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Skypark Aviation, LLC v. Lind

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eleventh District

June 22, 2017

SKYPARK AVIATION, LLC AND RAY SPENGLER, Appellants
v.
KENNETH LIND, DALE CHILDERS, AND ECTOR COUNTY, Appellees

         On Appeal from the 358th District Court Ector County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. D-138, 258

          Panel consists of: Wright, C.J., Willson, J., and Bailey, J.

          OPINION

          JOHN M. BAILEY, JUSTICE

         Appellants, Skypark Aviation, LLC and its owner, Ray Spengler, filed suit against Appellees-Kenneth Lind, Dale Childers, and Ector County-concerning Skypark's unsuccessful effort to be named as the "Fixed Base Operator" of the Ector County (Schlemeyer) Airport. Lind was the purchasing agent of Ector County, and Childers was the county commissioner of Ector County that served as the "officer in charge of opening the bids" that the County received in response to its request for proposal for a fixed base operator. In four issues on appeal, Appellants appeal the trial court's order granting Appellees' pleas to the jurisdiction. We affirm.

         Background Facts

         Ector County is the owner of an airport facility, Schlemeyer Field, located north of Odessa. The airport is operated by a fixed base operator who contracts with Ector County for the airport's operation and maintenance. In 2014, Ector County issued a request for proposal to find a new fixed base operator for the airport. Ector County received proposals from four applicants, including Skypark. After reviewing the applications, the Commissioners' Court selected another applicant to be the fixed base operator.

         Upon being notified that Skypark was not selected, Spengler appeared before the Commissioners' Court for an oral presentation of Skypark's proposal. The Commissioners' Court did not change its previous selection of another applicant after this presentation. Appellants then filed the underlying action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief by having the contract awarded to the other applicant declared void. Appellants alleged that Skypark was a more qualified entity to serve as the fixed base operator of the airport. They also alleged various errors purportedly made by Ector County officials in evaluating the proposals.

         Each Appellee filed a plea to the jurisdiction in which they alleged that they were immune from suit. After a hearing, the trial court granted Appellees' pleas to the jurisdiction and dismissed the suit. Appellants filed various motions for reconsideration after the trial court entered its order granting Appellees' pleas to the jurisdiction. However, the record does not reflect that the trial court ruled on any of the motions for reconsideration.

         Analysis

         In their first and second issues, Appellants contend that the trial court erred when it granted Appellees' pleas to the jurisdiction. "A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea, the purpose of which is to defeat a cause of action without regard to whether the claims asserted have merit." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). A plea to the jurisdiction challenges the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction over a pleaded cause of action. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004). Subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law. Id. at 226. Therefore, we apply a de novo standard of review to a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction. Id. When, as here, a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the pleadings, we determine whether the pleader has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction. Id. The plaintiff has the burden to plead facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction. Id. If the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of the trial court's jurisdiction, then the trial court may grant a plea to the jurisdiction without allowing the plaintiff an opportunity to amend his pleadings. Id. at 226-27.

         "Sovereign immunity and its counterpart, governmental immunity, exist to protect the State and its political subdivisions from lawsuits and liability for money damages." Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 253 S.W.3d 653, 655 (Tex. 2008). Sovereign immunity shields the state from suit unless it expressly consents to being sued. Harris Cty. v. Sykes, 136 S.W.3d 635, 638 (Tex. 2004). Governmental immunity affords similar protection to subdivisions of the state, including counties. Id. Sovereign and governmental immunity in Texas embodies two concepts: immunity from liability and immunity from suit. City of Dallas v. Albert, 354 S.W.3d 368, 373 (Tex. 2011). Immunity from liability protects governmental entities from judgments, while immunity from suit completely bars actions against those entities unless the legislature expressly consents to suit. Reata Constr. Corp. v. City of Dallas, 197 S.W.3d 371, 374 (Tex. 2006); Tooke v. City of Mexia, 197 S.W.3d 325, 332 (Tex. 2006). Immunity from suit deprives the courts of subject-matter jurisdiction and thus completely bars the plaintiff's claim. Wichita Falls State Hosp. v. Taylor, 106 S.W.3d 692, 696 (Tex. 2003).

         A suit against government employees in their official capacities is, in all respects, a suit against the governmental entity; thus, employees sued in their official capacities are shielded by sovereign immunity or governmental immunity. See Franka v. Velasquez, 332 S.W.3d 367, 382-83 (Tex. 2011) ("[A]n employee sued in his official capacity has the same governmental immunity, derivatively, as his government employer."). In this regard, Lind and Childers were only sued in their official capacities as officials of Ector County. Accordingly, Appellees' pleas to the jurisdiction present the same question: Do Appellees have governmental immunity from suit for the claims asserted by Appellants?

         A political subdivision enjoys governmental immunity from suit to the extent that immunity has not been abrogated by the legislature. See Tex. Nat. Res. Conservation Comm'n v. IT-Davy, 74 S.W.3d 849, 853 (Tex. 2002). For a statute to effectuate a waiver of governmental immunity, the legislative intent to waive immunity must be expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Harris Cty. Hosp. Dist. v. Tomball Reg'l Hosp., 283 S.W.3d 838, 842 (Tex. 2009); see Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 311.034 (West 2013) ("[A] statute shall not be construed as a waiver of sovereign immunity unless the waiver is effected by clear and unambiguous language.").

         In their original petition, Appellants asserted that the trial court had subject-matter jurisdiction under Texas Local Government Code Section 262.033 for the relief that they sought. See Tex. Loc. Gov't Code Ann. ยง 262.033 (West 2016). Appellants later cited Texas Local Government Code Section 271.028 as an alternative statute conferring subject-matter jurisdiction. Appellants contend in their first and ...


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