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Kaufman County Commissioners Court v. Lassiter

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

June 28, 2019

KAUFMAN COUNTY COMMISSIONERS COURT, THE HONORABLE BRUCE WOOD, COUNTY JUDGE IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, MIKE HUNT, COUNTY COMMISSIONER IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, SKEET PHILLIPS, COUNTY COMMISSIONER IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, TERRY BARBER, COUNTY COMMISSIONER IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, JACKIE ALLEN, COUNTY COMMISSIONER IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, Appellants
v.
EARL LASSITER AND SUE LASSITER, Appellees

          On Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 2 Kaufman County, Texas, Trial Court Cause No. 100368-CC2

          Before Justices Brown, Schenck, and Pedersen, III.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DAVID J. SCHENCK JUSTICE.

         Earl and Sue Lassiter sued the Kaufman County Commissioners Court, and the individual Commissioners and the County Judge, in their official capacities, (collectively the "Commissioners") over a dispute concerning the maintenance of a section of road located within Kaufman County. The Commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that governmental immunity barred the Lassiters' claims. The trial court denied the Commissioners' plea. In two issues, the Commissioners challenge the jurisdiction of the statutory county court to consider the dispute at issue in this case and claim there has been no waiver of immunity from suit. We affirm the trial court's order denying the Commissioners' plea. Because all issues are settled in law, we issue this memorandum opinion. Tex.R.App.P. 47.4.

         Background

         The Lassiters purchased property in Kaufman County in 2015. The only access to and egress from the property is Kaufman County Road 273. Over time, the road deteriorated and came to a state of disrepair. The Lassiters complained to the County Commissioners claiming Kaufman County is responsible for maintaining the road all the way to their property. The Commissioners disagreed with the Lassiters and asserted Kaufman County's obligation to maintain the road ends approximately one hundred feet shy of the Lassiters' property. After receiving the Lassiters' complaint, the Commissioners caused a sign (the "Sign") to be erected approximately 100 yards prior to where County Road 273 meets the Lassiters' property stating KAUFMAN COUNTY ROAD MAINTENANCE ENDS.

         On July 30, 2018, the Lassiters filed suit against the Commissioners in the district courts of Kaufman County. The District Clerk assigned the case to County Court at Law No. 2. In their petition, the Lassiters allege that the road leading to their property is a public road and claim Kaufman County is responsible for the maintenance of the road and that the Commissioners Court may not discontinue maintenance of the road before a new road is ready to replace it. Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 251.051(c). By their suit, the Lassiters do not seek monetary damages; rather, they seek an injunction pursuant to section 251.058(a)(2) of the transportation code, which entitles a person to relief if "the portion of the road being closed, abandoned, and vacated provides the only ingress to or egress from the person's property." Id. § 251.058(a)(2). They request an injunction requiring the Commissioners to take down the Sign and continue to maintain County Road 273 all the way to their property. They further seek a declaration that sections 251.051(c) and 251.058(a)(2) of the transportation code collectively require Kaufman County to continue to maintain County Road 273 all the way to the their property until a replacement road is ready to replace the road. The Lassiters attached to their petition the affidavit of Earl Lassiter verifying two photographs he took along County Road 273. The Lassiters also attached copies of deeds, Commissioners Court minutes, and a County surveyor's sketch to their petition.

         The Commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction, and, in the alternative, an original answer. The trial court denied the Commissioners' plea, and the Commissioners filed this interlocutory appeal.

         Discussion

         In their first issue, the Commissioners urge the county court at law lacked subject matter jurisdiction over this case. We review an order denying a plea to the jurisdiction de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 228 (Tex. 2004). The Commissioners' first issue turns on the statutory construction of government code provisions governing statutory county courts; and thus, likewise presents a legal question that we review de novo. City of Rockwall v. Hughes, 246 S.W.3d 621, 625 (Tex. 2008).

         The Commissioners first urge that section 25.1312(a) of the government code, applicable specifically to the Kaufman County Courts at Law, adds to the jurisdiction of section 25.0003(a), which applies generally to all statutory county courts, and that section 25.0003(b) meanwhile exempts from the statutory county courts' jurisdiction cases involving a road dispute with the Commissioners Court. Tex. Gov't Code Ann. §§ 25.0003(a), (b), 25.1312(a).

         In construing statutes, we ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's intent as expressed by the language of the statute. See State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 284 (Tex. 2006). We use definitions prescribed by the Legislature and any technical or particular meaning the words have acquired. Gov't § 311.011(b). Otherwise, we construe the statute's words according to their plain and common meaning, Texas Department of Transportation v. City of Sunset Valley, 146 S.W.3d 637, 642 (Tex. 2004), unless a contrary intention is apparent from the context, Taylor v. Firemen's and Policemen's Civil Service Commission of City of Lubbock, 616 S.W.2d 187, 189 (Tex. 1981), or unless such a construction leads to patently absurd results. Univ. of Tex. S.W. Med. Ctr. v. Loutzenhiser, 140 S.W.3d 351, 356 (Tex. 2004). When a statute's language is clear and unambiguous, it is inappropriate to resort to rules of construction or extrinsic aids to construe the language. See St. Luke's Episcopal Hosp. v. Agbor, 952 S.W.2d 503, 505 (Tex. 1997).

         Chapter 25 of the government code provides broad rules governing statutory county courts. See Gov't §§ 25.0001-25.2625. Subchapter A contains general provisions that apply to each statutory county court in Texas and specifies that if a provision of subchapter A conflicts with a specific provision for a particular court or county, the specific provision controls. Id. § 25.0001(a); see also Gov't § 311.026 (stating similar rule in Code Construction Act); Brennan v. State, 334 S.W.3d 64, 69-70 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2009, no pet.) (concluding specific provision applicable to a Kaufman County Court at Law controlled over general provisions). Subchapter C contains provisions relating to particular counties. Gov't §§ 25.0041-25.2512. Section 25.1312 contains provisions applicable only to the Kaufman County Courts at Law. Id. § 25.1312.

         Section 25.0003 of the government code addresses the jurisdiction of all statutory county courts, and provides, in part, "[a] statutory county court has jurisdiction over all causes and proceedings, civil and criminal, original and appellate, prescribed by law for county courts" and that "[a] statutory county court does not have jurisdiction over causes and proceedings concerning roads, bridges, and public highways . . . ." Id. ยง 25.0003(a), (b) (emphasis added). That provision was originally enacted and became effective ...


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