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Minix v. Charlton

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

February 22, 2018

PAUL MINIX, Appellant,
v.
MR. CHARLTON, ET AL., Appellees.

          On appeal from the 135th District Court of DeWitt County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Contreras and Benavides

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DORI CONTRERAS Justice

         Appellant Paul Minix, an inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, appeals the granting of a plea to the jurisdiction dismissing his suit against appellees Patrick Charlton, Herman Hernandez, and Brandi Gamez. We construe appellant's brief as presenting two main issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in dismissing multiple state- law theft claims on the basis of governmental immunity; and (2) whether the trial court erred in dismissing federal claims for violations of appellant's Eighth and First Amendment rights on the basis of qualified immunity. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         Appellant was sentenced on or about March 3, 2016 to eight years' imprisonment in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ)-Institutional Division. Prior to sentencing, appellant had been held at the DeWitt County Jail. After sentencing, appellant was transferred to the Dominguez Unit of TDCJ in San Antonio. Appellant brought suit against four "DeWitt county jail employees" for actions that took place during his time at the DeWitt County Jail.

         The defendants named in appellant's petition were: jailer Hernan Hernandez, jail captain Patrick Charlton, jail nurse Brandi Gamez, and jail mail staff member Ms. Garcia.[1]Specifically, appellant brought suit for: (1) theft of legal documents against Hernandez and Charlton; (2) theft of his personal property[2] against Charlton and "any others whose name is documented in [and] on disposition paperwork"; (3) theft of mail and stamps against "jail officials in the mail room"-presumably Garcia; (4) violation of his Eighth Amendment right to adequate medical treatment against Gamez; and (5) violation of his First Amendment right to "file grievances" against Hernandez, Charlton, Gamez, and Garcia.[3] Appellant's petition also stated that the defendants were "being sued [only] in their individual and personal capacities . . . ."

         On December 6, 2016 appellees filed a plea to the jurisdiction on the grounds that appellant failed to demonstrate: (1) a valid waiver of governmental immunity to proceed with his state-law tort claims for theft; and (2) the inapplicability of appellees' qualified immunity to proceed with his federal claims for violations of his First and Eighth Amendment rights.

         At a hearing on January 4, 2017, appellees did not present any evidence or testimony in support of their plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court found that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over appellant's suit and dismissed all of appellant's claims. This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         A plea to the jurisdiction is a procedural device used to challenge the court's subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 232 (Tex. 2004); Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 553-54 (Tex. 2000). Without subject-matter jurisdiction, a court does not have the authority to render judgment and must dismiss the claims without resolving the parties' substantive arguments. See City of Houston v. Rhule, 417 S.W.3d 440, 442 (Tex. 2013); Blue, 34 S.W.3d at 553-54. Thus, a defendant can use a plea to the jurisdiction to defeat a cause of action without regard to its merits. Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 635 (Tex. 2012); Blue, 34 S.W.3d at 554.

         A plaintiff has the initial burden to plead facts affirmatively showing that the trial court has jurisdiction. Dallas Area Rapid Transit v. Whitley, 104 S.W.3d 540, 542 (Tex. 2003); Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 446 (Tex. 1993). When a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, the trial court must consider evidence if it is necessary to resolve them. Vernco Constr., Inc. v. Nelson, 460 S.W.3d 145, 149 (Tex. 2015); Heckman v. Williamson Cty., 369 S.W.3d 137, 150 (Tex. 2012); Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227. If evidence creates a fact question regarding a jurisdictional issue, then the trial court cannot grant the plea to the jurisdiction. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226. Otherwise, the trial court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law. Id. at 228.

         "Whether a trial court has subject matter jurisdiction and whether the pleader has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction are questions of law that we review de novo." La Joya Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Gonzalez, 532 S.W.3d 892, 896 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi 2017, pet. filed) (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226; Tex. Nat. Res. Conservation Comm'n v. IT-David, 74 S.W.3d 849, 855 (Tex. 2002)). We construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the pleader, look to the pleader's intent, and accept as true the factual allegations in the pleadings. See Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226, 228. In considering the evidence, we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the non-movant's favor. Id. at 227-28.

         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 the plaintiff should be afforded the opportunity to amend. Id. at 226-27. If the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of jurisdiction, then a plea to the jurisdiction may be granted without allowing the plaintiff an opportunity to amend. Id. at 227. If a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, we ...


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