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Garza v. Harrison

Supreme Court of Texas

May 24, 2019

Rey Garza, Petitioner,
v.
Roxana Regalado Harrison and Joseph Santellana, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Jonathen Anthony Santellana, Deceased, Respondents

          Argued January 10, 2019

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

          Justice Guzman delivered the opinion of the Court.

          Justice Boyd filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Lehrmann joined.

          OPINION

          EVA M. GUZMAN, JUSTICE

         The election-of-remedies provision in section 101.106(f) of the Texas Tort Claims Act requires courts to grant a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against a governmental employee sued in an "official capacity" but allows the governmental unit to be substituted for the employee.[1] By adopting section 101.106(f), the Legislature has effectively mandated that only a governmental unit can be sued for a governmental employee's work-related tortious conduct.[2] In this case, an off-duty law enforcement officer fatally shot a suspect during the course of an attempted arrest outside his primary jurisdiction. The decedent's parents sued the officer in his individual capacity for wrongful death, but the officer asserts the action is actually an official-capacity suit that must be dismissed under the Act.

         As defined in section 101.106(f), a governmental employee is sued in an official capacity when the suit (1) is "based on conduct within the general scope of that employee's employment" and (2) "could have been brought under [the Act] against the governmental unit."[3] Here, the trial court denied the officer's dismissal motion, citing a fact issue as to whether the officer was acting as a peace officer or as a security guard for his landlord at the time of the shooting. The court of appeals affirmed, but applied a textually unsupportable distinction in holding that, as a matter of law, the officer could not have been doing his job as a peace officer because a peace officer operating extraterritorially would merely be authorized-not obligated-to make an arrest under the extant circumstances.[4]

         We reverse the court of appeals' judgment and render judgment dismissing the suit against the officer. The scope-of-employment inquiry under section 101.106(f) focuses on whether the employee was doing his job, not the quality of the job performance.[5] Even if work is performed wrongly or negligently, the inquiry is satisfied if, when viewed objectively, "a connection [exists] between the employee's job duties and the alleged tortious conduct."[6] A connection exists between the defendant law enforcement officer's job responsibilities and the alleged tort because he was exercising a statutory grant of authority to make a warrantless arrest for a crime committed in his presence-authority he possessed solely through his governmental employment.

         I. Background

         The City of Navasota Police Department hired and commissioned Rey Garza as a licensed peace officer. Though employed in Grimes County, Garza resided at an apartment complex in neighboring Harris County. In exchange for rent concessions, and with the police department's permission, Garza agreed to work for the apartment complex on a part-time basis as a "Courtesy Patrol Officer."[7] In that capacity, Garza's "primary responsibility" was to deter criminal activity by being "highly visible." He was also responsible for circulating notices to the residents; inspecting the property for broken lights and other safety concerns; patrolling the property for parking violations, trespassers, vandalism, and other security issues; and documenting his observations in written reports to the apartment-complex manager.

         As stated in the apartment complex's policies and procedures, courtesy officers are not classified as police officers by the complex; are not required or authorized to pursue and apprehend criminals; and if a crime occurs, should "[r]eport to the police or the Courtesy Patrol Officer's supervisor." Courtesy officers may question people on the property but apartment-issued guidelines prohibit them from making arrests, searching suspects, and carrying or using deadly weapons. The policy further warns that courtesy officers do not have "[t]he same job duties as police officers" or "[t]he same powers as police officers, according to the law." The policy includes an acknowledgement-which Garza may or may not have signed-affirming the understanding that "while providing [courtesy patrol] services" for the apartment complex, courtesy officers are "acting at the company's authority in the capacity of a Patrol/Courtesy Officer and not as an active/off duty Police Officer in the State of Texas."[8]

         The tragic encounter giving rise to this wrongful-death action occurred when Garza, already off duty from his Navasota Police Department job, arrived at the apartment complex after running personal errands one afternoon. Garza parked his car next to a vehicle he did not recognize and saw Jonathen Santellana, an individual he did not recognize, descending the staircase of one of the apartment buildings. Garza, who was dressed casually in plain clothes, crossed paths with Santellana and observed him staring at something in his hand. Garza did not see the object, but he suspected it was drugs because Santellana had been in an area of the complex where Garza had frequently detected the odor of marijuana and had observed unusually heavy foot traffic.

         Garza neither engaged nor detained Santellana, but due to his suspicions, he continued on to his apartment to retrieve his firearm and then returned to his own vehicle, where he saw Santellana and a female passenger sitting in the adjacent car. As Garza stood between the passenger side of his vehicle and the driver's side of Santellana's, he witnessed Santellana putting marijuana into a pill bottle. Santellana's possession of marijuana has not been disputed, but Garza's account of what happened next is contested and, in certain respects, controverted by evidence.

         According to Garza, once he viewed Santellana engaged in a crime, he displayed his police badge and identification card to Santellana through the driver's side window, identified himself as a police officer, and asked Santellana to step out of the car. Garza says Santellana ignored the officer's commands and instead started the vehicle. Fearing he would be pinned between the vehicles, Garza claims he opened the driver's door and reached in to turn the ignition off, but with the driver's door open, the vehicle started moving in reverse, scraping the side of Garza's vehicle. To avoid getting run over or crushed, Garza reportedly hung onto the door and "back-pedal[ed]" while attempting to grab the car keys. As Garza tells it, he drew his weapon and fired two shots through the side window in an attempt to stop Santellana. Garza expended several additional rounds as Santellana continued backing the car out of the parking spot.

         Controverting Garza's account, a third-party witness averred that Garza fired through the windshield from a distance as Santellana attempted to drive away. The witness recounted that after hearing the first two shots, she spotted the shooter on the sidewalk, watched him walk toward the vehicle and stop about two feet in front of it near the passenger side, and then fire three to five shots through the windshield while holding the gun with both hands.

          What is not in dispute is that, Santellana, who had been shot twice, managed to drive a short distance before crashing his vehicle into another resident's truck. He later died from his wounds.[9]

         Santellana's parents, Roxana Regalado Harrison and Joseph Santellana (collectively, the plaintiffs), sued Garza and the apartment complex in state court for wrongful death[10] and filed a section 1983 excessive-force complaint against Garza and the City of Navasota in federal court.[11]In the state-court lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged Garza was working as an employee for the apartment complex at the time of the incident, and in the federal-court lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged Garza acted under color of state law and in accordance with Navasota Police Department policies, customs, and training that were constitutionally defective.[12]

         After engaging in discovery in the state-court action, Garza filed a motion to dismiss based on the election-of-remedies provision in section 101.106(f) of the Tort Claims Act, which provides:

If a suit is filed [1] against an employee of a governmental unit [2] based on conduct within the general scope of that employee's employment and [3] if it could have been brought under [the Tort Claims Act] against the governmental unit, the suit is considered to be against the employee in the employee's official capacity only. On the employee's motion, the suit against the employee shall be dismissed unless the plaintiff files amended pleadings dismissing the employee and naming the governmental unit as defendant on or before the 30th day after the date the motion is filed.[13]

         In response, the plaintiffs did not amend their state-court pleadings to dismiss Garza and name the City of Navasota as a defendant, as section 101.106(f) allows. Instead, they argued section 101.106(f) is inapplicable because Garza was acting in the scope of his employment as a courtesy patrol officer for the apartment complex, not as a peace officer under his commission with the Navasota Police Department.

         The trial court denied Garza's motion to dismiss citing a fact issue about whether Garza "was acting within the authorized course and scope of a police officer or as an employee of [the apartment complex] at the time of the occurrence at issue." On interlocutory appeal, [14] the court of appeals affirmed, but for different reasons.[15]

         The only disputed issue before the appeals court was whether Garza was acting in the general scope of his employment as a peace officer when he shot Santellana.[16] The court held that, as a matter of law, Garza was neither performing the duties of his employment nor a task lawfully assigned to him within the meaning of section 101.106(f).[17] Raising the issue sua sponte, the appeals court distinguished between "an employee's authority to perform an action" and "his duty to perform an action he has been given authority to perform."[18] The court concluded that only the latter-an obligation to act-falls within section 101.106(f)'s scope and Garza had authority, but no duty, to make an arrest under the circumstances presented.[19]

         The court noted that article 14.03 of the Code of Criminal Procedure may have imbued Garza with authority to arrest Santellana despite being outside the Navasota Police Department's jurisdiction; however, he was not statutorily obligated to do so, and the Navasota Police Department had not specifically assigned that task to Garza.[20] Thus, even though acknowledging peace officers have authority to act extraterritorially to stop crime occurring in their presence, the court concluded that an officer doing so is necessarily acting in a non-official capacity if the governmental employer has not directed the officer to make such an arrest.[21]

         At the same time, the court disclaimed any intent to categorically bar section 101.106(f)'s application to police officers operating outside their primary jurisdiction, explaining that whether section 101.106(f) applies "is a context-specific inquiry that depends on the circumstances of the particular case and whether those circumstances dictate that the officer had a duty to act."[22] The court did not elaborate on what circumstances might be sufficient for purposes of section 101.106(f), holding only that those presented here were not.[23] The court implied that such a duty could arise under article 6.06 of the Code, but implicitly concluded Garza's attempted arrest of Santellana did not fall within article 6.06's ambit.[24]

         On petition for review to this Court, the central issue is whether section 101.106(f) extends only to a governmental employee's nondiscretionary duty to act or also encompasses authorized responsibilities, including discretionary authority statutorily conferred by virtue of a peace officer's commission.

         Garza and supporting amici contend that all of a police officer's authorized job responsibilities are necessarily within the scope of an officer's employment, [25] which Garza notes must be the case because the authority to make an arrest is often discretionary.[26] According to Garza and the amici, the court of appeals misconstrued section 101.106(f) by improperly and arbitrarily bifurcating police "duty" from police "authority." This construction, they say, is textually and pragmatically insupportable and imperils public safety by creating a perverse incentive for police to sit on the sidelines rather than acting on their authority to enforce the law.[27] Garza further explains that the dichotomy the appeals court created effects a schism in the immunity landscape by requiring a legal duty to invoke the scope-of-employment standard in the statute whereas the analogous element of the common-law official-immunity doctrine applies only to a governmental employee's good-faith performance of "discretionary duties . . . within the scope of their authority."[28]

         To the extent a nondiscretionary obligation to act is required to invoke section 101.106(f), which is vigorously disputed, Garza and various amici cite articles 2.13, 6.06, and 14.03 of the Code of Criminal Procedure as conferring statewide jurisdiction-both the duty and the authority-to make a warrantless arrest in specified circumstances, including (1) when within view of an officer, a person "is about to commit an offense against the person or property of another" and (2) when a person "commits any offense within the officer's presence or view."[29] Garza urges that, by clear statutory directive, he was doing his job as a peace officer and acting in accordance with his Navasota Police Department peace officer's commission in attempting to arrest Santellana for drug possession and using force when Santellana resisted arrest.

         In opposition, the plaintiffs embrace the duty limitation the court of appeals adopted, describing it as an important constraint on section 101.106(f)'s applicability when a police officer is off duty and outside his primary jurisdiction. And regardless of whether Garza had statutory authority to act under the circumstances, the plaintiffs deny that he had any duty to so, asserting he incorrectly construes the Code of Criminal Procedure in that regard.

         The plaintiffs contend Garza's conduct was outside the scope of his governmental employment as a matter of law-or a fact issue exists on that point-because (1) he was outside the Navasota Police Department's territorial jurisdiction, (2) he was off duty and acting as a courtesy patrol officer for the apartment complex, (3) he contractually agreed not to act as a peace officer while performing courtesy-patrol-officer services, and (4) the Navasota Police Department had no right to control Garza's actions outside its jurisdiction.

         In an argument raised for the first time on appeal, the plaintiffs also assert quasi-estoppel and waiver principles preclude Garza from relying on section 101.106(f) based on his contractual agreement to refrain from acting as a police officer while working as a courtesy patrol officer. Garza counters that these theories are waived and, in the alternative, lack merit because any benefit to the apartment complex and any attempt to circumscribe his responsibilities by private-party contract are irrelevant to whether he was objectively doing his job as a peace officer.

         II. Discussion

         A suit against a governmental employee in an official capacity is effectively a suit against the employing governmental unit, except in those cases alleging the employee has acted ultra vires.[30] Nonetheless, under the common law, "public employees (like agents generally) have always been individually liable for their own torts, even when committed in the course of employment," and to the extent the employee is not entitled to official immunity, the employee's liability could be established in a suit against the employee individually.[31]

         Section 101.106 of the Tort Claims Act alters the common-law scheme by requiring plaintiffs to choose between suing the governmental unit under the Act and suing a responsible employee in an individual capacity.[32] Section 101.106 "force[s] a plaintiff to decide at the outset whether an employee acted independently and is thus solely liable, or acted within the general scope of his or her employment such that the governmental unit is vicariously liable."[33] And because an official-capacity suit against a public employee is merely another way of pleading an action against the governmental employer, [34] on the employee's motion, section 101.106(f) compels an election that makes suit against the governmental employer the exclusive remedy for a public employee's conduct within the scope of employment.[35] In doing so, "section 101.106's election scheme favors the expedient dismissal of governmental employees when suit should have been brought against the government."[36] Unlike official immunity, which is an affirmative defense that bars a governmental employee's individual liability, [37] section 101.106(f) essentially prevents an employee from being sued at all for work-related torts and instead provides for a suit against the governmental employer.[38]

         Garza's motion to dismiss does not assert official immunity under the common law, [39] but instead invokes the statutory right to dismissal under section 101.106(f), which mandates dismissal when a suit against a governmental employee (1) is "based on conduct within the general scope of [the] employee's employment" and (2) "could have been brought under [the Act] against the governmental unit."[40] The parties do not dispute that Garza was a Navasota Police Department employee at the time of the alleged tort and that suit "could have been brought" under the Act against the City of Navasota, and so we need not substantively address those matters.[41] The sole issue on appeal is whether, within the meaning of section 101.106(f), Garza acted "within the general scope of [his] employment" as a peace officer when, while off duty and outside the City's territorial jurisdiction, he confronted and attempted to arrest Santellana.[42] Whether dismissal is required ultimately hinges on the proper construction and application of section 101.106(f), and we review those matters de novo.[43]

         A. General Scope of Employment

         Using a general definition with a term of enlargement, the Tort Claims Act broadly defines "scope of employment" as (1) "the performance for a governmental unit of the duties of an employee's office or employment," which (2) "includes being in or about the performance of a task lawfully assigned to an employee by competent authority."[44] Conduct falls outside the scope of employment when it occurs "within an independent course of conduct not intended by the employee to serve any purposes of the employer."[45]

         As explained in Laverie v. Wetherbe, which issued after the court of appeals decided this case, the critical inquiry is whether, when viewed objectively, "a connection [exists] between the employee's job duties and the alleged tortious conduct."[46] Simply stated, a governmental employee is discharging generally assigned job duties if the employee was doing his job at the time of the alleged tort.[47] For purposes of section 101.106(f), the employee's state of mind, motives, and competency are irrelevant so long as the conduct itself was pursuant to the employee's job responsibilities.[48]

         We hold that in attempting to arrest a suspect for a crime committed in plain view, city police officers-whether off- or on-duty and whether operating within their primary or extraterritorial jurisdiction-are acting within the general duties of their office, as statutorily conferred by and through their employment with a governmental unit.[49] By engrafting a "duty to act" limitation, the court of appeals misconstrued a peace officer's job "duties" for purposes of section 101.106(f) and applied a standard that is incompatible with an objective scope-of-employment analysis.

         B. Powers of Police Officers

         Police officers are governmental agents that derive all their powers under the law through their employing governmental entity.[50] The powers and duties of "peace officers," a term that includes city police officers like Garza, [51] are generally described in article 2.13 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.[52]

         Article 2.13(a) states, "It is the duty of every peace officer to preserve the peace within the officer's jurisdiction."[53] Article 2.13(b) states that "in every case authorized by the provisions of this Code," a peace officer "shall . . . interfere without warrant to prevent or suppress crime" and "shall . . . arrest offenders without warrant in every case where the officer is authorized by law."[54]The term "shall," as the Legislature has explained in the Code Construction Act, ...


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