TOMA posting inside City Hall with a “cancelled” stamp on an agenda controlled, regardless of other agendas says 13th Court of Appeals

City of Donna, Texas, David Simmons, Jose Garza, Simon Sauceda, Irene Munoz and Sonia Gallegos v. Oscar Ramirez 13-16-00619-CV (Tex.App— Corpus Christi, November 9, 2017)

This is a Texas Whistleblower Act case where the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the City Defendants’ plea to the jurisdiction.

Ramirez, the City’s former city manager, brought causes of action against the City under the Texas Whistleblower Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”). He asserts he was terminated after he reported the Chief of Police and municipal judge for ordering him to waive certain municipal fees. He asserts the meeting where the City Council terminated him was not conducted properly under TOMA. He brought suit against the City and individual officials. The City Defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. The City Defendants appealed.

The 13th Court first addressed the TOMA violations. The City Charter had a special provision for notice and removal of the City Manager. The City Council could act to terminate at a properly posted meeting, but the City Manager had the right to request another meeting with charges. After the first meeting, Ramirez’ lawyer requested the charges and the second meeting. After it was scheduled, the lawyer requested it be reset and the City Secretary advised him it was reset. And while she provided txts to the council members about the reset and stamped “cancel” on the agenda inside City Hall, the agenda posted outside City Hall did not change.  The meeting proceeded as originally scheduled and the City Council affirmed the termination. The court held Ramirez had standing to sue under TOMA as an interested member of the public.  Under TOMA, a stamp of “canceled” tells the public the meeting would not be held. The fact the notices outside City Hall did not change did not save this defect. The language of §551.050 of TOMA specifically states a posting must exist in the City Hall.  As a result, the trial court did not err. Under the Texas Whistleblower Act, the elements of a  claim must be included in the pleadings so that the court can determine whether they sufficiently allege a violation and therefore waive immunity. The Texas Constitution states, in relevant part, that an entity may not “lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual…” Tex. Const. art. III, §§ 50, 52(a).  Additionally, while not expressly listed by statute, the factual allegations trigger various penal statutes as well, including abuse of official capacity under Tex. Penal Code §39.02(a)(West 2015). Ramirez asserts he was ordered to waive and/or discount certain bills and/or charges for certain city services, e.g., sewer and water bills, fees for pavilion rental at the city park, and/or cemetery fees. Such actions, if true, could possibly violate both the Texas Constitution and the penal code. Recognizing that Ramirez’s burden of proof at this stage does not involve a significant inquiry into the substance of his Whistleblower claim, the court held he properly pled a claim. Ramirez’s Whistleblower and TOMA claims were brought solely against the City, while Ramirez’s declaratory judgment action was brought solely against certain appellants in their individual capacities. Since the individuals cannot claim the City’s immunity as a defense for a plea, their part of the appeal is not authorized under the interlocutory appeal statute raised. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §51.014(a)(8)(West 2015).  As a result, the trial court did not err in denying the plea.

If you want to read this opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justice Valdez Justices, Conteras, and Hinojosa. Justice Hinojosa delivered the opinion of the court. To see the attorneys listed for the Appellants and Appellee click here.