends the plenary power of the court for a certain period of time.  Since the Church met the time periods under Rule 329, it was within the trial court’s discretion to grant or deny the motion or new trial.

Justice Baker’s dissent holds that such an interpretation undermines the intent of the EDJA which is to quickly decide the issue then preclude future claims from any other person who challenges the rate and bond applications.   He asserts Rule 329 only applies when a defendant (not an interested person) does not appear after service by publication.

If you would like to read the various opinions, Chief Justice Rose’s concurring opinion is here, Justice Trianna’s concurring opinion is here, and Justice Baker’s dissent is here.