Recent Texas Cases of Interest to Cities

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

Contractual Immunity: San Jacinto River Auth. v. City of Conroe, No. 22-0649, 2024 WL 1590001 (Tex. Apr. 12, 2024). This case looks at the scope of the statutory waiver of immunity under Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code (Chapter 271) for contractual claims against local government entities.

At issue were contracts that obligated two cities to buy surface water from a river authority. When a dispute over fees and rates arose, the cities stopped paying their complete balances, and the authority sued the cities to recover those amounts. The trial court granted the cities’ plea to the jurisdiction, and the court of appeals affirmed on the ground that the authority did not engage in pre-suit mediation as the contracts required. The river authority petitioned for review.

The Supreme Court held that neither the contractual procedures for alternative dispute resolution, which are enforceable against local governments under Section 271.154 of the Local Government Code, serve as limits on the waiver of immunity set out in Section 271.152, nor does the parties’ agreement to mediate apply to the authority’s claims. The Court also rejected the cities’ alternative argument that the agreements did not fall within the waiver because they failed to state their essential terms. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings to resolve the authority’s claims on the merits.

Contractual Immunity: Campbellton Rd., Ltd. v. City of San Antonio by & through San Antonio Water Sys., No. 22-0481, 2024 WL 1590000 (Tex. Apr. 12, 2024). A property developer, which owned 585 acres within city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, brought a breach of contract and declaratory judgment action against the city by and through the city’s water utility, arising from utility’s agreement with the developer that the utility would provide sewer service for proposed residential developments on the developer’s property. The trial court denied the city’s plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. On appeal, the San Antonio Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding Chapter 271 of the Local Government Code (Chapter 271) did not apply to waive the city’s immunity. The developer filed a petition for review.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that the following supported waiver of the city’s sovereign immunity under Chapter 271: (1) the developer sufficiently pleaded that a written, bilateral contract was formed; (2) the developer sufficiently pleaded that a written, unilateral contract was formed; (3) the contract terms contemplated that the utility had a right to the developer’s participation in the project upon contract signing, as would support waiver of city’s sovereign immunity under the Chapter 271; (4) the contract terms contemplated provision of payment to the developer; and (5) the developer sufficiently pleaded that the contract contemplated provision of services to the utility, as required to trigger waiver of sovereign immunity.

Employment: Harris Ctr. for Mental Health & IDD v. McLeod, No. 01-22-00947-CV, 2024 WL 1383271 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Apr. 2, 2024) (mem. op.). McLeod sued the Harris Center for Mental Health & IDD for disability discrimination under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). She alleged that the Harris Center retaliated against her after she decided not to accept an offer to accommodate her disability by transferring to a different clinic. She also claimed Harris Center failed to accommodate her request for consistent lunch breaks. The Harris Center filed a plea to the jurisdiction claiming governmental immunity, a response raising various defenses to McLeod’s claims, and a motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied Harris Center’s plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment, and Harris Center appealed.

The appellate court reversed, holding that: (1) the Harris Center was a governmental entity under the TCHRA and therefore was entitled to immunity; and (2) because McLeod did not raise a fact issue regarding whether she engaged in a protected activity for her retaliation claim, her claims did not fall under the TCHRA’s waiver of immunity.

Employment: Tex. Woman’s Univ. v. Casper, No. 02-23-00384-CV, 2024 WL 1561061, (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Apr. 11, 2024). This case presents an issue of first impression: whether, under the election-of-remedies provision in the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA), a plaintiff who has filed a federal action based on allegedly unlawful employment practices is barred from filing a duplicative TCHRA complaint even if she abandons her earlier-filed federal action.

Texas Woman’s University (TWU) argued yes and filed a plea to the jurisdiction. Casper contended that the election-of-remedies provision bars a TCHRA complaint only if the earlier-filed federal action remains pending or has been resolved. The trial court denied TWU’s plea.  TWU filed an interlocutory appeal.

The appellate court determined that under the plain language of the TCHRA’s election-of-remedies provision, an “initiated” federal action is what triggers the prohibition on filing a duplicative TCHRA complaint. Because Casper did not dispute that she “initiated” her federal action before filing her TCHRA complaint, and because she did not dispute that both challenged the same allegedly unlawful employment practices, the court reversed the trial court’s order.

Tort Claims Act: City of Springtown v. Ashenfelter, No. 02-23-00204-CV, 2024 WL 1792380 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Apr. 25, 2024) (mem. op.).  Kalie Ashenfelter sued the City of Springtown after she was involved in an automobile collision with a city police officer. The city appealed the trial court’s denial of its combined motion for no-evidence and traditional summary judgment, asserting that it was entitled to immunity based on (1) the police officer’s official immunity and (2) the emergency exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act’s (TTCA) waiver of immunity. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order denying the city’s combined motion concluding that the city was not entitled to a no-evidence summary judgement and that evidence attached to the city’s traditional motion for summary judgement raised a fact issue as to whether governmental immunity was waived.

Employment: Mendoza v. City of Round Rock, No. 03-23-00235-CV, 2024 WL 1642920 (Tex. App.—Austin Apr. 17, 2024) (mem. op.). In 2019, Irma Mendoza retired from the city of Round Rock in lieu of termination after the city conducted an internal investigation into complaints it had received about Mendoza. Claiming the city’s action against her involved age discrimination in violation of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA), she filed an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After reviewing the charge, the EEOC notified Mendoza it would not investigate further and issued her a right-to-sue letter dated June 10, 2020. In its letter, the EEOC noted it had received her administrative charge on June 2, 2020. Then, on June 9, 2022, Mendoza sued the city. In response, the city filed a plea to the jurisdiction claiming governmental immunity, arguing Mendoza’s lawsuit was untimely as she failed to file her lawsuit within two years of submitting her charge to the EEOC. The district court granted the city’s plea, and Mendoza appealed thereafter. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the court of appeals concluded that although Mendoza claimed a discrepancy with the date on the EEOC letter, there was sufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that Mendoza’s administrative charge was submitted to the EEOC on June 2, 2020, and by filing her lawsuit on June 9, 2022, she failed to strictly satisfy the TCHRA procedural requirements.

Tort Claims Act: City of Austin v. Kalamarides, No. 07-23-00400-CV, 2024 WL 1422741 (Tex. App.—Amarillo Apr. 2, 2024) (mem. op.). The plaintiff sued the city for injuries he suffered in a car accident with a city police officer who was responding to an emergency call. The plaintiff claimed his light was green and that the police officer did not have lights or sirens on. The city claimed the officer did have the vehicle’s lights and sirens activated. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on the “emergency exception.” The trial court denied the plea.

On appeal, the court reversed and rendered judgment in favor of the city. The court found the city retained its immunity under the emergency response exception because record did not reveal a fact issue as to whether the officer acted in a way that posed a high degree of risk or serious injury to others when responding to an emergency. The video evidence capturing the minutes preceding the collision confirmed that as the officer entered the intersection, she was proceeding slowly, with her vehicle’s lights and siren activated.

Immunity: City of Dallas v. Ahrens, No. 10-23-00315-CV, 2024 WL 1573388 (Tex. App.—Waco Apr. 11, 2024 (mem. op.). Following a sniper shooting that resulted in the death of five Dallas police officers, the city contracted with a charitable organization, Assist the Officer Foundation (ATO), to process and distribute mail, including checks and cash, received by the city for the benefit of the families of the officers who were killed.  Believing that ATO mishandled the funds, and because ATO refused to release cash they claim to be legally entitled to, Katrina Ahrens and her children sued ATO, the city and others seeking damages in connection with the city’s handling of donations sent to the city after her husband’s line of duty death.

In its plea to the jurisdiction, the city contended that it was immune from suit arising out of its governmental functions. The city specifically asserted that the complained-of activities, its handling of mail sent to the city, fell within the governmental function of police protection and control. The trial court denied the plea, and the city appealed.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order, finding when the city entered into an agreement with ATO it engaged in a proprietary function.

Tort Claims Act: City of Houston v. Taylor, No. 14-22-00629-CV, 2024 WL 1403949 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 2, 2024) (mem. op.). Percy Taylor sued the City of Houston after being involved in a collision with a city ambulance. The city claimed immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act, arguing that the ambulance was responding to an emergency, which if proven, exempts the city from liability. The trial court denied the city’s motion for summary judgment and plea to the jurisdiction. The Texas Tort Claims Act may waive immunity for injuries caused by the operation of motor-driven vehicles unless the injury arises from actions taken during emergency responses. The question in this case was whether the ambulance was actively responding to an emergency when the collision occurred. The evidence presented showed conflicting accounts of the situation. The ambulance driver indicated that they were transporting a critically ill patient with possible sepsis to the hospital under emergency conditions with lights and sirens activated. Contradictory testimony and a Houston Fire Department incident report suggested that the patient was stable and that the transportation was at the patient’s choice, without emergency lights and sirens. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that factual disputes about the emergency status of the ambulance trip precluded summary judgment. The court concluded that the trial court correctly denied the city’s plea to the jurisdiction and MSJ.

Tort Claims Act: City of Houston v. Caro, No. 14-23-00319-CV, 2024 WL 1732278 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 23, 2024) (mem. op.). Lucy Caro, a flight attendant, was injured at Bush Intercontinental Airport, which is owned by the City of Houston, when she slipped on water beneath an air conditioning vent. In response to Caro’s lawsuit, the City of Houston filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. On appeal, the city challenged the trial court’s denial of its plea to jurisdiction, arguing that it did not have actual knowledge of the hazard, and thereby maintained its immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The court evaluated whether the City of Houston had actual knowledge of the hazard. Evidence showed longstanding issues with condensation at the airport, which were known to city staff. Despite prior observations of water accumulation and temporary remediation measures, no permanent solution was implemented, and no warning signs were present at the time of Caro’s fall. The appellate court held that evidence of the city’s awareness of the recurring condensation issue, combined with the specific observations made by city staff shortly before Caro’s injuries, established a fact issue regarding the city’s knowledge of the dangerous condition. The court also found fact issues regarding whether Caro knew about the hazard and whether the city failed in its duty of care. Ultimately, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that the evidence raised sufficient fact issues to deny the city’s plea to the jurisdiction, allowing Caro’s suit to proceed against the City of Houston for her injuries. The case was remanded for further proceedings concerning the city’s knowledge and the adequacy of its remedial actions.

Charter; Property Tax: Jones v. Whitmire, No. 14-23-00550-CV, 2024 WL 1724448 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 23, 2024). The dispute centers on whether the City of Houston’s City Council correctly allocated ad valorem tax revenues to the Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal Fund (Drainage Fund) as mandated by the city’s charter. Taxpayers James Robert Jones and Allen Watson contested that the city council underfunded the Drainage Fund by applying incorrect methodology to calculate the required allocation. The city disagreed, resulting in lengthy litigation. Houston’s Charter requires an allocation to the Drainage Fund based on proceeds from $0.118 per $100 of the city’s ad valorem tax levy, adjusted for debt service for certain bonds. The Taxpayers argued that the city council allocated significantly less than what was required, while the city council contended that their allocation methodology was aligned with the charter and influenced by another charter provision which limits growth in tax revenue collections (Revenue Cap). After the case was escalated to the Texas Supreme Court and remanded back, the trial court ruled in favor of the city. The Taxpayers appealed, disputing the council’s methodology, arguing that it deviated from the charter’s directives. The appellate court in this case sided with the Taxpayers, determining that the city’s methodology of allocating funds to the Drainage Fund was incorrect. The court ruled that the full 11.8 cents per $100 of taxable property value should be allocated to the Drainage Fund before deducting debt service obligations, and without the application of the Revenue Cap to the allocation formula. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision, instructed the city to follow the charter’s explicit allocation formula, and enjoined the city from using an incorrect methodology. The Taxpayers’ request for mandamus relief was denied as they obtained an adequate remedy by appeal.