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Wilder v. Merritt

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

November 16, 2017

THOMAS A. WILDER, DISTRICT CLERK APPELLANT
v.
BETTYE LASHANE MERRITT APPELLEE

         FROM THE 17TH DISTRICT COURT OF TARRANT COUNTY TRIAL COURT NO. 017-264181-13

          PANEL: GABRIEL and KERR, JJ. [10]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          ELIZABETH KERR, JUSTICE.

         In 2012, Appellant Thomas A. Wilder, the Tarrant County District Clerk, billed indigent litigants-including Appellee Bettye Lashane Merritt-for court costs and fees incurred in their divorce cases. The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's order temporarily enjoining the District Clerk's actions and remanded the case to the trial court. After remand, the District Clerk filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that derived judicial immunity and governmental immunity protected him against Merritt's equitable-reimbursement claim. The trial court disagreed and denied the District Clerk's plea.

         The District Clerk has appealed, raising one issue complaining that the trial court erred by denying his jurisdictional plea because Merritt's equitable-reimbursement claim is barred by either or both types of immunity. Because we conclude that the trial court's ruling was correct, we will affirm its order.

         Background

         Merritt and seven others[2] (collectively, the Petitioners) were divorce petitioners in Tarrant County. Each filed an affidavit of indigence in lieu of costs under civil-procedure rule 145, affidavits that were either uncontested or the subject of a withdrawn contest. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 145.[3] But their final divorce decrees allocated costs, stating either that "costs of Court are to be borne by the party who incurred them, " or that "[t]he Husband will pay for his court costs [and] the Wife will pay for her court costs." The decrees did not state the amount of costs due or that any party could afford them.

         Applying the decrees' costs language rather than the indigency affidavits, the District Clerk sent each Petitioner a cost bill demanding about $300 in court costs and fees. The District Clerk later sent payment-default certifications to most of the Petitioners threatening that the sheriff would seize their property to satisfy the debt. Merritt is the only Petitioner who paid any portion of the costs; she has paid $50. The other Petitioners objected based on their indigency status.

         In February 2013, Petitioners sued the District Clerk in his official capacity for mandamus, injunctive, and declaratory relief, arguing that they should not have to pay court costs because they were indigent. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court temporarily enjoined the District Clerk from

continuing his policy of collection of court costs from indigent parties who have filed an affidavit o[f] indigency under Tex.R.Civ.P. 145 where the affidavit was not contested, or where the contest was denied or withdrawn, unless there were specific findings expressly stated in a final judgment or order providing that the indigent party's action resulted in monetary award and that the monetary award was sufficient to reimburse costs.

         The District Clerk appealed. Relying on the Texas Supreme Court's decision in Evans v. Pringle, 643 S.W.2d 116 (Tex. 1982), we concluded that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enjoin the District Clerk's actions, vacated the injunction, and dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Wilder v. Campbell, 430 S.W.3d 474, 477-80 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2014), rev'd, Campbell v. Wilder (Wilder I), 487 S.W.3d 146 (Tex. 2016). The Texas Supreme Court reversed, overruling Evans and holding that the trial court did in fact have jurisdiction over the Petitioners' case. Wilder I, 487 S.W.3d at 147-52. The supreme court affirmed the injunction on the merits and remanded the case to the trial court. Id. at 152-54.

         After remand, the District Clerk filed a plea to the jurisdiction challenging Merritt's equitable-reimbursement claim. Merritt-the only Petitioner who responded to the District Clerk's collection efforts by paying any court costs and fees-seeks equitable reimbursement of those costs and fees as supplemental relief under the Texas Declaratory Judgments Act. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 37.011 (West 2015). The Petitioners' pleading alleged that the District Clerk would be unjustly enriched if he is not ordered to reimburse Merritt and all "similarly situated" indigent litigants for the court costs that he has collected.[4]

         In his jurisdictional plea, the District Clerk challenged the sufficiency of Merritt's pleadings, arguing that because he was acting in his official capacity and within his jurisdiction as district clerk when he assessed court costs against the Petitioners, he is entitled to derived judicial immunity and governmental immunity as to Merritt's equitable-reimbursement claim. After a nonevidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the plea.

         Standard of Review

         We review de novo a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 228 (Tex. 2004). A jurisdictional plea can advance two types of challenges: a challenge to pleading sufficiency or a challenge to the existence of jurisdictional facts. Id. at 226-27. When, as here, a plea challenges the pleadings, we determine whether the plaintiff has met her burden of alleging facts affirmatively demonstrating that the trial court has subject-matter jurisdiction. See id. at 226. We construe the pleadings liberally in the plaintiff's favor, accept all factual allegations as true, and look to the plaintiff's intent. Heckman v. Williamson Cty., 369 S.W.3d 137, 150 (Tex. 2012). If the pleadings are insufficient to establish the trial court's jurisdiction but do not affirmatively demonstrate an incurable defect in jurisdiction, the issue is one of pleading sufficiency, and the plaintiff should be given an ...


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