Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Texas
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Mark and Birgit Self owned a tract of rural land that adjoined a portion of Farm-to-Market Road 677 in Montague County, Texas. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) had a right-of-way easement that reached fifty feet from the centerline of the road in each direction, which burdened part of the Selfs’ property. As part of a highway maintenance project, TxDOT contracted with T.F.R. Enterprises, Inc. (TFR) to remove brush and trees from the right-of-way. TFR subcontracted with Lyellco Inc. to remove the trees. Following TxDOT’s instruction to TFR to “clear everything between the fences,” Lyellco workers cut all trees up to the Selfs’ fence line, including trees that were outside the State’s right-of-way easement. The Selfs sued TxDOT for negligence and inverse condemnation.The trial court denied TxDOT’s plea to the jurisdiction, asserting immunity from both causes of action. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. It held that there was a fact issue on whether the Texas Tort Claims Act waived immunity for the negligence cause of action, but reversed the trial court’s judgment on the cause of action for inverse condemnation, holding there was no evidence that TxDOT intentionally destroyed the Selfs’ property.The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with the court of appeals. It held that the Selfs had not shown either that the subcontractor’s employees were in TxDOT’s paid service or that other TxDOT employees operated or used the motor-driven equipment that cut down the trees, as required to waive immunity under the Tort Claims Act. Therefore, the negligence cause of action was dismissed. However, regarding inverse condemnation, the court found that the Selfs had alleged and offered evidence that TxDOT intentionally directed the destruction of the trees as part of clearing the right-of-way for public use. Therefore, the cause of action for inverse condemnation was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION v. SELF" on Justia Law

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The case involves the City of Houston, which appealed a wrongful-death suit filed by the family of Dwayne Foreman, who was killed in a collision with a police cruiser. The police officers were responding to a suicide call at the time of the accident. The City argued that it was immune from the lawsuit because the officer was performing a discretionary duty in good faith and within the scope of his authority.The trial court denied the City's motion for summary judgment, and the City appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that a fact issue existed on the officer’s good faith, which precluded summary judgment.The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with the lower courts. It held that, as a matter of law, the officer was performing a discretionary duty while acting within the scope of his authority in responding to the emergency call and was acting in good faith. The court reasoned that a reasonably prudent officer in the same or similar circumstances could have believed the actions were justified. Therefore, the court reversed the lower courts' decisions and dismissed the case. View "CITY OF HOUSTON v. SAULS" on Justia Law

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The case involves two plaintiffs, Michael Grim and Jim Maynard, who were employees of the Denton Municipal Electric (DME), a local electric utility owned by the City of Denton. The plaintiffs supported the construction of a controversial new power plant, the Denton Energy Center (DEC). Keely Briggs, a member of the Denton city council, opposed the new plant and leaked internal city documents about the project to a local newspaper. The plaintiffs reported Briggs's leak of confidential vendor information, alleging it violated the Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. They claimed that this report triggered the protections of the Whistleblower Act. The plaintiffs were later fired, which they alleged was retaliation for their report about Briggs.The case was initially heard in the district court, where the city argued that the Whistleblower Act did not apply because the plaintiffs did not report a violation of law "by the employing governmental entity or another public employee." The court was not convinced, and the case proceeded to a jury trial, which resulted in a $4 million judgment for the plaintiffs. The city appealed, raising several issues, including the legal question of whether the Whistleblower Act applied in this case. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's decision.The Supreme Court of Texas reversed the judgment of the court of appeals. The court held that the Whistleblower Act did not protect the plaintiffs because they reported a violation of law by a lone city council member, not by the employing governmental entity or another public employee. The court found that the lone city council member lacked any authority to act on behalf of the city, and her actions could not be imputed to the city. Therefore, her violation of law was not a "violation of law by the employing governmental entity." The court concluded that the plaintiffs did not allege a viable claim under the Whistleblower Act, and rendered judgment for the city. View "CITY OF DENTON v. GRIM" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute between the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) and the cities of Conroe and Magnolia, Texas. The SJRA and the cities had entered into contracts obligating the cities to buy surface water from the SJRA. When a disagreement over fees and rates arose, the cities stopped paying their full balances, leading the SJRA to sue the cities for recovery of those amounts. The cities claimed immunity from the suit as government entities.Previously, the trial court had granted the cities' plea to the jurisdiction, and the court of appeals affirmed this decision. The court of appeals held that the SJRA had not engaged in pre-suit mediation as required by the contracts, and therefore, the cities' immunity was not waived.The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with the lower courts' decisions. The court held that contractual procedures for alternative dispute resolution, such as pre-suit mediation, do not limit the statutory waiver of immunity for contractual claims against local government entities. The court also found that the mediation requirement did not apply to the SJRA's claims. Furthermore, the court rejected the cities' argument that the agreements did not fall within the waiver because they failed to state their essential terms.Consequently, the Supreme Court of Texas reversed the lower courts' decisions and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings to resolve the SJRA's claims on the merits. View "San Jacinto River Authority v. City of Conroe" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute between a developer, Campbellton Road, Ltd., and the City of San Antonio, specifically the San Antonio Water System (SAWS). The developer entered into a contract with SAWS in 2003, which included an option for the developer to participate in and fund the construction of off-site oversized infrastructure for a municipal water system. The developer planned to develop two residential subdivisions and needed sewer service for them. The contract stated that if the developer decided to participate in the off-site oversizing project, a contract would form, and the developer would earn credits that could be used to satisfy some or all of the collection component of assessed impact fees.The Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas concluded that the Local Government Contract Claims Act did not apply, and therefore did not waive immunity, because there was no agreement for providing services to the system. The court held that the system had no contractual right to receive any services and would not have “any legal recourse” if the developer “unilaterally decided not to proceed.”The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with the lower court's decision. The Supreme Court held that the Act waived the system’s immunity from suit because the developer adduced evidence that a contract formed when the developer decided to and did participate in the off-site oversizing project. The court found that the contract stated the essential terms of an agreement for the developer to participate in that project, and the agreement was for providing a service to the system that was neither indirect nor attenuated. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Campbellton Road, Ltd. v. City of San Antonio" on Justia Law

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The case before the Supreme Court of Texas concerned the City of Dallas and the Employees’ Retirement Fund of the City of Dallas. The issue at hand was whether a city ordinance could confer a third party the perpetual right to veto categories of future lawmaking. The Court of Appeals held that the City of Dallas could not amend Chapter 40A of its code of ordinances unless the board of trustees of the Employees’ Retirement Fund agreed to the amendment. However, the Supreme Court of Texas found that such delegation of lawmaking authority was not permissible.The Supreme Court of Texas based its ruling on the principle that a legislative body cannot bind its successors, and on the constitutional principle forbidding the city council from giving away its authority to legislate. The court determined that the board’s veto in § 40A-35(a) was unenforceable and cannot prevent an otherwise valid ordinance from taking effect.However, the court did not resolve whether the City must hold an election that submits § 8-1.5(a-1) to the voters before it can enforce that provision. The court declined to address this question and remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for further consideration. View "THE CITY OF DALLAS v. THE EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT FUND OF THE CITY OF DALLAS" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of Texas evaluated a case in which a land development company, Bellpas, Inc., sought to detach property from one school district and annex it to another. According to the Texas Education Code, if the school boards of the affected districts disagree on the petition, the Commissioner of Education can resolve the issue in an administrative appeal. However, the Lampasas Independent School District (LISD) board neglected to approve or disapprove the petition, leading to a disagreement over whether the Commissioner of Education had jurisdiction over the administrative appeal.The Supreme Court of Texas held that the Commissioner of Education did have jurisdiction over the administrative appeal. The court reasoned that a school board "disapproves" a petition if it does not approve it within a reasonable time after a hearing, as per the plain reading of the Education Code. The court also concluded that the Commissioner did not lose jurisdiction by failing to issue a ruling within 180 days, as the statute's deadline is not jurisdictional.The case was returned to the Court of Appeals to resolve the appeal on its merits. The Supreme Court of Texas stressed that the delay in the administrative appeal process should not deprive the appellant of a decision on the merits of their petition and criticized the school board for refusing to make a decision, thus avoiding any ruling on the merits. View "MORATH v. LAMPASAS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT" on Justia Law

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In Texas, the District Attorney for the 38th Judicial District, Christina Mitchell Busbee, objected to the sale of a property that was purchased with the District's forfeiture funds and was legally owned by Medina County. The District Attorney argued that the County could not sell the property without her consent and that she was entitled to the sale proceeds. The trial court and the court of appeals ruled that the District Attorney did not have standing to make these claims because the relevant statute, Chapter 59, authorizes only the Attorney General to enforce its terms. The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed, holding that the question of whether the District Attorney was authorized to sue under Chapter 59 did not pertain to her constitutional standing to sue, but rather to the merits of her claims. The Court concluded that the District Attorney did have constitutional standing to sue because she had alleged a concrete injury traceable to the County's conduct and redressable by court order. The case was remanded back to the trial court to consider the County's additional jurisdictional challenges. View "BUSBEE v. COUNTY OF MEDINA, TEXAS" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals affirming the order of the trial court dismissing Duncan House Charitable Corporation's application for a charitable organization exemption, holding that the court of appeals erred in concluding that Duncan's failure to timely apply for later exemption precluded it from receiving that exemption even if it ultimately qualified for an earlier exemption.For the 2017 tax year, Duncan applied for a charitable tax exemption covering its fifty percent ownership interest in a Houston historic home. The appraisal district denied the exemption, and the review board denied Duncan's ensuing protest. Duncan filed for judicial review. Thereafter, although Duncan House never applied for the charitable exemption for the 2018 tax year, it protested the district's 2018 appraisal on the grounds that the district court to apply the charitable exemption. The review board denied the protest. Duncan then amended its trial court petition to challenge the denial of the 2018 exemption. The trial court dismissed the 2018 claim for want of jurisdiction, and the court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the court of appeals erred in holding that Duncan's failure to timely apply for the 2018 exemption precluded it from receiving that exemption even if it ultimately qualified for the 2017 exemption. View "Duncan House Charitable Corp. v. Harris County Appraisal District" on Justia Law

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In these two consolidated cases involving claims brought against the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc. (ERCOT) the Supreme Court answered, among other questions, that ERCOT is a governmental unit as defined in the Texas Tort Claims Act and is thereby entitled to pursue an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction.CPS Energy sued ERCOT and several of its officers for, inter alia, breach of contract. The trial court denied ERCOT'S plea to the jurisdiction. Ultimately, the court of appeals held that ERCOT was a governmental unit entitled to take an interlocutory appeal. In the second case, Panda sued ERCOT for, inter alia, fraud. The trial court denied ERCOT's pleas to the jurisdiction. The court of appeals ultimately held that ERCOT was not entitled to sovereign immunity. The Supreme Court affirmed in the first case and reversed in the other, holding (1) ERCOT was entitled to pursue an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction; (2) the Public Utility Commission of Texas has exclusive jurisdiction over the parties' claims against ERCOT; and (3) ERCOT was entitled to sovereign immunity. View "CPS Energy v. Electric Reliability Council of Texas" on Justia Law