Recent Texas Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from July 11, 2022 through August 10, 2022.

Employment: Pruett v. City of Galena Park, No. 01-20-00521-CV, 2022 WL 2673238 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] July 12, 2022) (mem. op.). Pruett, a long-time employee of the City of Galena Park, sought severance pay after he resigned his position, relying on a 2015 city ordinance that provided for severance benefits to certain long-term employees. The city filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the ordinance did not by itself create a contract for severance pay. The trial court granted the city’s motion and Pruett appealed.

The appellate court affirmed, agreeing with the trial court that the ordinance did not entitle an employee to severance benefits, but instead required a separate agreement between the city and an employee. Because the agreement between Pruett and the city was void and unenforceable, Pruett was not entitled to severance benefits.

Contracts: A Status Constr. LLC v. City of Bellaire, No. 01-21-00326-CV, 2022 WL 2919934 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] July 26, 2022) (mem. op.). The City of Bellaire hired A Status Construction to repair and improve two city streets. After delays caused by faulty engineering reports provided by the city, A Status sued for damages under the Local Government Contract Claims Act. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming governmental immunity and the trial court granted the plea. A Status appealed.

The appellate court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that: (1) because A Status had alleged a breach of contract and was suing for damages under the contract, the LGCCA waived the city’s immunity to suit; (2) A Status’s claim under the Prompt Payment of Claims Act was not barred because although the act does not waive immunity to suit, it does waive immunity to liability; and (3) even though the city provided faulty engineering reports before the contract took effect, the claim sounds in contract rather than tort.

Tort Claims Act: City of Houston v. Musyimi, No. 01-21-00670-CV, 2022 WL 2919724 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] July 26, 2022) (mem. op.). Musiyimi sued the City of Houston for personal injury after a city police cruiser struck the vehicle he was driving was struck from behind. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming that because Musiyimi had not complied with the notice requirements of Section 101.101 of the Texas Tort Claims Act, governmental immunity had not been waived. The trial court denied the city’s motion and the city appealed.

The appellate court reversed and rendered judgment in favor the city, holding that: (1) because Musiyimi did not provide formal notice by the deadline provided in the TTCA, the city would have had to have actual notice of his personal injury claim for governmental immunity to be waived under the act; (2) the city’s knowledge of Musiyimi’s property damage claim was not sufficient to constitute actual notice of his personal injury claim.

Tort Claims Act: City of Houston v. Villafuerte, No. 01-21-00517-CV, 2022 WL 2976233 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] July 28, 2022) (mem. op.). TheVillafuertes sued the City of Houston for injuries they received during a four-car pileup that occurred after an ambulance driven by a city employee struck another vehicle. The Villafuertes did not provide their formal notice until after the 90-day notice period required by the city charter and the Texas Tort Claims Act. The city moved for summary judgment, claiming that governmental immunity was not waived because the Villafuertes had not complied with the requirements of Section 101.101 of the TTCA and the city did not have actual notice of the Villafuertes’ injuries. The trial court denied summary judgment and the city appealed.

The appellate court reversed and rendered judgment in favor of the city, holding that: (1) the time to serve the city with notice under the charter and the TTCA began to run at the time the injury occurred, not at the time the plaintiff sought treatment for the injury; (2) the Villafuertes’ statement to the ambulance driver that they were injured did not constitute actual notice in the absence of evidence that the driver was an agent or representative of the city with a duty to investigate; and (3) the city’s knowledge of the Villafuertes’ property damage claim was not sufficient to constitute actual notice of their personal injury claim.

Inverse Condemnation: Prestonwood Estates W. Homeowners Ass’n v. City of Arlington, No. 02-21-00362-CV, 2022 WL 3097374 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Aug. 4, 2022) (mem. op.). This case stems from an inverse condemnation and tort claims act suit for an intentional breach of a dam by the city pursuant to a local disaster declaration.

A homeowners association and its members (collectively, Homeowners) sued the city for inverse condemnation and under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) for an intentional breach by the city of the Prestonwood Lake Dam and alleged resulting damage to residential lots along Prestonwood Lake, which is upstream from the dam. The breach was pursuant to a mayoral emergency order issued in response to severe weather and flooding that threatened injury and property damage due to the possibility of a dam breach on Prestonwood Lake. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that the Homeowners had failed to plead and cannot establish facts to support a viable takings claim because: (1) the city’s breaching the dam was an exercise of its police and emergency powers under the “doctrine of necessity” and was thus not a taking for public use under the city’s eminent-domain authority; (2) the city lacked the requisite intent; and (3) the city’s actions did not proximately cause the Homeowners’ damages. The trial court granted the plea, and the Homeowners appealed.

The appellate court determined that: (1) it was improper for the city to raise the “necessity doctrine” in its jurisdictional plea because it is a defense that the city must prove; (2) the Homeowners pled sufficient facts to allege that when the city intentionally breached the damage, it knew that the damage to the Homeowners’ property was substantially certain to result from the act; and (3) the Homeowners did not plead sufficient facts to allege that the city’s deliberately breaching the dam was the cause in fact of their damages.  Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s order with the exception of proximate causation, and remanded to the trail court to allow the Homeowners the opportunity to replead.

Declaratory Judgment: City of Conroe v. Attorney Gen. of Tex., No. 03-21-00137-CV, 2022 WL 2898445 (Tex. App.—Austin July 22, 2022). The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) had contracts to sell water to the cities of Conroe, Magnolia, and Splendora (the cities) and used the proceeds from those contracts to pay off its bonds. The contracts were the result of a groundwater reduction plan initiated by the legislature called Lone Star, which required groundwater-usage cutbacks by large-volume groundwater users. After the cutbacks took effect, cities challenged them as unconstitutional and outside the scope of Lone Star’s statutory authority. They adopted resolutions accusing SJRA of overcharging for water in violation of the contract, questioning the SJRA’s authority to set rates and the rate order, and refusing to make payments to SJRA under the contract. In response, the SJRA sought declaratory judgments under Texas Government Code Sections 1205.001-.151, the Expedited Declaratory Judgment Act (EDJA), which allows issuers of bonds and other public securities to resolve disputes in an expedited manner. After the district court rendered judgment in favor of SJRA, the cities appealed the order arguing the court lacked jurisdiction to make the requested declarations because “SJRA’s claims did not seek declarations as to the ‘legality and validity’ of a ‘public security authorization,’ but instead sought to litigate what were essentially suits on contracts and were, therefore, beyond the scope of the EDJA.” On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed that the groundwater reduction plan contracts were legally and validly executed by SJRA, but denied SJRA’s declaratory relief claim that SJRA has contractual authority to issue rate orders because declaratory judgments under the EDJA are limited to the legality and validity of a contract as a matter of law, not conclusions about the meaning or general effect of any of the contract terms.

Jurisdiction: Ryerson v. City of Plano, No. 05-21-00344-CV, 2022 WL 2680613 (Tex. App.—Dallas July 12, 2022) (mem. op.). After the city of Plano seized Helen Ryerson’s pets and a municipal court judge denied her motion for redemption of the impounded animals divesting her interest in them, she appealed the decision to the county court at law, which affirmed the municipal court’s order. In her appeal, among other arguments, she claimed the municipal court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute, and the county court at law, by failing to state the reasons for his ruling against her, violated Government Code Section 30.00014(a). The court of appeals concluded that because the city had an ordinance addressing animals, which it took judicial notice of, the municipal court of record of the city of Plano possessed jurisdiction pursuant to Government Code Sec. 30.00005(d)(2). However, because Government Code Section 30.00014(a) does require the county court to “set forth the reasons for its decision” and did not, the court reversed the judgment and remanded the case to the trial court.

Special Use Permits: City of Dallas v. Trinity E. Energy, LLC, No. 05-20-00550-CV, 2022 WL 3030995 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 1, 2022) (mem. op.). The city of Dallas appealed a judgment that awarded Trinity East Energy damages as a result of the city failing to approve special use permits (SUPs) necessary for drilling gas wells in the city resulting in a regulatory taking of its rights to produce minerals under oil and gas leases within the city. The city argued the evidence at trial was insufficient to support a finding of a regulatory taking because although the city denied Trinity’s SUPs, this did not deprive Trinity of all beneficial use of its property as it had other drill sites from which it could have accessed. In addition, Trinity could have drilled on sites that it already had SUPs for or sought SUPs for other sites within the city. However, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment reasoning that the evidence presented could have led a factfinder to reasonably believe that none of the other drill sites were viable or feasible for economically developing Trinity’s mineral property. In addition, the court concluded the evidence supported the jury’s finding of the fair market value of Trinity’s property before and after the denial of the SUPs.

Tort Claims Act: City of El Paso v. Pina, No. 08-20-00159-CV, 2022 WL 3161947 (Tex. App.—El Paso Aug. 8, 2022). Maria Pina sued the City of El Paso (El Paso) alleging she sustained personal injuries when an automatic gate on city property closed on her vehicle as she was attempting to drive through. El Paso filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity, which was denied by the trial court. El Paso appealed. Texas cities enjoy immunity from liability and lawsuit for personal injuries unless immunity has waived by statute. The Texas Tort Claims Act contains immunity waivers for premises liability cases where a claimant can prove that the city acted with (1) willful, wanton or grossly negligent conduct, or (2) had actual knowledge of an unreasonably dangerous condition and failed to either correct the condition or warn the claimant of the condition. In this case, Ms. Pina failed to provide evidence that the automatic gate created an unreasonably dangerous condition, so the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order, granted El Paso’s plea to the jurisdiction, and dismissed the case.

Contracts: Triple B Services, LLP v. City of Conroe, No. 09-21-00096-CV, 2022 WL 2720451 (Tex. App.—Beaumont July 14, 2022) (mem. op.). Triple B Services sued the City of Conroe for breach of contract and violations of the Texas Public Prompt Pay Act, alleging contract damages due to conditions that were different from what was described in the bid documents on a project to construct and widen a city road. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming that its governmental immunity was not waived for the claim because the claim was not for damages owed under the contract and therefore did not meet the limitations set forth in the Local Government Contract Claims Act (LGCCA). The trial court granted the city’s plea and Triple B appealed, arguing that the trial court’s admission of evidence and testimony in a purely jurisdictional hearing was in error.

The appellate court affirmed, holding that because the LGCCA limits the type of damage claims for which governmental immunity is waived, the trial court’s consideration of evidence and testimony to determine the type of damages sought was proper.

Employment: City of Houston v. Garner, No. 14-20-00688-CV, 2022 WL 2678850 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] July 12, 2022) (mem. op.). Madison Garner was hired as a cadet with the Houston Fire Department and was later terminated during his probationary period for allegedly showing a pattern of failure during the evaluation process. Garner sued the City of Houston (Houston) alleging racial discrimination and a hostile work environment. Houston responded with a motion for summary judgment arguing immunity and that, for several reasons, Garner failed to state a prima facie case for either racial discrimination or a hostile work environment. Houston’s motion was denied by the trial court, which Houston appealed. To establish a prima facie case of race discrimination, an employee must show, among other things, that they (1) are a member of a protected class and (2) were either replaced by someone outside the protected class, or that others outside the protected class were treated more favorably. Garner did not allege facts that he was replaced by someone outside his protected class and failed to raise a fact issue regarding the treatment of others outside his class. The appellate court also analyzed the elements of a hostile work environment, finally concluding that the conduct Garner complained of was neither extreme nor did it affect the terms and conditions of his employment; therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order and rendered judgment granting Houston’s motion for summary judgment.

Tort Claims Act: City of Houston v. Sauls, No. 14-20-00485-CV, 2022 WL 3009469 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] July 29, 2022). Dwayne Foreman was killed while riding a bicycle when he was struck by a City of Houston (Houston) police vehicle. Mr. Foreman’s mother, Catrennia Sauls, sued the Houston, and Houston responded by filing a motion for summary judgment arguing immunity from suit. Houston contended that because the officer was protected by official immunity, Houston would, in turn, be protected by governmental immunity. Additionally, Houston argued that because the officer was responding to an emergency, the emergency exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act barred any immunity waiver. The trial court denied Houston’s motion, and Houston appealed. Because Houston’s immunity rested on the officer’s immunity, the appellate court analyzed whether the officer driving the vehicle acted in good faith during the performance of his duties. After a lengthy analysis of good faith, the court concluded that Houston failed to demonstrate good faith, based in large part on the officer’s failure to turn on his sirens and lights while driving 20+ miles over the speed limit. The court also overruled Houston’s assertion of the emergency exception. The facts which had been alleged surrounding the handing of the call by dispatched as well as the officers’ conduct after receiving the call showed that material fact questions exist with regard to whether this call was, in fact, an emergency. Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order denying Houston’s motion for summary judgment.