Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from August 11, 2023, through August 31, 2023.

Takings, Immunity: St. Maron Properties, L.L.C. v. City of Houston, No. 22-20019, 2023 WL 5346633 (5th Cir. Aug. 21, 2023). The plaintiffs owned property (the “Property”) in the City of Houston that had previously been used by the city as a dumping ground for debris and construction material. As a result, the land was elevated, and the ground was compacted and unable to soak up rainwater. When it would rain, water from the property would flow into the backyards homes in a neighboring subdivision. After years of neighborhood complaints, the city took action to remediate the drainage issues, ultimately suing the Property’s owners for injunctive relief on behalf of the neighbors. The city obtained a permanent injunction which, among other things, ordered the Property’s owners to remediate the flooding issues in the neighborhood, which, according to the opinion, would have required the Property’s owners to trespass onto their neighbor’s property. After the Property’s owners failed to fix the issues, the city entered the Property to attempt to remediate the watershed issues there. Allegedly, the city’s actions to try to remediate the issues have not fixed the watershed issues, have resulted in repeated flooding and vermin infestations of the Property, and deprived the landowners of their property. In turn, the owners of the Property sued the city, accusing Houston’s mayor, city council, and city attorney of orchestrating a plan to use their vacant lots for dumping construction materials, causing frequent flooding. This, they allege, was done without their consent, compensation, or due process. Their case against the city invokes several constitutional grounds including the Takings Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause, along with state law tort and statutory claims. Initially, the district court dismissed both the state law claims – citing sovereign immunity – and the federal § 1983 claims, stating they did not meet the criteria for municipal liability as per Monell v. Department of Social Services, a precedential case, and the owners appealed.

Federal Claims

Section 1983 serves as a mechanism to vindicate federal rights, allowing individuals to hold cities accountable in case of violations of rights secured by the constitution.

The Monell doctrine is applied to determine the liability of the city. To make a claim under this doctrine, the plaintiffs need to prove: (1) the existence of an official policy, (2) created by the municipal policymaker, (3) which was the driving force behind the constitutional violation. In this case, the court acknowledged that the criteria for an official policy as defined by Monell were met because the decisions made by the city were clear acts of government policy. The plaintiffs present various instances demonstrating that the mayor and city council actively and deliberately chose a particular course of action, thus establishing an official policy. Moreover, they argue that the mayor and city council were the final policymakers in this matter, as defined by the city charter, and were responsible for directing and endorsing the actions taken by the city departments. Further, the plaintiffs claimed that there was a direct causal link between the municipal policy and the alleged violations of constitutional rights, emphasizing the infringement of rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Fifth Amendment claim is based on the unlawful taking of their properties without just compensation, whereas the Fourteenth Amendment claim focuses on the violation of procedural due process and equal protection rights. They argued that the city used an unjust injunction to intrude and alter their properties, depriving the Property owners of their due process rights by failing to notify them or allow them an opportunity to defend themselves against the injunction.

Consequently, the Fifth Circuit concludes that the plaintiffs have adequately detailed each element required for a Monell claim, indicating that the district court made an error in dismissing the § 1983 claims previously.

State Claims:

Sovereign immunity generally protects cities from lawsuits seeking monetary damages. Whether immunity attaches can be influenced by whether the city was acting in a governmental or proprietary capacity, with the latter generally not protected by immunity. Generally speaking, a city’s proprietary functions are those conducted in its private capacity, for the benefit only of those within its corporate limits, and not as an arm of the government, while its government functions are in the performance of purely governmental matters solely for the public benefit. The plaintiffs contend that Houston was acting in a proprietary capacity when it was representing the neighborhood group. However, the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) clearly lists “sanitary and storm sewers” as governmental functions, which the court recognizes as decisive in classifying the actions of the municipality as governmental, thereby negating the plaintiffs’ argument for a waiver of immunity. Alternatively, the plaintiffs argue that Houston waived immunity by involving itself in litigation to assert claims for monetary damages. Yet, the cited precedent establishes only a narrow exception to sovereign immunity for counter-claims to negligence suits filed by government entities, and the court held that this narrow exception did not apply in this case. Furthermore, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss claims for negligence and other intentional torts (trespass and civil conspiracy) under the TTCA, as the TTCA only provides limited waivers which do not encompass the types of claims brought forth by the plaintiffs.

In conclusion, the district court’s dismissal of the state tort and statutory claims against Houston was affirmed, but the dismissal of the § 1983 claims against Houston was reversed and remanded for further consideration.