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Luttrell v. EL Paso County

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso

December 20, 2017


         Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 5 of El Paso County, Texas (TC# 2014DCV3070)

          Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, J., and Larsen, J. (Senior Judge) Larsen, J. (Senior Judge), sitting by assignment


          YVONNE T. RODRIGUEZ, Justice

         Appellants are four residents of El Paso who were found in contempt by Senior Judge Jerry Woodard for failing to obey a jury summons. Appellants filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated persons, naming Judge Woodard and El Paso County, requesting a declaration that their contempt judgments were void for lack of jurisdiction, and that Judge Woodard imposed court costs and fees in an "illegal" manner in their cases. In addition, Appellants sought a permanent injunction restraining and enjoining the defendants from charging illegal costs and fees in the future, a refund of all court costs, fines and fees already paid by Appellants.

         Because the trial court ultimately dismissed Judge Woodard from the case, with Appellants' consent, based on the doctrine of judicial immunity, this left the County as the sole defendant in the case. The County filed a Plea to the Jurisdiction also seeking dismissal from Appellants' lawsuit, primarily arguing that it had governmental immunity from suit. In response, Appellants amended their Petition, adding an ultra vires claim against the County, as well as a claim for an illegal "taking" under the Texas Constitution. Appellants contend that the trial court erred in granting the County's Plea, arguing that they raised valid causes of action in their Petition for which the County's immunity was waived, or in the alternative, that the trial court erred by not giving them an opportunity to amend their Petition to correct any jurisdictional defects in their pleadings, and demonstrate that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over one or more of their claims. We find that the petition as it currently stands does not state a valid cause of action for which the County's immunity was waived; however, we agree with Appellants that they should be given the opportunity to amend their petition to attempt to state a valid cause of action over which the trial court would have jurisdiction, and we therefore reverse the trial court's judgment and remand for that purpose.


         In an apparent reaction to ongoing problems with prospective jurors in El Paso County not appearing for jury duty when summoned to do so, the "Council of Judges of El Paso" and Judge Stephen Ables, the Presiding Judge of the Sixth Administrative Judicial Region, began taking steps to devise a plan to address this issue as early as 1999.[1] The record reflects that at a July 1999 meeting, the Council voted to appoint a visiting judge for "purposes of studying methods of jury selection, the jury wheel, purging and adding jurors and methods of sanctions against jurors not responding to qualification questionnaires and juror summons." In addition, on that same day, the Council "ordered that Judge Jerry Woodard be appointed to be assigned to the Jury Hall[, ]" to perform the duties outlined above.[2] Shortly thereafter, on October 28, 1999, the Council also voted to approve the assignment of Judge Woodard and Judge Fashing to "handle jurors, " and more specifically, to "question the [jury] panels, handle jury issues and qualify the jurors."[3]

         Beginning on December 1, 1998, Judge Ables signed a series of orders, effective from January 1, 1999 through June 30, 2011, for three- to six-month periods of time, each labeled as an "order of assignment by the presiding judge, " assigning Judge Woodard to the district courts and county courts of law, later adding the county criminal courts of law to the list, for six-month periods of time. [4] The assignment orders did not specify any particular cases, or type of cases, over which Judge Woodward was to preside.[5] For reasons that are unclear from the record, Judge Ables thereafter signed an order assigning Judge Woodard for the period from November of 2013 to June 30, 2014 to the 384th District Court in which El Paso's then-local administrative judge, Judge Patrick Garcia sits. Once again, however, that assignment order did not clearly state the case or cases over which Judge Woodard was to preside.

         Although the mechanism by which this occurred is not entirely clear from the record, the parties agree that, in several instances, when a juror failed to respond to a jury summons in a particular court in El Paso County, that court would either "refer" or "transfer" the matter to Judge Woodard for the purpose of allowing him to conduct contempt proceedings against the recalcitrant juror. The record does not indicate when this practice started or how many jurors were found in contempt by Judge Woodard.

         According to Appellants, Judge Garcia entered an order dated June 12, 2014, finding that all of the orders issued by Judge Woodard prior to that date were void, and vacating Judge Woodard's past contempt orders. The record, however, does not indicate how the matter came to Judge Garcia's attention, or what prompted him to enter that order; further, the record does not contain a copy of that order.

         Appellants' Lawsuit

         On September 29, 2014, Appellants filed their first Petition on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated individuals, naming Judge Woodard and El Paso County as defendants, alleging that they were among those who were adjudged to be in contempt by Judge Woodard.[6]In their Petition, Appellants requested a declaration that their contempt judgments entered were void for lack of jurisdiction, claiming that Judge Woodard acted without legal authority in their cases. Among other things, Appellants alleged that the County had essentially created a rogue court, which they refer to as the "Woodard Jury Duty Court, " pointing out that the Texas Constitution only allows the state legislature to create courts, and that neither the Council of Judges nor the County had the legal authority to create any such court.[7] Appellants further alleged that although Judge Woodard appeared to be acting in their cases pursuant to the Judge Able's assignment orders, he had no authority to act in their cases, as he had failed to take constitutional oath of office each time he accepted an assignment from Judge Ables to handle a contempt case, thereby rendering any actions taken in those cases void.[8] In addition, Appellants alleged that Judge Woodard did not hold proper hearings prior to finding them and other jurors in contempt, claiming that Judge Woodard improperly acted as both "a judge and a prosecutor" in their cases, thereby depriving them of their due process rights.[9]

         Appellants also alleged, without explanation, that Judge Woodard imposed "illegal" court costs and/or fees that were not authorized by statute, claiming that he "would actively conceal that he was imposing court costs without any legal authority to do so." In addition, although they did not specify what role the Commissioner's Court may have played in this matter, Appellants requested a declaration that "all Commissioners Court Orders authorizing the defendants to charge and collect court costs and any fee found for contempt of court to be [declared] unconstitutional, void, and unenforceable." Appellants also sought a permanent injunction "restraining and enjoining" the defendants from "charging Plaintiffs court costs and fees in an illegal manner" in the future, a refund of all court costs, fines and fees paid by Appellants, in the sum of $500 per plaintiff, as well as a "fourfold" refund of the "fees" that Appellants paid, together with attorney's fees and costs of court.

         Judge Woodard's Motion to Dismiss

         On November 4, 2014, Judge Woodard filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, claiming, among other things, that he had absolute judicial immunity from the lawsuit. At a hearing held on May 9, 2016, Appellants' attorney conceded that Judge Woodward was entitled to judicial immunity, and the trial court thereafter granted the motion, and entered a judgment dismissing all of the claims against Judge Woodard with prejudice to the refiling of the same "in any form, " without objection from Appellants.

         The County's Plea to the Jurisdiction

         On November 7, 2014, the County filed its answer to Appellants' lawsuit, as well as a Plea to the Jurisdiction, claiming that it had governmental immunity from the lawsuit, and that the trial court therefore lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the matter. In its Plea, the County pointed out that Appellants had failed to allege that the County's immunity had been waived by any legislative grant of jurisdiction, and argued that Appellants had not alleged or described any facts that would support a finding that its immunity had been waived.

         In response, Appellants filed their first amended petition on November 17, 2015, attempting to address the County's arguments. In their amended pleadings, Appellants added two new claims for relief. First, Appellants alleged that Judge Woodard, who they referred to as a "state official, " had acted "without legal or statutory authority" when he imposed the "court costs and fees" under consideration herein, thereby raising what appears to be an "ultra vires" claim. Although their arguments were not entirely clear, at the hearing on the County's Plea to the Jurisdiction, Appellants alternated between alleging that Judge Woodard, Judge Ables, the El Paso Council of Judges, and the County had all acted illegally in allowing for the imposition of the allegedly unlawful costs and fees.

         Second, Appellants alleged that the County had engaged in an "unlawful taking of property" when it "intentionally charged and collect[ed] [Appellants'] money for public use." At the hearing on the County's Plea to the Jurisdiction, Appellants' attorney clarified that this cause of action was based on an alleged violation of the Texas Constitution, Article I, Section 17, which prohibits the State or its political subdivisions from taking property for public use without adequate compensation.

         Following the hearing, the trial court issued its order granting the County's Plea to the Jurisdiction, dismissing Appellants' Petition in its entirety. Appellants thereafter requested findings of facts and conclusions of law. The trial court denied the request, and this appeal followed.


         Appellants make two arguments on appeal, which we take in reverse order. First, Appellants argue that the trial court erred in granting the County's Plea to the Jurisdiction, claiming that they made sufficient allegations in their amended petition to demonstrate that the County's immunity had been waived. Second, Appellants argue that the trial court erred by granting the County's plea to the jurisdiction without giving them an opportunity to amend their petition to state "viable state law and federal causes of action upon which a recovery could be had, " arguing that their pleadings did not suffer from any incurable defect that could not have been corrected by an amendment.

         Standard of Review

         The function of a plea to the jurisdiction is to determine whether the court has subject matter jurisdiction over a cause of action, "without regard to whether the claims asserted have merit." See City of El Paso v. Waterblasting Techs., Inc., 491 S.W.3d 890, 894 (Tex. App.--El Paso 2016, no pet.) (quoting Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000)). In a plea to the jurisdiction, a defendant may challenge the sufficiency of the plaintiff's pleadings to establish jurisdiction or, alternatively, the existence of "jurisdictional facts" on the ground that the facts do not support a finding of subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 895 (citing Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004)); see also City of El Paso v. Collins, 483 S.W.3d 742, 748-49 (Tex. App.--El Paso 2016, no pet.). The question of whether a plaintiff has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction, as well as whether undisputed evidence of jurisdictional facts establishes a trial court's lack of jurisdiction, are both questions of law that an appellate court reviews de novo. See Texas Dep't of Aging & Disability Services v. Loya, 491 S.W.3d 920, 923 (Tex. App.--El Paso 2016, no pet.) (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226); see also Tex. Natural Res. Conservation Comm'n v. IT-Davy, 74 S.W.3d 849, 855 (Tex. 2002).

         A plaintiff has the burden to allege facts affirmatively demonstrating the trial court has subject matter jurisdiction. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226. In determining whether a plaintiff has met this burden, we construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff, and look to the pleader's intent. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226-27. We can also consider evidence, and must do so when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issue. See Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 554. "[W]e review the allegations in the pleadings-accepting them as true and construing them in the plaintiff's favor-and any evidence relevant to the inquiry." Loya, 491 S.W.3d at 923 (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226-27); see also Mayfield v. Tarrant Regional Water Dist., 467 S.W.3d 706, 711 (Tex. App.--El Paso 2015, no pet.). If the plaintiff's pleadings and/or the jurisdictional evidence presented by the parties raises a fact issue, the trial court should deny the plea. City of Waco v. Lopez, 259 S.W.3d 147, 150 (Tex. 2008) (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226-28). However, if the pleadings and jurisdictional evidence presented to the court negate the existence of jurisdiction as a matter of law, the court should grant the plea. Id.; see also Loya, 491 S.W.3d at 924 (citing Mayfield, 467 S.W.3d at 711-12).

         The Nature of Governmental Immunity

         The State of Texas is considered "inviolably sovereign, " and generally has sovereign immunity from suits seeking money damages. See Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 489 S.W.3d 427, 429 (Tex. 2016); see also Reata Construction Corp. v. City of Dallas, 197 S.W.3d 371, 374 (Tex. 2006). A county, as a political subdivision of the State, derives immunity from the state's sovereign immunity, but its immunity is referred to as "governmental immunity." See Catalina Dev., Inc. v. County of El Paso, 121 S.W.3d 704, 705 (Tex. 2003) (citing Travis County v. Pelzel & Assocs., Inc., 77 S.W.3d 246, 248 (Tex. 2002)); see also Texas Dept. of Aging & Disability Services v. Beltran, 350 S.W.3d 410, 413 n.2 (Tex. App.--El Paso 2011, pet. denied) (although the terms are often used interchangeably, sovereign immunity refers to the State's immunity, while governmental immunity from liability protects political subdivisions of the State such as counties, cities, and school districts); see also Travis Cent. Appraisal Dist. v. Norman, 342 S.W.3d 54, 57-58 (Tex. 2011) (sovereign and governmental immunity are related common law concepts that differ only in scope; their similarity sometimes causes the two terms to be used interchangeably).

         Both sovereign and governmental immunity from suit deprive a trial court of subject matter jurisdiction, and is therefore properly raised in a plea to the jurisdiction. See Collins, 440 S.W.3d at 884 (citing Reata Construction Corp. v. City of Dallas, 197 S.W.3d 371, 374 (Tex. 2006); Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 224); see also Dallas Area Rapid Transit v. Whitley, 104 S.W.3d 540, 542 (Tex. 2003) ("Governmental immunity from suit defeats a court's subject matter jurisdiction."). Thus, in a suit against a governmental unit, the plaintiff must affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction by alleging a valid waiver of immunity. Whitley, 104 S.W.3d at 542 (citing Tex. Dep't of Criminal Justice v. Miller, 51 S.W.3d 583, 587 (Tex. 2001); Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 446 (Tex. 1993)). As the County points out, a plaintiff may demonstrate a waiver of immunity by pointing to either an express Legislative waiver, or a constitutional provision that permits the plaintiff to bring a claim against the governmental unit. See City of New Braunfels v. Carowest Land, Ltd., 432 S.W.3d 501, 513 (Tex. App.--Austin 2014, no pet.) (noting that a plaintiff has an independent right to bring constitutional claims against a city, as well as claims for which the Legislature has waived the City's immunity). We review each of Appellants' claims for relief separately to determine if the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over the County for any of those claims.


         In their original and amended Petitions, Appellants primarily sought declaratory relief, asking the trial court to declare their contempt judgments, including the portion of the judgments assessing court costs and fees, to be void.[10] We therefore must consider whether the court had subject matter jurisdiction over Appellants' request for declaratory relief under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA).

         Did Appellants Challenge the Validity of a ...

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