Trial court had jurisdiction to determine if certain jobs should be classified as civil service, but not to award backpay

City of Amarillo, Texas, et al. v. Nathan Sloan Nurek and Michael Brandon Stennett, 07-17-00120-CV (Tex. App. Amarillo — March 21, 2018)

This is a civil service lawsuit where the Amarillo Court of Appeals reversed-in-part the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

In Amarillo, firefighter positions have civil service protection and firefighters are contained within the Fire Supersession Department. However, positions in the Amarillo Fire Marshall’s Office (“FMO”) have traditionally been treated outside the protection. Nurek and Stennett were the highest scoring individuals on the promotional exams for positions of an Investigator I (equivalent rank of lieutenant) and Investigator II (equivalent rank of captain) within the FMO. When they were not offered the positions, they sued to declare the positions subject to civil service protection (and therefore eligible for placement via promotional exam). They also sought instatement in the positions and the backpay. The City and the officials sued, filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. They appealed.

Immunity bars a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration of the government’s liability for money damages.  However, that only addresses the Plaintiffs’ claim for backpay. The court held jurisdiction exists for the trial court to examine the City’s failure to classify firefighter positions within the FMO as civil service positions.  Under §180.006 of the Texas Local Government Code, immunity is waived “for claims to recover monetary benefits that are authorized by a provision of…” the Act. However, the claims asserted do not specify the sections which would authorize the payment in the Plaintiffs’ pleadings. “While appellees may prove to be right regarding appellants’ erroneous classification of FMO positions outside of the civil service, it is clear that appellees have not affirmatively pled facts demonstrating that their claims for monetary benefits are authorized by a provision of the Civil Service Act.”  Further, the pleadings do not differentiate between acts of the City and any alleged ultra vires acts of individual officials. Nothing indicates where the City Manager is responsible for civil service job classification. The failure to allege enough jurisdictional facts to demonstrate the trial court’s jurisdiction gives rise to a right to amend the pleadings unless the jurisdictional defect may not be cured by repleading. As a result, part of the plea should have been granted and part was proper to deny, but amended pleadings should be ordered.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Quinn, Justice Campbell and Justice Parker. Opinion by Judge Parker. The attorneys listed for the City Defendants are William M. McKamie, Bettye Lynn and Bryan McWilliams.  The attorney listed for the Plaintiffs is Matt Bachop