Recent Texas Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from November 1, 2023, through November 31, 2023.

Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act: City of Kemah v. Joiner, No. 01-23-00105-CV, 2023 WL 8041040 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Nov. 21, 2023) (mem. op.). Carl Joiner, the former mayor of the City of Kemah, sued the city for a declaratory judgment compelling the city to release the results of an investigative report relating to Joiner’s conduct in a renovation and expansion project for city hall and related infrastructure. Joiner, as mayor, saw the report but the city chose not to release the report to the public. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming governmental immunity and challenging Joiner’s standing to sue. The trial court denied the plea and the city appealed.

The appellate court reversed and remanded, giving Joiner an opportunity to replead. The appellate court held that: (1) the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act provides a waiver of immunity only for challenges to the validity of an ordinance or statute; (2) The Texas Open Meetings Act provides a waiver of immunity only for suits brought by mandamus or injunction; and (3) the Public Information Act provides a waiver of immunity only for suits brought by a district or county attorney or the attorney general. Therefore, Joiner had not met his burden to show a waiver of immunity.

Employment Law: Leonard v. City of Burkburnett, No. 02-22-00266-CV, 2023 WL 7210339 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Nov. 2, 2023) (mem. op.).  Following his termination of employment as a police officer with the city, Leonard filed a lawsuit against the city and two city officials, alleging the following claims: (1) denial of his rights without due course of law; (2) denial of equal protection under the law; (3) denial of his right to free speech; (4) denial of his right to freely associate and assemble; (5) wrongful termination; (6) denial of his right to petition; (7) violation of section 617.005 of the Government Code; (8) civil conspiracy; (9) official oppression by the two officials; and (10) violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Leonard sought declaratory relief, injunctive relief, mandamus relief, and attorney’s fees, but he expressly denied “seeking money damages.” The city filed pleas to the jurisdiction, requesting dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The trial court granted the pleas, and Leonard appealed.

The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part.  The court remanded the following claims to the trial court: (1) that the city violated Leonard’s rights to free speech and assembly by wrongfully terminating his employment because of his support of civil-service implementation at the police department and related involvement in the police association; and (2) that one of the city officials failed to comply with Chapter 614 of the Government before terminating Leonard’s employment. The court also remanded the case so that Leonard may be given the opportunity to replead his equal-protection and due-course-of-law claims and the claim that he is entitled to additional rights pursuant to the “formal appeal procedure” delineated in the city’s personnel handbook. The court affirmed the remainder of the trial court’s judgement.

Tort Claims Act/Takings: Voorhies v. Town of Hollywood Park, No. 04-22-00658-CV, 2023 WL 7171494 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Nov. 1, 2023) (mem. op.). Plaintiffs sued the city claiming: (1) the city did not use land dedicated “for recreational purposes only” for recreational purposes because it generated revenue by leasing the facility to private individuals for weddings, parties, and other events; and (2) the city’s use of the land diminished the value of plaintiffs’ property. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction because its operation of a park was a governmental function and the challenged actions did not constitute a taking of the plaintiffs’ property. The trial court granted the plea and the plaintiffs appealed.

The appellate court affirmed and determined: (1) the city’s decisions about how, when, and by whom the property may be used are discretionary as part of an enumerated governmental function in operating a civic or community center; (2) the plaintiffs’ claims did not state a taking because they did not allege the noise rendered their home unusable or affected their property in a unique way different from the community as a whole; (3) plaintiffs’ claims for declaratory relief failed because they only alleged the city violated their own noise ordinances, not that an ordinance was invalid; and (4) the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the deed restriction on the city’s property.

Elections: Rodriguez v. Rangel, No. 04-23-00099-CV, 2023 WL 7474976 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Nov. 13, 2023). This case arises from an election dispute where Rodriguez received six more votes than Rangel in an election for city council. At trial, the court ruled that seven votes for Rodriguez were illegally cast and declared Rangel the winner. Rodriguez appealed. The appellate court addressed numerous challenges to the trial evidence and affirmed all but one of the trial court’s findings.

Contracts: Travis Cnty. Mun. Util. Dist. No. 10 v. Waterford Lago Vista, LLC, No. 07-23-00182-CV, 2023 WL 8042570 (Tex. App.—Amarillo Nov. 20, 2023) (mem. op.). A developer entered into an agreement with the municipal utility district (MUD) to provide for construction of water, sewer, and drainage facilities to serve property owned by the developer and it included rights to reimbursement for costs of the project. The developer defaulted on its loan and on foreclosure, the rights ultimately were assigned to Waterford. Waterford requested reimbursement under the agreement, which the MUD denied because it argued the terms of the agreement regarding assignment were not followed. Waterford sued and the MUD filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing there was no waiver of sovereign immunity under Local Government Code Sections 271.151 and 271,152. The trial court denied the plea and the MUD appealed.

In affirming the trial court’s denial, the appellate court found: (1) prior cases with similar facts found that sovereign immunity was waived when a governmental entity agrees to reimburse a developer for costs associated with projects like the one in this case and the contract fell into a contract for “goods and services”; and (2) the MUD’s argument that Waterford did not have standing to sue was really a capacity to seek reimbursement issue, not a standing issue.

Morris v. City of Midland, No. 11-22-00209-CV, 2023 WL 8262750 (Tex. App.—Eastland Nov. 30, 2023). Paula Morris was fined by the city of Midland’s municipal court for multiple city ordinance violations including: (1) illegally parking a trailer or recreational vehicle in a residential area; (2) holding garage sales in excess of what was allowable; and (3) accumulating debris on her property. After failing to pay all the court ordered fines and continuing to violate city ordinances, the city sought a temporary injunction, permanent injunction, and civil penalties in district court. After a number of continuances, the trial court granted the city’s request for a temporary injunction, but Morris continued to violate city ordinances and the temporary injunction. Thereafter the city filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the city’s motion and entered a final judgment for a permanent injunction. Morris subsequently appealed. Morris claimed, among other things, that: (1) the permanent injunction was unconstitutionally vague and violated Rule 683 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure; (2) the city failed to make a showing of irreparable harm and the lack of an adequate remedy at law; and (3) the city’s nuisance ordinance was invalid.

The court held that because Morris failed to raise her constitutional claim and did not present any objections to the city’s nuisance ordinance at trial, she waived appellate review on these issues. To Morris’s claim that the permanent injunction violated Rule 683, the court clarified that the rule is only applicable to temporary injunctions. However, the court disagreed that the permanent injunction was unclear, and determined that the injunction clearly stated which activities she was enjoined from committing. Lastly, because the city offered ample evidence that Morris had repeatedly violated city ordinances and caused irreparable harm to her neighbors’ use and enjoyment of their property, the court upheld the trial court’s permanent injunction.

Whistleblower Act: City of Valley Mills v. Chrisman, No. 13-22-00144-CV, 2023 WL 7851699 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi–Edinburg Nov. 16, 2023) (mem. op.). Chrisman and Troxell sued the City of Valley Mills under the Whistleblower Act, claiming they were terminated in retaliation for making a police report alleging that city officials stole their deer feeders that they had installed on city property. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction claiming governmental immunity, which the trial court denied. The city appealed.

The appellate court reversed, holding that because Chrisman and Troxell knew that personal deer feeders were not permitted on city property, they could not show that the police report they made was in good faith. Therefore, their Whistleblower Act claim failed and the city’s governmental immunity was not waived.

Tort Claims Act: City of Corpus Christi v. Rios, No. 13-21-00414-CV, 2023 WL 7851900 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi–Edinburg Nov. 16, 2023) (mem. op.). Rios sued the City of Corpus Christi under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) after she was injured in a traffic accident involving a stolen city police vehicle driven by a suspect who had been placed under arrest and left inside the vehicle. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that it was protected by governmental immunity, which the trial court denied. The city appealed.

The appellate court reversed and rendered judgment, holding that the officers were performing a discretionary function when they arrested the suspect and placed him in the vehicle, so the officers were entitled to official immunity. Therefore the city’s governmental immunity had not been waived.

Immunity: Edney v. City of Waco, No. 13-22-00152-CV, 2023 WL 8270628 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi–Edinburg Nov. 30, 2023) (mem. op.). Edney sued the city of Waco claiming an illegal search and seizure after he was arrested at a mall for trespass and illegal carrying of a weapon. The city filed a motion to dismiss and a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming governmental immunity for the city and official immunity for the police officers who arrested Edney. The trial court granted the city’s motion to dismiss and the city’s plea to the jurisdiction, reasoning that the city’s governmental immunity had not been waived for Edney’s claim.  Edney appealed the trial court’s grant of the city’s motion to dismiss.

The appellate court affirmed, holding that on appeal Edney had only challenged the trial court’s grant of the city’s motion to dismiss and did not challenge the trial court’s grant of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction. Because both dispositive motions relied on the city’s governmental immunity, the appellate court could not reverse the trial court regardless of whether the grant of the motion to dismiss was proper.