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Garcia v. City of Willis

Supreme Court of Texas

May 3, 2019

Luis Garcia, et al., Petitioners
City of Willis, Leonard Reed, in his Official Capacity as [Mayor] of the City of Willis, James Nowak in his Official Capacity as Chief of Police of the City of Willis, Hector Forestier, in his Official Capacity as City Manager of the City of Willis, Respondents

          Argued November 1, 2018

          On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District of Texas


          Jeffrey V. Brown Justice.

         Underlying this case is a constitutional challenge to red-light cameras as a traffic-enforcement tool. Petitioner Luis Garcia represents a putative class of citizens that has asked a district court to strike down both the state statutes authorizing use of red-light cameras and the City of Willis' ordinance providing for the use of red-light cameras within its jurisdiction. But these questions are not at issue today. The only question before us is procedural: was Garcia required to seek an administrative remedy before filing his case in district court? The trial court answered no. The court of appeals disagreed and rendered judgment that the trial court had no jurisdiction over Garcia's claims because he had failed to seek administrative relief. We affirm the court of appeals' judgment, but largely for different reasons. We hold that Garcia lacks standing to bring his prospective claims for declaratory and injunctive relief and that governmental immunity bars his reimbursement claim. We agree with the court of appeals, however, that Garcia was required to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing his constitutional-takings claim in district court. Based on these holdings, we do not decide whether the red-light camera statutory scheme generally requires exhaustion of administrative remedies.

         I Background

         Luis Garcia sued the City of Willis on behalf of himself and "others similarly situated." All members of this putative class paid a civil penalty for violating a city ordinance that created a photographic traffic-signal enforcement system that penalizes red-light infractions caught on camera.[1] Garcia's suit seeks injunctive and declaratory relief holding that (1) the ordinance and its enabling state statutes[2] are unconstitutional, (2) the ordinance violates statutory requirements for local red-light camera enforcement, and (3) the city acted ultra vires in levying a fine against Garcia and the other plaintiffs.[3] Garcia further seeks a refund of the citation he paid through either a claim for reimbursement or a constitutional-takings claim. The city answered, filed a plea to the jurisdiction, and argued Garcia's claims are barred by governmental immunity, official immunity, failure to exhaust administrative remedies, res judicata, and collateral estoppel, and that exclusive jurisdiction rests in the municipal court. Garcia responded with a motion for partial summary judgment on the city's exhaustion-of-remedies defense. In it, he argued that the nature of his claims forecloses the need to seek administrative relief-namely, a city administrative hearing on his red-light ticket-before challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance and statutes in district court.

         The trial court denied the city's jurisdictional plea, and the city took an interlocutory appeal. It then re-urged its argument that Garcia was required to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. 523 S.W.3d 729, 739 (Tex. App.-Beaumont 2017). Garcia responded that exhaustion is not required due to the constitutional nature of his claims and because the city acted ultra vires in collecting red-light camera fines without first conducting a statutorily required traffic-engineering study.

         The court of appeals rejected Garcia's arguments, relying on Edwards v. City of Tomball, 343 S.W.3d 213, 221-22 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2011, no pet.), in holding that Transportation Code chapter 707 directs cities to establish an "exclusive" administrative regime that claimants must exhaust before filing suit in district court. 523 S.W.3d at 742. Because Garcia did not seek relief through an administrative hearing, the court of appeals reasoned, the trial court had no jurisdiction to hear his claims. Id. The court of appeals further held that the ultra vires exception to the exhaustion-of-remedies requirement does not apply because the statutory requirement to conduct a traffic-engineering study was merely a "regulatory requirement" insufficient to support an ultra vires claim. Id. at 744. The court added that, even if the city's failure to conduct a traffic-engineering study was an ultra vires act, Garcia's ultra vires claim would nonetheless fail because he seeks retrospective relief in the form of a refund. Id. at 745 n.7.

         The court of appeals further held that Garcia's reimbursement claim is barred by governmental immunity-notwithstanding that it was raised in a request for declaratory relief- because Garcia's claim seeks reimbursement for the fines he and the other petitioners had paid. Id. at 743 (citing City of Dallas v. Albert, 354 S.W.3d 368, 378 (Tex. 2011) ("[A] party cannot circumvent governmental immunity by characterizing a suit for money damages as a claim for declaratory judgment.")). Accordingly, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's judgment, rendered judgment dismissing Garcia's claims, and denied Garcia's request to replead. Id. at 745. We granted Garcia's petition for review.

         On appeal to this Court, Garcia and the city maintain their respective positions. But the State of Texas, appearing as amicus curiae, urges a third approach. The state argues that Garcia lacks standing to bring claims for prospective relief-his declaratory and injunctive claims- because he has fully resolved his citation by paying the civil penalty and faces no future injury from the law he challenges. And while Garcia does have standing to pursue his reimbursement claims, the state continues, those claims cannot overcome governmental immunity because he cannot allege he paid his fine under duress. Specifically, the state argues that Garcia could have invoked an administrative-hearing process that would have automatically delayed enforcement of his fine. For the reasons explained below, we agree with the state.

         II Garcia lacks standing to bring prospective claims

         Neither party has questioned Garcia's standing to bring his claims, nor has either court below addressed it. But we are duty-bound to determine whether it exists; standing is a "prerequisite to subject-matter jurisdiction, and subject-matter jurisdiction is essential to a court's power to decide a case." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 553-54 (Tex. 2000); see also Tex. Workers' Comp. Comm'n v. Garcia, 893 S.W.2d 504, 507 n.15 (Tex. 1995) ("Because standing is a component of subject matter jurisdiction . . . it may be raised by an appellate court sua sponte."). The importance of this inquiry-even when not urged by the parties-cannot be understated.

         Standing consists of some interest peculiar to the person individually and not just as a member of the public. Hunt v. Bass, 664 S.W.2d 323, 324 (Tex. 1984). A plaintiff has standing to seek prospective relief only if he pleads facts establishing an injury that is "concrete and particularized, actual or imminent, not hypothetical." Heckman v. Williamson County, 369 S.W.3d 137, 155 (Tex. 2012) (internal quotations omitted). "An opinion issued in a case brought by a party without standing is advisory because rather than remedying an actual or imminent harm, the judgment addresses only a hypothetical injury." Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 444 (Tex. 1993) (citation omitted).

         Our issuance of an advisory opinion would violate separation-of-powers principles as well as the open-courts provision of our Texas Constitution. See id. at 444-45. Due regard for the separation of powers under our constitutional system of government mandates that "governmental authority vested in one department of government cannot be exercised by another department unless expressly permitted by the constitution." Id. at 444; see also In re Dean, 393 S.W.3d 741, 747 (Tex. 2012) ("The separation[-]of[-]powers doctrine prohibits one branch of government from exercising a power belonging inherently to another."). And the issuance of advisory opinions is a function of the executive branch, not the judicial. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d at 444. We have therefore interpreted the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act "to be merely a procedural device for deciding cases already within a court's jurisdiction rather than a legislative enlargement of a court's power, permitting the rendition of advisory opinions." Id. (citations omitted). Our Texas Constitution further provides that "[a]ll courts shall be open, and every person for an injurydone him, in his lands, goods, person or reputation, ...

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