Tort Claims Act: City of Houston v. Frazier, No. 01-21-00318-CV, 2022 WL 1216181 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Apr. 26, 2022) (mem. op.). Geoffrey Frazier sued the City of Houston for injuries he received after Officer Groves of HPD struck his car while responding to a call for assistance from another officer. The city filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The trial court denied the motion, reasoning that the Act waives immunity for claims arising from the operation or use of a motor vehicle. The city appealed, arguing that the waiver of immunity does not apply when a governmental employee is responding to an emergency. The appellate court held that because she was responding to the other officer’s urgent request for backup, Officer Groves was reacting to an emergency when the collision occurred, so the Act does not waive the city’s immunity.
Tort Claims Act: City of Austin v. Findley, No. 03-21-00015-CV, 2022 WL 1177605 (Tex. App.—Austin Apr. 21, 2022) (mem. op.). Erica Findley was killed by a protuberance on a passing train while walking near the train tracks. The Findleys sued the City of Austin, alleging the city was negligent in the operation and maintenance of the lighting near the tracks. The city claimed governmental immunity, arguing that the Texas Tort Claims Act does not waive immunity for claims arising from negligence in the performance of governmental functions. The trial court agreed and the Findleys appealed, arguing that the operation and maintenance of the train tracks is a proprietary function. The appellate court affirmed, holding that under these facts, the maintenance and operation of the lighting near the train tracks was a governmental function and therefore, immunity is not waived under the Act.
Employment: City of Celina v. Scott, No. 05-21-00823-CV, 2022 WL 1101589 (Tex. App.—Dallas Apr. 13, 2022) (mem. op.). Scott, the former assistant chief of police for the city, sued the city, claiming whistleblower protections after the city ultimately terminated him when he reported another employee’s potential criminal conduct to the police chief and the county sheriff. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction on the ground that Scott did not make a report to an appropriate law enforcement agency, which the trial court denied. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s denial, finding: (1) internal complaints to an entity authorized to regulate under or enforce the law (the city’s police department) can be sufficient for whistleblower protections for a police officer; and (2) Scott’s report to the county sheriff was sufficient even if the sheriff initiated the call to Scott.
Governmental Immunity/Contracts: City of Dallas v. River Ranch Educational Charities, No. 05-21-00724-CV, 2022 WL 1284168 (Tex. App.—Dallas Apr. 29, 2022) (mem. op.). The city entered into a contract with River Ranch Education Charities (RREC) for RREC to provide equine-related recreational activities at the Texas Horse Park (THP), which is part of an urban renewal plan undertaken by the city. The ordinances provided that a horse park was a private recreation club and the THP was not listed in the city’s list of public parks. The city terminated the contract for numerous violations, but RREC refused to vacate, so the city sued RREC to enjoin RREC from occupying the premises and for declaratory judgment; RREC counterclaimed. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction against the counterclaims on the grounds of governmental immunity, which the trial court denied.
Affirming the denial of the plea, the appellate court found: (1) there was a fact issue under the Wasson II factor regarding whether the city was acting primarily for the benefit of its residents; and (2) the city failed to meet the fourth Wasson II factor because it did not address whether or how its act of contracting with RREC was “essential” to a governmental action.
Contracts: San Jacinto River Auth. v. City of Conroe, No. 09-20-00180-CV, 2022 WL 1177645 (Tex. App.—Beaumont Apr. 21, 2022) (mem. op.). The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) sued the cities of Conroe and Magnolia for breach of contract associated with a groundwater reduction plan. The cities filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming governmental immunity under the Local Government Contract Claims Act. The trial court granted the motion and the SJRA appealed, arguing that the Act does not waive immunity for breach of performance. The appellate court held that by failing to attend a mediation required under the contract, SJRA had failed to comply with the Act’s requirement that contract adjudication procedures be followed before suit. Therefore, the Act did not waive the cities’ governmental immunity and the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of SJRA’s claims.
Takings/Immunity: City of Webster v. Hunnicutt, No. 14-20-00421-CV, 2022 WL 1111872 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 14, 2022). Mary Hunnicutt and Clifford Jackson are siblings who co-owned a 23.5-acre tract of land that fronted Interstate Highway 45 in the City of Webster (Webster). After Hunnicutt conveyed her interest in 4.41 acres of the property to the city for development, Hunnicutt and Jackson filed suit against Webster in the county court at law asserting a common-law inverse-condemnation claim and seeking rescission of the deed to Webster. In response, the City of Webster filed a plea to the jurisdiction claiming immunity, which the trial court denied. Webster appealed. Inverse condemnation claims are rooted in the takings clause of the Texas Constitution; therefore, a viable inverse condemnation claim is not barred by governmental and sovereign immunity. To state a viable claim, a litigant must allege (1) an intentional act by the governmental entity under its lawful authority, (2) resulting in a taking or damaging of property, (3) for public use. Because Hunnicutt’s allegations included fraud and sounded in tort rather than takings, she failed to plead a viable inverse condemnation claim, and without a viable claim, the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Additionally, because rescission is an equitable remedy rather than an independent cause of action, the failure of Hunnicutt’s pleadings to state a viable right to relief also extinguished her prayer for the remedy of rescission. Ultimately, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order and dismissed Hunnicutt’s claims for want of jurisdiction.
[Note, that Hunnicutt and Jackson filed a related case in district court on the same facts making alternative claims. You can ready of summary of that case in the March 2022 edition of Recent Cases of Interest to Cities.]
Tort Claims Act: Kownslar v. City of Houston, No. 14-19-00963-CV, 2022 WL 1151128 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 19, 2022). Jason Kownslar was severely injured in a motorcycle accident in downtown Houston when the front tire of his motorcycle got stuck in a gap between the surface of a street and a light-rail track embedded in the roadway. Kownslar sued Houston for, among other claims, negligence based on an alleged “special defect” in the roadway. Houston filed a plea to the jurisdiction claiming governmental immunity, asserting that Kownslar failed to establish that a special defect existed in the roadway sufficient to waive governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA). After a hearing on the matter, the trial court sustained Houston’s plea and dismissed Kownslar’s claims, and Kownslar appealed. A city is entitled to immunity from suit under the doctrine of governmental immunity unless governmental immunity has been waived. The TTCA provides a limited waiver of a city’s governmental immunity, in certain, narrowly defined circumstances. If Kownslar could show that the premises defect that led to the claim against Houston was a “special defect” under the TTCA, Houston would have had a duty to warn the Kownslar about the defect. While the TTCA does not define “special defect,” courts consider characteristics of the defect, such as (1) the size of the condition, (2) whether the condition unexpectedly and physically impairs a vehicle’s ability to travel on the road, (3) whether the condition presents some unusual quality apart from the ordinary course of events, and (4) whether the condition presents an unexpected and unusual danger to the ordinary users of the roadway. After reviewing the record, the appellate court determined that the alleged roadway defect was not a “special defect” under the TTCA and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Kownslar’s claims.
*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.