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Doan v. Transcanada Keystone Pipeline, LP

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

January 23, 2018

WAYNE HOANG NHUT DOAN, Appellant
v.
TRANSCANADA KEYSTONE PIPELINE, LP, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 190th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2014-47690

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Brown, and Wise.

          OPINION

          Tracy Christopher Justice

         This case concerns TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, LP's attempts to acquire the right to construct and operate a pipeline through the land submerged beneath Muleshoe Lake, which is located on a tract of land owned by Wayne Hoang Nhut Doan. TransCanada believes that the submerged land is owned by the Port of Houston Authority of Harris County, Texas ("the Port Authority"), and so purchased a license from the Port Authority for the project and constructed the pipeline. Doan asserts that the land belongs to him. Doan sued in a Harris County district court, asserting a takings claim against the Port Authority, a trespass-to-try-title claim against two Port Authority employees, and a trespass claim against TransCanada. TransCanada raised a condemnation counterclaim. After a nonjury trial, the district court held that Doan is the sole remaining owner of the submerged land, allowed TransCanada to condemn an easement through the submerged land, awarded Doan $139 as just compensation for the easement, and denied all relief on Doan's trespass claim against TransCanada. On appeal, Doan contends that in Harris County, the county civil courts at law have exclusive jurisdiction over condemnation claims in which the amount of the condemnor's bona fide offer for the property is no more than $200, 000, and thus, the ruling on that claim is void. He further contends that the district court erred in denying his motion to abate the case until such time as TransCanada made a bona fide offer of more than $200, 000 for the property. In a conditional cross-appeal, TransCanada argues that the district court erred in finding that the Port Authority's live pleading sufficiently disclaimed ownership of the property and in holding that Doan is the property's sole owner.

         We agree that in Harris County, the civil courts at law have exclusive jurisdiction over condemnation claims where the amount of the condemnor's bona fide offer is no more than $200, 000. Moreover, the same statute grants the Harris County civil courts at law exclusive jurisdiction over all takings claims. Thus, the district court's rulings on these claims are void for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Regarding the district court's purported denial of Doan's motion to abate, we conclude that the issue has not been preserved for appeal. As for TransCanada's challenge to the district court's finding that Doan "is the sole remaining owner of the property, " the court recited that it had considered the evidence, and in the absence of a reporter's record, we must presume that the evidence supports the finding.

         We modify the judgment to vacate for lack of jurisdiction the district court's rulings on TransCanada's condemnation claim against Doan and on Doan's takings claim against the Port Authority. As modified, we affirm the district court's judgment.

         I. Background

         TransCanada wished to build a pipeline crossing beneath Muleshoe Lake, which is located on a tract of land owned by Doan in Harris County. Believing that the submerged land ("the Property") is owned by the Port Authority under the public-trust doctrine, TransCanada paid the Port Authority nearly $43, 000 for a ten-year renewable license to construct, maintain, and operate the pipeline within the Property, which is referred to in the license as "Port property." Having obtained a license from the Port Authority to construct the pipeline through the Property, TransCanada did not offer to pay Doan for an easement for the same use of the Property.

         TransCanada also needed an easement across the lake's dry banks, but it was unable to agree with Doan on a price. Three months after obtaining its license from the Port Authority, TransCanada filed a condemnation petition in Harris County Court at Law No. 4 to obtain a permanent, non-exclusive, 50-foot-wide right-of-way and easement across the lake's dry banks. The trial court appointed special commissioners to determine the Property's value, but before the special commissioners' hearing, TransCanada and Doan agreed to a $100, 000 purchase price for the easement. The parties further agreed that their settlement of the condemnation claim across the lake's dry banks did not resolve the disputed ownership of the Property, that is, the land submerged beneath the lake.

         Nearly a year later, Doan sued TransCanada in Harris County's 190th District Court, later adding as defendants the Port Authority and its employees Roger Guenther and Mark Vincent. In his live pleadings before trial, Doan asserted (a) a takings claim against the Port Authority, (b) trespass-to-try-title claims against Guenther and Vincent, and (c) a trespass claim against TransCanada for its use of the Property. TransCanada denied that Doan owned the Property, but pleading in the alternative, TransCanada asserted a counterclaim for condemnation.

         In its First Amended Answer, the Port Authority denied having claimed that it "owns or has title to or has taken or intends to take possession" of the Property. "To the contrary, " the Port Authority added, "the Port Authority has determined that affirmatively claiming and litigating ownership of the submerged land in question is not in the Port Authority's or the public's best interest." In a single summary-judgment motion, the Port Authority, Guenther, and Vincent moved for a take-nothing judgment on the respective claims against them, on the grounds both of immunity and that they allegedly had taken no action to claim ownership of the Property. The district court granted the motion without stating the grounds.

         A month later, Doan moved to abate TranCanada's condemnation counterclaim on the ground that TransCanada had not made a bona fide offer to acquire the property. TransCanada, however, agreed to make a bona fide offer, and it moved jointly with Doan for a continuance for that purpose. TransCanada had the Property appraised and made a bona fide offer to purchase an easement from Doan for $139. Doan rejected the offer, and the case proceeded to trial on ownership and value.

         After Doan announced ready for trial, he pointed out to the district court section 25.1032(c) of the Texas Government Code, under which Harris County civil courts at law have exclusive jurisdiction over statutory eminent-domain proceedings in which the amount of the condemnor's bona fide offer is no more than $200, 000.[1]The trial court overruled the jurisdictional challenge.

         After the nonjury trial, the district court found that (a) "the pleading by the Houston Port Authority is a sufficient disclaimer" of the Port Authority's ownership, (b) Doan is the sole owner of the Property, and (c) the fair market value of the Property at the time of the taking was $139. The district court rendered judgment in accordance with these findings, granting TransCanada its requested easement and overruling Doan's combined motion to modify the judgment and motion for new trial. Doan has appealed, and TransCanada has filed a conditional cross-appeal.

         II. Issues Presented

         In two issues Doan argues that the district court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over TransCanada's condemnation counterclaim, and that the district court erred in refusing to abate the case until TransCanada made Doan a bona fide offer large enough to bring the proceeding outside the Harris County civil courts at law's exclusive jurisdiction under Texas Government Code section 25.1032(c).

         In its conditional cross-appeal, TransCanada asks that if we conclude the district court lacked jurisdiction over the condemnation counterclaim, we also find that the trial court erred in finding, based solely on language in the Port Authority's pleading, that the Port Authority disclaimed ownership of the Property and that Doan established his ownership of the Property.

         III. Jurisdiction Over TransCanada's Condemnation Counterclaim

         We begin with Doan's challenge to the district court's subject-matter jurisdiction over TransCanada's condemnation claim. The existence of subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law, which we review de novo. See Wheelabrator Air Pollution Control, Inc. v. City of San Antonio, 489 S.W.3d 448, 451 (Tex. 2016).

         This jurisdictional challenge turns on the construction of several statutes, and the proper construction of a statute is likewise a question of law subject to de novo review. See TIC Energy & Chem., Inc. v. Martin, 498 S.W.3d 68, 74 (Tex. 2016). When interpreting a statute, our primary objective is to give effect to the legislature's intent. See TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. v. Combs, 340 S.W.3d 432, 439 (Tex. 2011); see also Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 312.005 (West 2013). We identify that intent by looking first to the statute's plain language. See Lippincott v. Whisenhunt, 462 S.W.3d 507, 509 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam). A statute's clear and unambiguous language is determinative of the legislature's intent. See TIC Energy & Chem., 498 S.W.3d at 74-75. We presume that the legislature purposefully chose which words to include in the statute and which to omit. See Lippincott, 462 S.W.3d at 509. We give a statute's undefined terms their plain and ordinary meaning, and we construe the statute in a way that avoids rendering any word or provision meaningless. See Hous. Belt & Terminal Ry. Co. v. City of Houston, 487 S.W.3d 154, 164 (Tex. 2016). We do not consider statutory provisions in isolation, but read the statute as a whole. See In re Mem'l Hermann Hosp. Sys., 464 S.W.3d 686, 701 (Tex. 2015) (orig. proceeding).

         Sometimes, statutes appear to conflict. If a general provision conflicts with a special or local provision, we will construe them to give effect to both, if possible. Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 311.026(a) (West 2013). But, if the general provision and the special or local provision cannot be reconciled, then "the special or local provision prevails as an exception to the general provision, unless the general provision is the later enactment and the manifest intent is that the general provision prevail." Id. § 311.026(b).

         We begin with the statute at the center of the parties' jurisdictional dispute, Texas Government Code section 25.1032, and with the binding precedent construing it.

         A. Texas Government Code section 25.1032

         In Harris County, a specific, local statute-Texas Government Code section 25.1032-addresses jurisdiction over condemnation claims and takings claims:

A county civil court at law has exclusive jurisdiction in Harris County of eminent domain proceedings, both statutory and inverse, if the amount in controversy in a statutory proceeding does not exceed [$200, 000]. . . . The amount in controversy is the amount of the bona fide offer made by the entity with eminent domain authority to acquire the property from the property owner voluntarily.

Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 25.1032(c) (West Supp. 2016).[2] The monetary limit on the county civil court at law's exclusive jurisdiction over statutory eminent-domain proceedings was added in 2015.[3] Because the amount of TransCanada's bona fide offer is far below that limit, cases construing the prior version of the statute, which had no such limit, are equally applicable here. Chief among this binding precedent is Taub v. Aquila Southwest Pipeline Corp., 93 S.W.3d 451 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist] 2002, no pet).

         The facts in Taub are very like those of this case. In Taub-as here-the putative property owner filed a trespass action against the condemnor pipeline company in a Harris County district court, and-as here-the pipeline company counterclaimed for condemnation. See id. at 454. As in this case, the condemnor in Taub argued that the district court had jurisdiction over the counterclaim pursuant to Texas Property Code section 21.003:

A district court may determine all issues, including the authority to condemn property and the assessment of ...

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