Note: Included cases are from February 11, 2022 through March 10, 2022.
Tort Claims Act: City of San Antonio v. Riojas, No. 20-0293, 2022 WL 495473 (Tex. Feb. 18, 2022). This is an immunity from suit case under the Texas Tort Claims Act in which the court is asked to determine whether the need-risk balancing analysis applies in use of law enforcement vehicles in routine traffic management.
Officer Tristan was driving his city patrol car when he turned on his emergency lights to warn approaching motorists of a sudden traffic slowdown that he had observed ahead. Riojas who was riding a motorcycle behind Officer Tristan’s vehicle swerved to avoid a collision but lost control and fell to the ground and sustained alleged injuries. Riojas sued the city. The San Antonio court of appeals held that the city was not immune, finding that the city failed to satisfy the good-faith prong of the official-immunity test as it was required to show that before activating his emergency lights, Officer Tristan “balanced the need he perceived [to do so] with the potential risk posed by his chosen course of action.”
The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the appellate court holding that that the need-risk balancing analysis applies only in the context of a high-speed chase or other emergency law enforcement response that carries an inherent risk of harm to the public. In a case involving routine traffic management, the court determined that the city need show only that its officer acted in good faith – that is, “a reasonably prudent officer under the same or similar circumstances, could have believed his conduct was justified based on the information he possessed when the conduct occurred.”
Tort Claims Act: City of San Antonio v. Maspero, No. 19-1144, 2022 WL 495190 (Tex. Feb. 18, 2022). This is a waiver of governmental immunity case under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) in which the Supreme Court is asked to determine the applicable standard when innocent bystanders suffer harm during a police chase.
The Masperos sustained incapacitating injuries and their two young children died when Rodriguez, a suspect who was being pursued in a high-speech chase by Officer Kory, collided with the Masperos’ vehicle. The trial court granted the city’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the case, finding that: (1) immunity is not waived under Section 101.021 of the TTCA because no nexus exists “between Officer Kory’s police car and the tragic incident;” and (2) Section 101.055 of TTCA applies because “there is no fact issue on ‘emergency situation’ or conscious indifference/reckless disregard.”
The court of appeals reversed holding that: (1) because the evidence demonstrates that Officer Kory continued to pursue Rodriguez up until his collision with the Masperos’ vehicle, the Masperos had adequately shown that their injuries “arose from” Officer Kory’s use of her patrol car under Section 101.021(1)(A); (2) TTCA’s emergency exception is inapplicable because the evidence demonstrates that Officer Kory engaged in an unauthorized chase even when she suspected she could not catch Rodriguez; and (3) Officer Kory’s violation of San Antonio Police Department procedure established an independent waiver of immunity from the Masperos’ claim for negligent implementation of policy.
The Supreme Court reversed, finding that: (1) the emergency exception to waiver of immunity under the TTCA applied to officer’s high-speed chase, and (2) no independent ground for waiver of immunity from suit exists beyond the specific waivers set forth in the TTCA.
Tort Claims Act: Manley v. Wise, No. 03-21-00120-CV, 2022 WL 548266 (Tex. App.—Austin Feb. 24, 2022) (mem. op.). Wise sued Chief of Police Brian Manley and six other Austin Police Department officers, alleging that they were responsible for injuries he suffered when he got overheated and dehydrated during cadet training. The officers filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that by suing Chief Manley in his official capacity, Wise had effectively sued both the city and its employees so that the officers were entitled to dismissal under the election-of-remedies provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act. The trial court denied the motion with respect to the individually named officers and the officers appealed.
On de novo review, the appellate court reversed and rendered judgment dismissing Wise’s claims against the officers. The court did not reach the question of whether dismissal under the election-of-remedies provision was required. Instead, determining that Section 101.106(f) of the Texas Tort Claims Act applied to the case, the court held that the officers were entitled under Section 101.106(f) to a dismissal of the claims against them because: (1) conducting cadet training was within the scope of the police officers’ employment; and (2) Wise’s suit could have been brought against the City of Austin.
Governmental Immunity: Okere v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, No. 05-20-00489-CV, 2022 WL 500026 (Tex. App.—Dallas Feb. 18, 2022) (mem. op.). The plaintiff sued the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) with numerous allegations that DART bus drivers were harassing him with communications by using their vehicles and train bells to communicate. Plaintiff’s claims included causes of actions for intentional infliction of emotion distress and public disclosure of private facts. The trial court dismissed the case on DART’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiff appealed. The appellate court affirmed, finding that the plaintiff’s claims had no basis in law and that the trial court properly granted DART’s motion to dismiss.
Defamation: Johnson v. Cullens, No. 07-21-00093-CV, 2022 WL 714074 (Tex. App.—Amarillo Mar. 7, 2022) (mem. op.). Johnson sued Cullens for defamation in her official capacity as chief appraiser of the appraisal district. The trial court granted Cullens’ plea to the jurisdiction and Johnson appealed. The appellate court affirmed, finding that the retroactive relief Johnson sought for his ultra vires claim was unavailable and therefore, Cullens was entitled to governmental immunity.
Employment; Citizens Participation Act: City of Dallas v. Ahrens, et. al., No. 10-19-00137-CV, 2022 WL 554350 (Tex. App.—Waco Feb. 23, 2022) (mem. op.). At the time this case was filed, Katrina Ahrens was a detective with the Dallas Police Department. Her husband had also been a Dallas police officer before he and four other officers were tragically killed on July 7, 2016 by a sniper while on duty. After this incident, members of the public donated money to a non-profit entity operated by the Dallas Police Association for the benefit of the families of the officers who were killed. After not receiving any benefits from the donations, Katarina reported violations of law related to the handling of the donations by her employer to an appropriate law-enforcement authority. Katrina contends that as a result of her reports of misconduct she suffered adverse personnel actions that would not have occurred otherwise. She sued the City of Dallas for retaliation under the Texas Whistleblower Act, and the city responded by filing a motion to dismiss this claim under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (“TCPA”). After a hearing, the trial court denied the city’s TCPA motion to dismiss, and the city appealed. The TCPA protects persons who associate, petition, and speak on matters of public concern from legal actions that seek to intimidate or silence them. It establishes a multi-step process for the expedited dismissal of legal actions that are based on or related to a party’s exercise of the rights of free speech, petition, or association. The Whistleblower Act prohibits a government employer from taking an adverse personnel action against a public employee who in good faith reports a violation of law to an appropriate law-enforcement authority. However, the Whistleblower Act does not afford unlimited protection from adverse personnel actions based on legitimate reasons. After reviewing the record, the appellate court concluded that Katrina made a prima-facie showing that the alleged retaliation caused her various employment-related injuries. Additionally, the appellate court determined that it could not say that the city conclusively proved that Katrina’s report did not play a role in the decision to take adverse personnel actions against her at the time that it took that action. Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that the trial court did not err when it denied the city’s TCPA motion to dismiss and overruled the city’s remaining issues.
Governmental Immunity: Hunnicutt v. City of Webster, No. 14-20-00222-CV, 2022 WL 481795 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Feb. 17, 2022). Mary Hunnicutt and Clifford Jackson were siblings who co-owned a 23.5-acre tract of land that fronted Interstate Highway 45 in the City of Webster. After Hunnicutt conveyed 4.41 acres of the property to the city for development, Hunnicutt and Jackson filed suit against the city and its Director of Economic Development, Betsy Giusto, seeking declaratory relief voiding Hunnicutt’s conveyance of the 4.41 acres, bringing an action for rescission, and asserting an ultra-vires claim against Giusto. The pleadings alleged that Giusto came to Hunnicutt’s home and made false promises and representations to Hunnicutt to induce Hunnicutt to convey her interest in the property. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction on all of appellants’ claims, which was granted by the trial court. Hunnicutt and Jackson appealed. With regard to Jackson’s claims, because he never conveyed his interest in the property, he suffered no damage and therefore had no standing to bring or maintain the claims. Consequently, the appellate court affirmed their dismissal. Because Hunnicutt could articulate alleged damage, she had standing to bring her claims but the court ultimately dismissed them on other grounds. Cities are immune from suit except where the legislature has specifically waived the immunity. Hunnicutt could not articulate a waiver for her claims for declaratory relief to determine title of the 4.41 acres previously conveyed to the city, so the claims were barred by governmental immunity. In addition to claims against the city, Hunnicutt was making claims against Guisto, arguing that she acted without legal authority. On the contrary, Guisto had the legal authority to meet with Hunnicutt regarding development plans for the area and the conveyance of the property, thus negating the ultra vires arguments. The court affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing Hunnicutt’s and Jackson’s claims.
Tort Claims Act: Rodriguez v. Duvall, No. 14-20-00402-CV, 2022 WL 619710 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Mar. 3, 2022) (mem. op.). Carlos Rodriguez appealed the trial court’s dismissal of his claims for assault, false arrest, and invasion of privacy against City of Houston police officer S.A. Duvall under the Texas Torts Claims Act (“TTCA”). Rodriguez was at a New Year’s Eve celebration at a hotel in Houston when he was injured by Duvall, who was providing security for the hotel, when Duvall detained and arrested Rodriguez for suspected narcotics violations. Duvall moved to dismiss Rodriguez’s claims against him on the grounds that even though Duvall was working as a security guard, he was discharging his duties as a police officer when he arrested Rodriguez. The TTCA includes an election of remedies provision requiring trial courts to grant a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against a governmental employee sued in an official capacity. Under section 101.106(f) of the TTCA, the governmental unit—not the government employee—must be sued for a governmental employee’s work-related tortious conduct and essentially prevents an employee from being personally sued for work-related torts. Even though Duvall was working for a private employer (the hotel) at the time of the incident, he immediately became an on-duty police officer when he saw Rodriguez attempting to conceal or destroy marijuana. Because Duvall was sued in his official capacity, he was entitled to be dismissed from the lawsuit against him personally. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
Tort Claims Act: Harris Cty. Flood Control District v. Halstead, No. 14-20-00457-CV, 2022 WL 678277 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Mar. 8, 2022). Lance Halstead, a chainsaw operator subcontracted to cut tress for the Harris County Flood Control District (“HCFCD”), was injured when a tree he was cutting in HCFCD’s right of way fell and struck him. He sued HCFCD for negligence, and HCFCD filed a plea to the jurisdiction, contending that Halstead had not established a waiver of immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”). The trial court denied the jurisdictional plea, and HCFCD appealed the order. The TTCA waives governmental units’ immunity from suit in three areas when the statutory requirements are met: (1) use of motor-driven vehicles or motor-driven equipment; (2) injuries arising out of a condition or use of tangible personal property; and (3) premises defects. Halstead alleged a premises defect in that the tree created an unsafe property condition. The court dismissed this argument because Halstead’s injuries were not created by a defect in property but rather occurred as the result of activities on the property. Additionally, the TTCA creates a waiver of governmental immunity for torts committed by the use of motor-driven equipment, but the person operating the equipment must be a government employee. Being a sub-contractor, Halstead was not a government employee; therefore, his operation of the chainsaw would not act as a waiver of governmental immunity under the TTCA. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s order denying HCFCD’s plea to the jurisdiction and rendered judgment dismissing Halstead’s claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
*Indicates case summaries taken largely from the work of the Law Offices of Ryan Henry, PLLC, and reprinted with permission from Ryan Henry. To sign up for the firm’s blog, go to www.rshlawfirm.com.