Ecclesiastical abstention bars suit v. private school

The Fifht Court granted mandamus relief against a lawsuit about a student’s discipline by a private school, based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The Court’s thorough analysis observes: “We acknowledge that the dispute does not expressly concern religious doctrine in all respects. But we also note that [In re: St. Thomas High School, 495 S.W.3d 500, 506 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2016, orig. proceeding). and [In re: Vida, No. 04-14-00636-CV, 2015 WL 82717, at *2 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Jan. 7, 2015, orig.
proceeding) (mem. op.)] did not do so either. St. Thomas involved the expulsion of a student based on the school handbook. Vida concerned age requirements in the school’s policy manual. And as the St. Thomas court observed, ‘exclusive focus on the presence or absence of an express dispute concerning religious doctrine demonstrates an unduly narrow conception of [the doctrine’s] applicable protections.'” In re Episcopal School of Dallas, No. 05-17-00493-CV (Oct. 11, 2017). The opinion also reviews and rejects a challenge to the mandamus petition based on the doctrine of laches.

Lottery Liability Litigation

lotteryIn one of the more unlikely topics for litigation, an upset player of the Texas Lottery sued for the amount she believed she should have won had the ticket accurately described the rules. The answer will never be known,TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphic however, because Fifth Court concluded that the defendant (a contractor to the Lottery Commission), was entitled to sovereign immunity as if it was the Commission. The Court noted the limited discretion given to the defendant and the detailed oversight of it by the Commission. Nettles v. GTECH Corp., No. 05-15-01559-CV (July 21, 2017) (mem. op.) (applying Brown & Gay Engineering v. Olivares, 461 S.W.3d 117 (Tex. 2015)).

Perhaps conspirators, but not jurisdiction-creators.

Plaintiff sued two insurance companies, headquartered out-of-state, who produced evidence that their business was limited to out-of-state activity. As to an allegation that the companies and their agents met in Torontconspiracyo where they “conspired to forge [Plaintiff’s signature,” the Court reminded that “the assertion of personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant may not be based solely upon the effects or consequences of an alleged conspiracy with a resident in the forum state.” Friend v. Acadia Holding Corp., No. 05-16-00286-CV (April 27, 2017) (applying Nat’l Indus. Sand Ass’n v. Gibson, 897 S.W.2d 769, 773 (Tex. 1995)).

For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for the appellee

bellsA useful reminder about timeliness appears in Duchouquette v. McWhorter, in which the appellant filed a late notice of appeal within the 15-day grace period, but neglected to move for leave to extend the deadline. In addition to dismissing the appellant’s appeal, the Fifth Court dismissed the cross-appeal noticed 8 days after the appellant’s: “[T]he Court does not have jurisdiction over a cross-appeal where the original notice of appeal is untimely.” No. 05-17-00041-CV (March 13, 2017) (mem. op.)

Claims to stop payment to Paxton prosecutors moot and still not ripe—no jurisdiction.

Paxton Mug Shot

The Dallas Court of Appeals was pulled into one of the wide-ranging disputes concerning the prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, this one concerning the payment of private attorneys appointed to prosecute Paxton. The Dallas Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction because the claims were moot and were not yet ripe.

Attorneys were appointed to prosecute Paxton after the Collin County Criminal District Attorney recused his office. The appointed attorneys were to be paid $300 per hour, which was more than fixed $1000 for most court appointed attorneys for indigent defendants under the Collin County local rules, which also apply to appointed prosecutors. However, the local rules also provided “Payment can vary from the fee schedule in unusual circumstances or where the fee would be manifestly inappropriate because of circumstances beyond the control of the appointed counsel.”

On December 11, 2015, the appointed prosecutors sought an interim payment of $254,908.85 from Collin County. Three weeks later, Collin County taxpayer Jeffory Blackard sued seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction preventing payment, asserting that as a taxpayer he had standing to seek to enforce the local rules fixing most fees at a flat $1000. The Collin County judge recused himself, and the taxpayer suit was assigned to County Court at Law No. 5 in Dallas County.

A week after Blackard filed his taxpayer suit, the presiding judge over the criminal prosecution, a Tarrant County judge, approved the payment of the request for interim fees and ordered that the fees be presented to the Collin County Commissioner’s Court for payment. The next day, Blackard filed a supplemental application for temporary restraining order in the Dallas County taxpayer suit, which was denied one day later. Three days after that, only one month after the initial request for interim fees was made, the Collin County Commissioners Court voted to pay. Blackard then filed an amended petition seeking injunctive relief preventing any future requests for attorney’s fees by the appointed prosecutors. The County Court at Law determined that it lacked jurisdiction and granted the defendants’ pleas to the jurisdiction. Blackard appealed.

The Dallas Court began its analysis by noting that mootness and ripeness are threshold issues that implicate subject matter jurisdiction. Rendering opinions under either circumstance violates the prohibition against rendering advisory opinions because such cases present no justiciable controversy.

The Dallas Court held that Blackard’s claims relating to the interim fees were moot because the fees had already been paid and, under Texas law, taxpayers have standing only to seek to enjoin future payments, not to recover funds that have already been paid. Blackard asserted on appeal that his claims fell within the exception to mootness for claims “capable of repetition, yet evading review” because the appointed attorneys stipulated that they anticipated submitting future invoices. But the Dallas Court rejected that exception, which “applies only in rare circumstances.” It noted that the exception had previously only been used to challenge unconstitutional acts performed by the government, and held that the process by which fees would be requested in the future provided sufficient time for Blackard to seek judicial review prior to payment, pointing to the month between the initial request for interim fees and payment.

In addition, the Dallas Court held that claims relating to future invoices were not yet ripe. While it was stipulated that additional fees would be requested, it was not stipulated that the additional requests would be for $300 an hour or otherwise would be inconsistent with the Collin County fee schedule. So the Dallas Court concluded there was no live controversy concerning future requests for fees.

Blackard v. Attorney Pro Tem Kent A. Schafer, et al.

Appealed too soon –

toosoonA classic example of a “too soon” appeal appears in Bolden v. Fidelity Nat’l Title: “In the original petition, appellee sought both damages for breach of warranty of title and attorney’s fees. The trial court signed a default judgment awarding damages for TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicbreach of warranty of title. The default judgment is silent as to appellee’s claim for attorney’s fees. Because the claim for attorney’s fees remains pending, the judgment is not final.” No. 05-16-00398-CV (Oct. 14, 2016) (mem. op.)

Rare bird sighting – a writ of prohibition

rare birdTexas’s far-flung and complicated court system produces a stream of litigation about conflicts between different jurisdictions. In Enexco v. Staley, the Fifth Court took the unusual step of granting a writ of prohibition against a district court in Nacogdoches County, finding that “the Nacogdoches proceeding must be stayed to prevent interference with this Court’s jurisdiction in deciding this pending appeal.” No. 05-15-01047-CV (June 21, 2016) (mem. op. & order)

When is appealing a justice court judgment to county court not so appealing? When it causes damages to more than triple the $10,000 jurisdictional maximum “due to the passage of time.”

Edwards Sims paid A-1 $5,000 for an engine he claimed was faulty, and A-1 refused to provide a refund. Sims filed a petition in justice court seeking total damages of about $7000, within the $10,000 jurisdictional limit. After A-1 failed to appear for trial, the justice court entered a judgment for $7155.

A-1 then appealed the judgment to county court. Sims amended his petition to seek additional damages, including rental fees incurred due to the passage of time, and attorney’s fees in county court. After A-1 failed to respond to requests for admission, which were deemed admitted, county court entered a judgment for $35,730, including $21,206 in damages, including additional damages “due to the passage of time,” and $14,384 in attorney’s fees.

On appeal, A-1 claimed that the county court’s judgment exceeded the jurisdiction maximum of $10,000 for small claims cases. The court of appeals recognized that when a case is originally filed in justice court and is appealed to the county court, the county court’s appellate jurisdiction is also restricted to the $10,000 maximum. But the court held that additional damages accrued “due to the passage of time” do not deprive the court of jurisdiction. The damages incurred after the justice court judgment and the attorney’s fees incurred in county court were due to the passage of time. Thus, the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed a $35,730 judgment on a claim that when filed was subject to a $10,000 jurisdictional maximum.

A-1 Parts Stop, Inc. v Sims

Gun Deal Gone Bad

An opinion denying mandamus relief features one of the more awesome opening sentences in recent history:

“This case involves a gun in exchange for the design of a website deal gone badly.”

Who could have foreseen this becoming problematic? In any event, Thoroughbred Rifles, LLC failed to deliver the rifle promised for the design of its website, so Thomas King filed suit in a Harris County justice court for damages of less than $10,000. Thoroughbred subsequently filed suit in Collin county for damages between $100,000 and $200,000. The district court denied King’s plea in abatement and motion to transfer to Houston, and the Court of Appeals denied King’s mandamus petition. Because Thoroughbred’s damages exceeded the jurisdiction of the Harris County justice court, that court could not acquire dominant jurisdiction over them, making transfer of the claims impossible.

Good on Justice Schenck for the epic opening.

In re King, No. 05-15-01035-CV

Remind Me Again Why Anyone Would Ever Contract With a Government Body In Texas?

After a bidding process, TXU entered into a contract with Fort Bend I.S.D. in 2010 to supply electricity for one year. The following year, the parties extended the contract period to 2014. But in 2012, the school district decided not to continue purchasing electricity because the extension has not been competitively procured as required by the Texas Education Code. TXU sued, but the trial court granted the school district’s plea to the jurisdiction based on governmental immunity. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Because the extension had not gone through a competitive bidding process, it was not “authorized by statute,” and therefore there was not waiver of governmental immunity under the Local Government Contract Claims Act.

TXU Energy Retail Co. L.L.C. v. Fort Bend Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 05-14-01515-CV