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Premier Learning Academy, Inc. v. Texas Education Agency

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

June 8, 2017

Premier Learning Academy, Inc., Appellant
v.
Texas Education Agency; Mike Morath, in his Official Capacity as the Texas Commissioner of Education; and John Sawyer, in his Official Capacity as Conservator for Premier Learning Academy Inc., Appellees

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 345TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-GN-16-004259, HONORABLE TIM SULAK, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Field and Bourland

          OPINION

          Scott K. Field, Justice.

         After appellant Premier Learning Academy, Inc. (Premier[1]) received unacceptable academic performance ratings for three consecutive school years, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) informed Premier that it would not renew Premier's charter and appointed conservators. When Premier tried to pay off several debts using state funds, a conservator refused to allow payment. Premier sued the TEA and its commissioner, Mike Morath, in his official capacity.[2] The TEA and Commissioner Morath filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted. In four appellate issues, Premier contends that the trial court erred in granting the plea and dismissing Premier's claims. We will affirm the trial court's order granting the plea to the jurisdiction.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed. In 2011, the TEA issued Premier a charter to operate an open-enrollment charter school in La Marque, Texas. See Tex. Educ. Code § 12.101(a) (providing that TEA commissioner "may grant a charter on the application of an eligible entity for an open-enrollment charter school"). As a charter school, Premier received Foundation School Program (FSP) funds from the State. See id. § 12.106. FSP funds are "public funds" and "are held in trust by the charter holder for the benefit of the students of the open-enrollment charter school." Id. § 12.107(a)(1), (2).

         Premier received unacceptable academic performance ratings for the 2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015 school years. In November 2015, the TEA notified Premier that it was revoking Premier's charter and that it would not renew Premier's charter when it expired on July 31, 2016. The TEA also appointed a management team composed of three conservators, one of whom was John Sawyer. Sawyer directed Premier to "make final payments to all creditors" by August 1, 2016. He also directed Premier to "transfer all remaining FSP funds" to the TEA by September 15, 2016.

         On July 12, 2016, Premier's board of trustees met and approved the use of remaining FSP funds to pay off the following debts:

• $34, 710.47 owed under a multi-year utility contract for power;
• $500, 000 owed under a multi-year campus lease; and
• $90, 000 owed as a severance package for the superintendent under a multi-year employment contract.

         It is undisputed that Premier accrued these debts while operating a charter school. It is also undisputed that Premier lawfully received the FSP funds that it wished to use to pay these debts. Sawyer, as a TEA-appointed conservator, denied approval of the board's proposals.

         On September 6, 2016, Premier sued the TEA and Commissioner Morath. In its original petition, Premier sought declarations under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act that Premier may use its remaining FSP funds to meet its contractual obligations and that the TEA does not have the authority to "take possession" of or "assume control" of Premier's bank account that holds the FSP funds. Premier also asserted ultra vires claims against Commissioner Morath and sought a temporary restraining order and a temporary and permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants from taking control of, or restricting Premier's access to, its bank accounts. Premier attached to its petition an affidavit of Richard Sickmiller, Premier's "Board President."

         The TEA and Commissioner Morath filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that Premier lacked standing to raise its claims and that sovereign immunity barred Premier's claims. The trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction without explaining its decision. This appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "Sovereign immunity from suit defeats a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction and thus is properly asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction." Texas Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004); see Engelman Irrigation Dist. v. Shields Bros., Inc., 514 S.W.3d 746, 751 (Tex. 2017) ("In Houston Belt and Miranda, we held that sovereign immunity concerns jurisdiction and therefore 'is properly asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction.'"). "Where, as here, evidence is presented with a plea to the jurisdiction, the court reviews the relevant evidence and may rule on the plea as a matter of law if the evidence does not raise a fact issue on the jurisdictional question, a standard that generally mirrors the summary-judgment standard." Harris Cty. Flood Control Dist. v. Kerr, 499 S.W.3d 793, 798 (Tex. 2016) (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227-28). "Appellate courts reviewing a challenge to a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction review the trial court's ruling de novo." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228.

         This case requires us to interpret the Texas Education Code. We review questions of statutory construction de novo. See First Am. Title Ins. Co. v. Combs, 258 S.W.3d 627, 631 (Tex. 2008). When construing a statute, our primary objective is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. See id. at 631-32; Texas Ass'n of Acupuncture & Oriental Med. v. Texas Bd. of Chiropractic Exam'rs, No. 03-15-00262-CV, 2017 WL 672455, at *4 (Tex. App.-Austin Feb. 17, 2017, no pet.). In determining legislative intent, we begin with the statute's words. See TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. v. Combs, 340 S.W.3d 432, 439 (Tex. 2011). Where the statutory text is clear, it is determinative of legislative intent, unless enforcing the plain meaning of the statute's words would lead to absurd results. See Entergy Gulf States, Inc. v. Summers, 282 S.W.3d 433, 437 (Tex. 2009); see also BankDirect Capital ...


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