Utility properly asserted jurisdiction against LCRA officials for water right declaration

Phil Wilson , in his official capacity as general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, et al.  v. New Braunfels Utilities, 03-16-00077-CV ( Tex. App—Austin, July 22, 2016)

This is a dispute between two entities regarding water rights where the Austin Court of Appeals held the New Braunfels Utilities (“NBU”) properly pled jurisdiction to declare who owns such rights.

NBU claimed that it held “record and equitable title to the water rights originally held under Certified Filing No. 135,” that it was the “sole owner of the water rights,” that LCRA wrongfully claimed an ownership interest in the water rights, that NBU was asserting a trespass to try title claim with respect to the water rights, and that LCRA had “clouded NBU’s title to its water rights.”  Essentially, LCRA held such water rights, then transferred them to NBU, but later asserted a reverter interest. NBU sued various LCRA officials seeking to declare the different water rights.  LCRA Defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. LCRA Defendants appealed.

The LCRA officials first assert they, individually, do not claim any water rights and NBU’s claim is a contract claim against the entity. However, the court held NBU’s claims against the officials is an ultra vires claim, which is proper when addressing a title dispute. As a result, based on Texas Parks & Wildlife Dep’t v. Sawyer Trust, 354 S.W.3d 384 (Tex. 2011) NBU properly asserted jurisdiction against the LCRA officials. Additionally, even though the Supreme Court precedent regarding trespass-to-try-title claims dealt with real property, water rights and reversionary interests are property rights which can fall under the ultra vires exception to immunity. As a result, the trial court properly denied the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel includes Justice Puryear, Justice Goodwin, and Justice Field. Justice Goodwin delivered the opinion of the court.  The attorney listed for the Appellant is Mr. James N. Rader. The attorneys listed for NBU are Alan Waldrop and Mr. Ryan D.V. Greene.