Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin
THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 345TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT
NO. D-1-GN-16-004259, HONORABLE TIM SULAK, JUDGE PRESIDING
Chief Justice Rose, Justices Field and Bourland
K. Field, Justice.
appellant Premier Learning Academy, Inc.
(Premier) 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. 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.
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).
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,
12, 2016, Premier's board of trustees met and approved
the use of remaining FSP funds to pay off the following
• $34, 710.47 owed under a multi-year utility contract
• $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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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