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Nehls v. Hartman Newspapers, LP

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

April 27, 2017

TROY E. NEHLS, SHERIFF, AND FORT BEND COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellants
v.
HARTMAN NEWSPAPERS, LP D/B/A FORT BEND HERALD AND TEXAS COASTER, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 240th District Court Fort Bend County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 15-DCV-225813

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Higley and Huddle.

          OPINION

          REBECA HUDDLE, JUSTICE

         Appellee Hartman Newspapers, LP d/b/a Fort Bend Herald and Texas Coaster ("Hartman") sued appellants Sheriff Troy E. Nehls and Fort Bend County, Texas under the Texas Public Information Act (PIA) and the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (UDJA) seeking: (1) an order compelling appellants to produce identifying information about the individual who filed a complaint with the sheriff's office regarding allegations of attempted bribery made by two school district trustees; (2) a declaratory judgment that Hartman is entitled to the requested information; and (3) attorney's fees. Appellants produced the requested information and filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting that the lawsuit was moot and should be dismissed. The trial court denied appellants' plea. On appeal, appellants argue that the trial court erred in denying their plea to the jurisdiction because: (1) Hartman's PIA claim is moot and (2) Hartman is not entitled to attorney's fees. We agree, and therefore we reverse the trial court's denial of appellants' plea to the jurisdiction and dismiss this case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

         Background

         On July 31, 2015, Scott Reese Willey, Managing Editor of the Fort Bend Herald, sent a request for disclosure of documents and information relating to a bribery investigation to Bob Haenel, Public Information Officer for the Fort Bend Sheriff's Office. Willey's email stated in relevant part:

Under the Texas Public Information Act § 6252-17a et seq., I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of public records that detail who requested the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office launch an investigation into the allegations of attempted bribery made by two Lamar Consolidated Independent School District trustees during the June 18, 2015 board meeting. We specifically want to know who filed a complaint, if any, which led the sheriff's office to investigate the allegations.
* * *
The Texas Public Information Act requires that you "promptly produce" the requested records unless, within 10 days, you have sought an Attorney General's Opinion.

         In a letter to Willey dated Thursday, August 13, 2015, Assistant County Attorney Matthew L. Grove asserted the requested records were "not subject to public disclosure because they contain information believed to be confidential and/or privileged by law." Grove wrote that Willey's request had been forwarded to the Texas Attorney General's Office for a determination as to whether the information must be released. On the same day, Grove also wrote Attorney General Paxton, asking whether certain records should be produced in response to Willey's request. Grove took the position that Section 552.108 of the Government Code applied, excepting the requested documents from disclosure. Section 552.108 of the Government Code provides:

(a) [i]nformation held by a law enforcement agency or prosecutor that deals with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime is excepted from the requirements of Section 552.021 if: (1) release of the information would interfere with the detection, investigation or prosecution of crime; . . .
(b) an internal record or notation of a law enforcement agency or prosecutor that is maintained for internal use in matters relating to law enforcement or prosecution is excepted from the requirements of section 552.021 if: (1) the release of the internal record or notation would interfere with law enforcement or prosecution[.]

Tex. Gov't Code § 552.108.

         Eight days later, before the Attorney General's office responded to Grove's letter, Hartman sued appellants seeking a writ of mandamus, declaratory relief, and a mandatory injunction under the PIA and UDJA. In its petition, Hartman stated that it sought to learn the identity of the individual who filed a complaint which led the sheriff's office to investigate the allegations of attempted bribery made by two Lamar Consolidated Independent School District trustees during the June 18, 2015 board meeting. In response, appellants emailed Hartman the first page of Offense Report 25-23901, which provided basic information related to the report of attempted bribery, including the names of the individuals who met with the sheriff's office.

         In October 2015, Assistant Attorney General Cristian Rosas-Grillet responded to Grove's letter. Rosas-Grillet concluded that "the release of the information at issue would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime . . . . [t]hus, with the exception of basic information, which must be released, the sheriff's office may withhold the submitted information under section 552.108(a)(1) of the Government Code."

         In January 2016, appellants filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting that they had satisfied Hartman's request for information and thus mooted the case. Appellants argued that Hartman (1) did not "substantially prevail" because the controversy was moot and thus, Hartman was not entitled to attorney's fees under the PIA and (2) was not entitled to costs of litigation or attorney's fees under the UDJA because its UDJA claim was merely incidental to Hartman's claim for relief under the PIA.

         At the hearing on appellants' plea to the jurisdiction, Hartman presented two witnesses: Fred Hartman, the vice chairman of the board of Hartman Newspapers, and Bill Hartman, the chairman of Hartman Newspapers. Both acknowledged that Hartman had received the information that was the subject of the PIA request, but contended that the information should have been disclosed without the need for a decision from the Attorney General. Bill Hartman testified that, though Hartman had never filed suit before, Hartman had problems obtaining information from the sheriff's ...


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