Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from April 1, 2024, through April 30, 2024.

Religious Freedom: Perez v. City of San Antonio, 98 F.4th 586 (5th Cir. 2024). Gary Perez and Matilde Torres, members of the Lipan-Apache Native American Church, sued the City of San Antonio over a park development plan at Brackenridge Park. They alleged the plan interfered with their ability to conduct religious ceremonies, as it involved the removal of trees and the management of bird populations which are integral to their religious beliefs. They claimed violations of the Free Exercise Clause, the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA), and the Texas Constitution. The district court granted limited injunctive relief allowing access for certain ceremonies but denied broader requests to halt tree and bird management activities. Perez and Torres appealed and filed an emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal. The appellate court determined the request for injunction to restore access for routine personal worship was moot since the city had already removed obstructions allowing access. The court also found that the city’s tree and bird management plans did not substantially burden the plaintiffs’ religious practices. The city demonstrated a compelling governmental interest in its park management plans, including public safety and environmental protection, and successfully demonstrated that the tree and bird management plans are integral to the park’s continued structural and environmental management and narrowly tailored to achieve these interests without excessively infringing on religious practices. With regard to the injunction request, the plaintiffs failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits for their claims under the Free Exercise Clause, TRFRA, and Texas Constitution; consequently, the court denied their emergency motion.

Building Codes:  Schnell v. State Farm Lloyds, 98 F.4th 150 (5th Cir. 2024). The roof of Carl and Mary Ellen Schnell’s home experienced damage in a hailstorm. The roof was covered with tiles that were no longer available on the market; consequently, their homeowners association required a full roof replacement to ensure proper aesthetics, leading the Schnells to file a claim with their homeowner’s insurance policy holder, State Farm. The policy included coverage for increased costs due to enforcement of building codes (“Option OL”). After an appraisal, State Farm paid for direct physical losses but denied the building code upgrade costs, stating that the HOA’s requirements did not constitute “enforcement” under Option OL. The Schnells ultimately sued State Farm, with the district court subsequently granting summary judgment in favor of State Farm. The Schnells appealed.

Of interest to cities, a determination by Evan Roberts, the Fort Worth Building Code Administrator, was central to the appeal. Roberts indicated that if the new tiles could not interlock with the existing, undamaged tiles, this would cause improper water drainage, and the roof would not meet the city’s building code requirements. The appellate court focused on whether Roberts’s decision constituted a building code enforcement under the insurance policy. The Fifth Circuit vacated the summary judgment holding that genuine issues of material fact existed about whether Roberts’s position constituted “building code enforcement” triggering a full roof replacement and whether State Farm’s payment was delayed under the Texas Prompt Payment of Claims Act and remanded the case to district court for further proceedings.

Civil Rights: Castro v. Kory, No. 23-50268, 2024 WL 1580175 (5th Cir. Apr. 11, 2024). Jose Castro, a delivery driver, was awakened and arrested by San Antonio police officers while napping in his truck during a work break. The officers suspected Castro of wrongdoing but found no evidence of any criminal activity after searching his truck and personal effects. Castro sued the officers for violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, claiming unlawful seizure, illegal search, excessive force, and failure to intervene. The district court granted the officers qualified immunity on the initial seizure but denied it concerning the prolonged arrest, the truck search, the use of excessive force, and failure to intervene. The officers appealed these denials. The Fifth Circuit reviewed the denial of qualified immunity. The court accepted Castro’s version of facts as true for the purpose of this appeal and assessed whether the officers’ actions violated clearly established constitutional rights.

The appellate court reversed the district court’s decision in part and affirmed in part. It reversed the district court and granted qualified immunity on the prolonged arrest claim. The court noted that even though the officers detained Castro for about 45 minutes post-clearance of the scene, such detention did not constitute a significant restraint on liberty that would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, as Castro was arrested with probable cause. The court affirmed the denial of qualified immunity on the illegal search claim. It rejected the applicability of the search-incident-to-arrest and inventory search exceptions, noting that Castro was not within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search and that the search was conducted for investigatory rather than inventory purposes. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity for the excessive force claim. It emphasized that the officers used disproportionate force, including pointing firearms at an unarmed and confused Castro who posed no credible threat to their safety. The court also affirmed the denial of qualified immunity on the failure to intervene claim, noting that the officers had the opportunity and obligation to prevent the constitutional violations but did not act.

Civil Rights; Employment: Anderson v. Harris Cnty., 98 F.4th 641 (5th Cir. 2024). Marcus Anderson and Reed Clark, current and former employees of Harris County, filed a § 1983 lawsuit against Harris County, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated by Constable Christopher Diaz, who allegedly made employment decisions based on the employees’ participation in and contributions to his election campaign. The district court dismissed the claims, ruling that Diaz was not a policymaker for Harris County; therefore, the county could not be held liable under § 1983 for his actions. The court affirmed that a constable serving a single precinct, like Diaz, does not have policymaking authority over employment-related decisions for the entire county. As such, Diaz’s actions did not represent official county policy. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Harris County could be liable under a delegation or rubber-stamp theory. It found no evidence that the county delegated authority to Diaz to make county-wide employment decisions or that the Harris County Commissioners Court rubber-stamped Diaz’s decisions. Finally, the court held that Diaz’s alleged violations of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights did not implicate Harris County because there was no county policy or custom endorsing such violations. Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the claims against Harris County, agreeing that Diaz was not a county policymaker and his actions did not reflect county policy or custom.

Civil Rights: Dawes v. City of Dallas, No. 22-10876, 2024 WL 1434454 (5th Cir. Apr. 3, 2024). Genevieve Dawes and Virgilio Rosales were sleeping at an apartment complex in a parked vehicle that had been reported stolen. City of Dallas police officers approached the vehicle, which was boxed in by other cars and fences. After failing to see inside due to fogged windows and mistakenly believing the vehicle was unoccupied, officers were surprised to find it occupied. They demanded that Rosales and Dawes show their hands, but they started the vehicle and it began to move forward and in reverse. Two officers opened fire, and Genevieve Dawes was fatally shot. Rosales and Dawes’ estate filed excessive force suits against the two officers and the City of Dallas, and the officers prevailed on qualified immunity grounds at summary judgment. The plaintiffs appealed. For its qualified immunity analysis, the Fifth Circuit focused on whether the officers violated a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time. Ultimately, the court upheld the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the officers, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity as no clearly established law was violated. This decision was based on the specifics of the confrontation, including the presence of a reportedly stolen vehicle, the nighttime setting, the officers’ warnings, and the immediate circumstances leading to the use of deadly force. The court emphasized the high threshold for overturning qualified immunity, noting that plaintiffs must point to specific precedent showing a clear violation under similar circumstances, which they failed to do. With regard to the case against the City of Dallas, that was remanded to the trial court for further consideration, suggesting that the district court may need to reassess or expand on its findings regarding the city’s potential liability under different theories, such as failure to train or municipal liability.