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State v. Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 16

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

June 6, 2019


          On appeal from the County Court at Law No. 8 of Hidalgo County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Longoria and Perkes



         This dispute concerns a condemnation case brought by appellant, the State of Texas, involving land located in Hidalgo County, Texas. Following the State's amendment to its petition for condemnation, removing appellee Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 16 (HCID) as a party, the trial court granted HCID's motion for recovery of attorney's fees and other expenses. By what we construe as one issue, the State argues on appeal that the trial court erred in awarding attorney's fees to HCID. We reverse and render.

         I. Background

         The State, on behalf of the Texas Transportation Commission, sought to acquire 35 acres of land nearby U.S. Highway 83 in Hidalgo County. On May 23, 2016, the State filed its Petition for Condemnation. In its petition, the State joined the individuals and entities it believed to be owners or holders of the property: Rufino Garza, Ana I. Garza, Ramiro J. Flores, Yolanda S. Flores, Lone Star National Bank (Lone Star), Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (Mutual Life), and HCID. The State based its attribution of property ownership on information received from a title commitment issued two months earlier.

         HCID, along with the other parties, [1] appeared before the special commissioners for a hearing on damages[2] on August 12, 2016. The special commissioners awarded $8, 204, 624 in damages to be paid to the individual condemnees, Lone Star, and HCID. The State and HCID filed separate objections to the award on September 2, 2016, requesting a jury trial. HCID then filed a cross-claim against one of the property owners and an unrelated third-party on September 9, 2016.[3] HCID ultimately filed a notice of nonsuit of its cross-claim on April 18, 2017. A discovery control plan and scheduling order was put in place on May 4, 2017. Soon after, Lone Star was dismissed from the suit, leaving only the individual condemnees and HCID.

         On January 2, 2018, the individual condemnees filed a "No Evidence Motion for Summary Judgment" seeking to dismiss HCID from the suit. In their motion, the individual condemnees alleged HCID was not an owner of the subject property, and HCID had failed to provide evidence to the contrary despite multiple discovery inquiries. The State then requested another title commitment, which confirmed the individual condemnees' allegations. The title company concluded that HCID did not own any interest in the subject property.

         On January 19, 2018, based on the second title commitment, the State filed an amended petition for condemnation, removing HCID as a party. Less than a week later, HCID filed a motion for recovery of reasonable and necessary attorney's fees and other expenses. In its motion, HCID requested $41, 268 in attorney's fees, relying on §§ 21.019 and 21.0195 of the Texas Property Code, which dictate that a property owner may recoup attorney's fees and other expenses following a dismissal of a condemnation proceeding. The State filed a response and plea to the jurisdiction arguing that (1) the trial court lacked jurisdiction over HCID's motion for fees, and (2) fees are not authorized by the property code.

         At the March 28, 2018 hearing, HCID argued that the onus was on the State to correctly identify the condemnees in its condemnation suit and asserted that its attorney's fees were incurred as a result of responding to the State's extensive discovery requests. The State conceded that the information provided in the first title commitment had been incorrect and that the State relied on that misinformation in pursuance of its condemnation claim against HCID. The State, however, reasoned that HCID should have determined the extent of its ownership interest, as Mutual Life and Lone Star did, before incurring all its expenses. The State argued that it retained immunity from liability because the property code statutes that HCID relied upon were inapplicable. HCID could not prevail under the statute because (1) the State did not dismiss the condemnation proceeding, and (2) HCID is not a "property owner." The trial court granted the motion for recovery[4]and awarded HCID $41, 268 in attorney's fees. This interlocutory appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         Immunity "implicates a court's subject-matter jurisdiction over pending claims." Rusk State Hosp. v. Black, 392 S.W.3d 88, 95 (Tex. 2012). Whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law reviewed de novo, and the court must consider relevant evidence submitted by the parties when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issues. Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226-27 (Tex. 2004). Similarly, statutory construction is a legal question that we review de novo. Colorado Cty. v. Staff, 510 S.W.3d 435, 444 (Tex. 2017). "In construing statutes, we ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's intent as expressed by the language of the statute," using the "definitions prescribed by the Legislature and any technical or particular meaning the words have acquired." City of Rockwall v. Hughes, 246 S.W.3d 621, 625 (Tex. 2008). The statute's words are otherwise construed "according to their plain and common meaning, unless a contrary intention is apparent from the context, or unless such a construction leads to absurd results." Id. at 625-26 (internal citations omitted).

         III. Applicable Law and Analysis

         Our legislature has enacted a comprehensive statutory scheme that governs the State's eminent-domain power and provides for assessment of financial repercussions should the condemning authority abandon condemnation proceedings. See Tex. Prop. Code Ann. ยงยง 21.001-.065; Tex. ...

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