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Jefferson County v. Stines

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

June 22, 2017

JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellant
v.
VICTOR STINES, Appellee

          Submitted on June 16, 2016

         On Appeal from the 136th District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. D-197, 552

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Kreger and Johnson, JJ.

          OPINION

          CHARLES KREGER Justice

         Appellant Jefferson County, Texas appeals from two orders of the trial court denying its plea to the jurisdiction and granting appellee Victor Stines's request for a declaratory judgment and writ of mandamus to compel the County to submit to arbitration. In five issues, the County argues that: (1) Stines failed to plead and prove a valid waiver of the County's immunity from suit; (2) the trial court erred in concluding that the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act waives the County's immunity from suit; (3) Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code does not waive the County's immunity from suit; (4) the County did not waive its immunity by entering into or accepting benefits under the parties' collective bargaining agreement; and (5) the trial court erred by finding that Stines timely invoked his right to arbitration under that agreement. The County also challenges Stines's standing to bring suit. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the trial court's order denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction, vacate the trial court's order granting Stines's request for a declaratory judgment and writ of mandamus, and render judgment granting the County's plea to the jurisdiction and dismissing the cause for lack of jurisdiction.

         I. Background

         The Jefferson County Deputy Constables Association (the "Deputy Constables Association"), Jefferson County ("the County"), and the Constables for Precincts 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 8 of the County entered into a collective bargaining agreement for the period commencing October 1, 2013, and ending September 30, 2014 (the "Agreement"). The Agreement states that it "is made and entered into" by the parties "in accordance with all applicable state and federal statutes, including the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act of Texas [("FPERA")] (Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code)." The Agreement further provides that its "general purpose" is: to promote the mutual interests of the County and the deputy constables; to provide for equitable and peaceful adjustments of differences that may arise; to establish proper standards of wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment for "policemen" as defined in the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act of Texas, with the objective of providing a sound basis for the efficient and effective delivery of services to the public.

         Article 25 of the Agreement governs disciplinary actions taken by the Constable against deputy constables. Article 25 provides:

         ARTICLE 25

         Disciplinary Actions

         SECTION I

The purpose of this Article is to establish a procedure for the fair, expeditious and orderly adjustment of disciplinary actions taken by the Constable.

SECTION II

Upon notification of a complaint filed by any person, or initiated by the Constable due to job performance, the Constable shall thoroughly investigate within a reasonable period of time consistent with the nature of the complaint being investigated.

SECTION III

Upon completion of any investigation, the Constable shall determine the disciplinary action to be taken against the affected deputy. The decision of the Constable shall be based upon whether or not just cause exists for the discipline. For the purposes of this Section, the term "just cause" means that the disciplinary action of the Constable's Office was reasonable in light of all circumstances; or was done for good and sufficient reasons.

SECTION IV

Within two (2) weeks of the Constable's decision to discipline a Deputy, the Deputy may invoke his right to binding arbitration pursuant to the rules of the American Arbitration Association.

         The Agreement defines "discipline" to mean "a suspension without pay or termination."

         In September 2015, Stines, a former deputy constable in the office of the Constable for Jefferson County Precinct 1, filed suit against the County, alleging that he had been "subjected to a hostile work environment while employed by [the County.]" Specifically, Stines alleged that in June 2014, during his employment as a deputy constable for the County, the chief deputy constable of his precinct made threats against him, causing Stines to have concerns about his safety at work. According to the petition, Stines filed what was supposed to be an anonymous complaint about the chief deputy constable's actions; however, the complaint was not kept anonymous, and over the next several months, Stines was "targeted" by both the County and the constable of his precinct and was subjected "to unjust employment practices and wrongful accusations." Stines alleged that he was ultimately suspended with pay in August 2014, and that his employment terminated on September 23, 2014.

         Stines's petition alleged that on October 7, 2014, his attorney mailed a written notice of appeal to the constable, invoking Stines's right under Article 25 of the Agreement to binding arbitration of the constable's decision to terminate his employment. Stines claimed that his attorney also attempted to fax a copy of the notice of appeal to the constable on the same date, but that "due to unintentional and unforeseeable technological difficulties, " the fax could not be transmitted. Stines alleged, however, that the notice was ultimately transmitted by fax on October 8, 2014. Stines alleged that despite his compliance with the notice requirements of Article 25, the County refused to proceed to arbitration, claiming that Stines had failed to timely invoke his right to arbitration under the Agreement.

         Based on these alleged facts, Stines asserted a claim against the County under the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act ("DJA"), seeking a declaration of his "right to compel [the County] to participate in binding arbitration of his wrongful discharge from [the County] in accordance with the Agreement." He also sought a writ of mandamus requiring the County "to participate in binding arbitration of his wrongful discharge from [the County] in accordance with the Agreement." Further, Stines alleged that he was entitled to an award of "actual damages" of "over $100, 000 but not more than $200, 000[, ]" as well as an award of reasonable and necessary attorney's fees under section 37.009 of the DJA.

         The County filed an answer and a first amended answer, asserting various defenses and affirmative defenses. The County also filed a plea to the jurisdiction in response to Stines's claims. In its plea to the jurisdiction, the County argued that it is protected from suit under the doctrine of governmental immunity and that Stines's claims do not fall within any waiver of that immunity. The County also argued that deputy constables are not "police officers" under FPERA, that deputy constables are therefore not statutorily authorized to collectively bargain with the County, and that the Agreement is void and unenforceable. The County attached no evidence to its plea to the jurisdiction.

         Stines filed a response to the County's plea to the jurisdiction. In his response, Stines argued that the County's immunity from suit had been waived: (1) by legislative consent in sections 174.008, 174.251, and 174.252 of the Texas Local Government Code; (2) by the County's act of entering into the Agreement, which expressly states that it is made and entered into "in accordance with . . . the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act of Texas (Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code)"; and (3) by the County's acceptance of Stines's services under the Agreement. Further, construing the County's argument regarding the validity of the Agreement as a challenge to his standing to bring suit, Stines argued that he had standing to enforce the terms of the Agreement against the County because deputy constables qualify as "police officers" under Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code and are therefore statutorily authorized to collectively bargain under that statute. Stines attached a copy of the Agreement to his response in support of his jurisdictional arguments.

         Following a non-evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the County's plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court issued two letters to counsel explaining the basis for its decision. In the first letter, dated January 20, 2016, the trial court addressed the County's assertion of governmental immunity to suit. In that letter, the trial court stated, in relevant part (footnotes and citations omitted):

Here, the plaintiff seeks a Court Order enforcing the arbitration provision contained in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Implicit in that request would be a declaration that deputy constables qualify for inclusion in Chapter 174 of the Local Government Code, which is a legislative waiver itself.
Texas courts have recognized that a declaratory judgment action can, in fact, be used to clarify the applicability of [a] specific statute.
In [Texas Education Agency v.] Leeper, the Texas Supreme Court concluded that the legislature, by enacting Chapter 37 of the Tex. Civ. Prac. Rem. Code (which specifically empowers courts to construe statutes and requires the joinder of adverse parties) waived governmental immunity for those purposes where the adverse party is a governmental entity (including attorney's fees).
The fact that plaintiff, likewise, pleads for recovery of damages does not mandate dismissal of a proper declaratory judgment action.
The plaintiff, in this matter, also seeks injunctive relief to require the County to arbitrate. Chapter 37 Tex. Civ. Prac. Rem. Code, likewise, authorizes a Court to grant "further relief" when necessary and the two requests can be combined.
Accordingly, this Court will construe the plaintiff's petition as (a) seeking a declaratory judgment as to the applicability of Chapter 174 to deputy constables, (b) seeking injunctive relief as necessary and proper and (c) requesting an award of attorney's fees.

         To that extent, the defendant's Plea to the Jurisdiction is denied. In the second letter, dated February 5, 2016, the trial court concluded that Stines had standing to pursue his claims against the County because deputy constables are "police officers" under Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code and are therefore authorized to collectively bargain with their employer.[1]

         On February 5, 2016, the trial court entered a written order denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court's order states:

ON THIS DAY came on to be considered the Plea to the Jurisdiction of Defendant, Jefferson County, Texas and the Court, having considered the pleadings and arguments of counsel is of the opinion that said Plea should in all things [be] DENIED. The Court construes the Original Petition of Plaintiff, Victor Stines, as (1) seeking a declaratory judgment as to the applicability of Chapter 174 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code to deputy constables, (2)seeking injunctive relief as necessary and proper, and (3) requesting an award of attorney's fees.
It is, therefore, ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED that the Plea to the Jurisdiction of Defendant, Jefferson County, Texas is hereby DENIED.[2]

         On February 5, 2016, the trial court also entered a second written order granting Stines's request for a declaratory judgment and request for writ of mandamus. The second order contains findings of fact and conclusions of law relating to the merits of Stines's claims, and it orders the parties "to participate in binding arbitration as required by the Agreement to determine all issues related to the discipline of [Stines] by [the County]." Thereafter, the County appealed, challenging both the trial court's order denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction and the trial court's order granting Stines's request for a declaratory judgment and request for writ of mandamus.[3]

         II. Effect of the Trial Court's Letter Rulings

         As a preliminary matter, we must determine the effect, if any, of the trial court's letter rulings. Both parties have treated the letter rulings as providing the bases of the trial court's order denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction. This treatment of the letter rulings is not unreasonable given that the language in the trial court's order denying the County's plea appears to be taken, almost verbatim, from the trial court's January 20, 2016, letter ruling and the grounds stated in both letter rulings are consistent with the trial court's denial of the County's plea to the jurisdiction. However, we note that there is some authority holding that, in certain circumstances, a trial court's prejudgment letter is not competent evidence of the basis for its judgment. See Cherokee Water Co. v. Gregg Cty. Appraisal Dist., 801 S.W.2d 872 (Tex. 1990).

         In Cherokee Water Co., the trial court sent counsel a prejudgment letter stating that it had considered certain evidence in making its ruling. Id. at 878. However, nothing in the formal findings of fact, filed after the judgment was signed, indicated that the trial court had considered the evidence referenced in the prejudgment letter for any purpose. Id. On appeal, Cherokee Water argued that the prejudgment letter was a finding of fact and that the trial court had improperly considered the evidence referred to in the prejudgment letter in making its ruling. Id. at 877-78. The Texas Supreme Court, however, noted that the formal findings of fact and conclusions of law did not state whether the trial court considered the evidence referenced in the prejudgment letter and that there was other evidence that supported the trial court's decision. Id. at 878. Therefore, the Court explained, the trial court "could have disregarded the evidence [referred to in the prejudgment letter] at the time the judgment was actually signed." Id. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the prejudgment letter was not a finding of fact and was "not competent evidence of the trial court's basis for judgment." Id.

          Unlike the trial court in Cherokee Water Co., the trial court in the present case did not enter formal findings of fact and conclusions of law specifically relating to its ruling on the County's plea to the jurisdiction. Therefore, this case is factually distinguishable from Cherokee Water Co. See In re Estate of Miller, 446 S.W.3d 445, 451-52 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2014, no pet.) (concluding that the trial court's failure to file formal findings of fact and conclusions of law was a factor distinguishing the case from Cherokee Water Co.); Kendrick v. Garcia, 171 S.W.3d 698, 702 (Tex. App.-Eastland 2005, pet. denied) (distinguishing Cherokee Water Co., in part, on the basis that the trial court in the case before it did not enter formal findings of fact and conclusions of law). Further, as noted, the language in the trial court's order denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction appears to be taken, almost word for word, from the trial court's January 20, 2016 letter ruling, and the January 20, 2016 letter ruling provides an extensive explanation for that language. In reviewing the record, we do not see any other applicable legal theories-other than those stated in the trial court's January 20, 2016 letter ruling-that would support the specific statements contained in the trial court's order denying the County's plea. See Long Term Care Pharm. All. v. Tex. Health & Human Servs. Comm'n, 249 S.W.3d 471, 476-77 (Tex. App.-Eastland 2007, no pet.) (concluding that it was appropriate to consider the trial court's letter ruling as evidence of the basis of the trial court's ruling where both parties treated the trial court's ruling as having been based on the grounds stated in the letter and, after reviewing the record, the appellate court did "not see any other applicable theory that would support the trial court's ruling"). Additionally, the trial court's February 5, 2016 letter ruling sets forth the trial court's reasoning with respect to the remaining jurisdictional issue raised by the parties but not addressed in the January 20, 2016 letter-namely, Stines's standing to bring suit-and the trial court's conclusions regarding Stines's standing in that letter are entirely consistent with the trial court's order denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction. Therefore, under the facts of this case, we treat the trial court's letter rulings as competent evidence of the trial court's basis for denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction.

         III. Plea to the Jurisdiction

         In issues one through four, the County challenges the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction. Specifically, the County contends that the trial court should have granted its plea because the County is entitled to governmental immunity with respect to each of Stines's claims and because Stines has failed to plead or prove a valid waiver of that immunity. Additionally, the County argues that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Stines's claims because Stines has no standing to assert his claims in this case. We begin with the County's arguments regarding governmental immunity because they are dispositive of the issues in this appeal.

         A. Standard of Review

         "A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea that seeks dismissal of a case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction." Harris Cty. v. Sykes, 136 S.W.3d 635, 638 (Tex. 2004). "Subject matter jurisdiction is essential to the authority of a court to resolve a case." Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 443 (Tex. 1993). Because the existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, we review a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction de novo. Houston Belt & Terminal Ry. Co. v. City of Houston, 487 S.W.3d 154, 160 (Tex. 2016).

         In determining whether a trial court has subject matter jurisdiction, our analysis begins with the live pleadings. Heckman v. Williamson Cty., 369 S.W.3d 137, 150 (Tex. 2012). The pleader has the initial burden of alleging facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction to hear the cause. Tex. Ass'n of Bus., 852 S.W.2d at 446. Whether a pleader has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law reviewed de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). We construe the pleadings liberally, taking all factual allegations as true, and look to the pleader's intent. Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 150; Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226. If the pleadings do not contain sufficient facts to affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction, but do not affirmatively demonstrate incurable defects in jurisdiction, the issue is one of pleading sufficiency, and we should afford the plaintiff an opportunity to amend. Id. at 226-27. If, on the other hand, the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of jurisdiction, then a plea to the jurisdiction may be granted without affording the plaintiff an opportunity to amend. Id. at 227.

         In reviewing a plea to the jurisdiction, we may also consider evidence submitted by the parties and must do so when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issues raised. Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 150; Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 555 (Tex. 2000). "We do not adjudicate the substance of the case but instead determine whether a court has the power to reach the merits of the claim." Satterfield & Pontikes Constr., Inc. v. Tex. S. Univ., 472 S.W.3d 426, 430 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2015, pet. denied). "Our ultimate inquiry is whether the particular facts presented, as determined by the foregoing review of the pleadings and any evidence, affirmatively demonstrate a claim within the trial court's subject[]matter jurisdiction." Tex. Dep't of State Health Servs. v. Balquinta, 429 S.W.3d 726, 738 (Tex. App.-Austin 2014, pet. dism'd).

         The County's issues on appeal also involve matters of statutory construction, which is a question of law that we review de novo. In re Mem'l Hermann Hosp. Sys., 464 S.W.3d 686, 700 (Tex. 2015). Our primary "objective in construing a statute is to give effect to the Legislature's intent, which requires us to first look to the statute's plain language." Lippincott v. Whisenhunt, 462 S.W.3d 507, 509 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam). If the statute is clear and unambiguous, we must read the language according to its common meaning, unless a different meaning is supplied or is apparent from the context, or the plain meaning would lead to absurd results. Crosstex Energy Servs., L.P. v. Pro Plus, Inc., 430 S.W.3d 384, 389-90 (Tex. 2014). Further, in ascertaining legislative intent, we may consider other matters, "including the objective of the law, its history, and the consequences of a particular construction." State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 284 (Tex. 2006) (citing Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 311.023(1), (3), (5) (West 2013)); see also Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 312.005 (West 2013) ("In interpreting a statute, a court shall diligently attempt to ascertain legislative intent and shall consider at all times the old law, the evil, and the remedy.").

         Proper construction of a statute "requires reading the statute as a whole rather than interpreting provisions in isolation." In re Mem'l Hermann Hosp. Sys., 464 S.W.3d at 701. "[C]ourts should not give an undefined statutory term a meaning out of harmony or inconsistent with other provisions, although it might be susceptible of such a construction if standing alone." Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. Needham, 82 S.W.3d 314, 318 (Tex. 2002). Further, we must give effect to all of a statute's words and, if possible, not treat any statutory language as mere surplusage. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d at 287. "We presume the Legislature selected language in a statute with care and that every word or phrase was used with a purpose in mind." Tex. Lottery Comm'n v. First State Bank of DeQueen, 325 S.W.3d 628, 635 (Tex. 2010).

         B. Governmental Immunity

         Governmental immunity protects political subdivisions of the State, including counties, from lawsuits for money damages, unless such immunity has been waived. See Reata Constr. Corp. v. City of Dallas, 197 S.W.3d 371, 374 (Tex. 2006); Wichita Falls State Hosp. v. Taylor, 106 S.W.3d 692, 694 n.3 (Tex. 2003). Governmental immunity encompasses two distinct principles: immunity from liability and immunity from suit. Lubbock Cty. Water Control & Imp. Dist. v. Church & Akin, L.L.C., 442 S.W.3d 297, 300 (Tex. 2014). Immunity from liability bars enforcement of a judgment against a governmental entity and is an affirmative defense. Brown & Gay Eng'g, Inc. v. Olivares, 461 S.W.3d 117, 121 (Tex. 2015). Immunity from suit, on the other hand, bars suit against the governmental entity altogether because it deprives a court of subject matter jurisdiction. Church & Akin, 442 S.W.3d at 300.

         A governmental entity that enters into a contract waives its immunity from liability, voluntarily binding itself like any other party to the terms of the agreement, but it does not waive its immunity from suit. Id. Governmental entities retain immunity from suit unless it has been waived. City of Houston v. Williams, 353 S.W.3d 128, 134 (Tex. 2011). Texas courts ordinarily defer to the Legislature to waive sovereign immunity from suit because this allows the Legislature to protect its policy making functions. Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Tex. Political Subdivisions Prop./Cas. Joint Self-Ins. Fund, 212 S.W.3d 320, 326 (Tex. 2006). As the Texas Supreme Court has explained, "the Legislature is better suited than the courts to weigh conflicting public policies associated with waiving immunity and subjecting the government to increased liability, the burden of which the public must bear." Id. at 327. A legislative waiver of immunity may be in the form of either a statute or a legislative resolution, but in either case the Legislature's intent to waive immunity must be expressed in "clear and unambiguous language." Gen. Servs. Comm'n v. Little-Tex Insulation Co., 39 S.W.3d 591, 594 (Tex. 2001). "If the Legislature has not expressly waived immunity from suit, the State retains such immunity even if its liability is not disputed." Tex. Nat. Res. Conservation Comm'n v. IT-Davy, 74 S.W.3d 849, 853 (Tex. 2002).

         C. Waiver of ...


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