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Rivera v. Garcia

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

July 31, 2019

Ernesto RIVERA Jr. and Brandon Torres, Appellants
v.
Alissa GARCIA and Jose Reynaldo Mendez Garcia, Appellees

          From the County Court, Jim Wells County, Texas Trial Court No. 17-05-57235-CV Honorable Michael Ventura Garcia, Judge Presiding

          Sitting: Sandee Bryan Marion, Chief Justice Patricia O. Alvarez, Justice Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice

          OPINION

          PATRICIA O. ALVAREZ, JUSTICE

         This case stems from the trial court's denial of a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to section 101.106(f) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.106(f). Appellees Alissa Garcia and Jose Reynaldo Mendez Garcia filed suit for defamation, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Appellant Ernesto Rivera Jr. and Brandon Torres, both deputies with the Jim Wells County Sheriff's Office. The deputies appeal alleging their actions were within the scope of their employment and the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. We reverse the trial court's order denying the motion to dismiss and dismiss the Garcia's suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On June 9, 2016, Alissa and Jose Reynaldo Mendez Garcia reported their 2014 black Toyota 4-Runner was stolen to the Jim Wells County Sheriff's Department. Alissa also reported the stolen truck to their insurance carrier. Assistant Chief Deputy Brandon Torres assigned the investigation of the theft of the automobile to Sergeant Ernesto Rivera Jr. During his investigation, Sergeant Rivera accessed a computer software system, available to the Jim Wells County Sheriff's Office through the Enterprise Operation Center and Homeland Security. Sergeant Rivera located several leads for locations of the vehicle based on the vehicle's license plate. Sergeant Rivera then interviewed the Garcias. Based on his investigation, on June 27, 2016, Sergeant Rivera swore out affidavits against both Alissa and Jose Reynaldo Mendez Garcia for filing a false police report, and against Alissa Garcia for insurance fraud. The investigation and affidavits are the bases of the Garcias' malicious prosecution claims.

         The Sheriff's Office was subsequently contacted by a Corpus Christi reporter. Assistant Chief Deputy Torres provided an interview with the reporter which is the basis of the Garcias' defamation claim. The intentional infliction of emotional distress claim is based on a combination of both the defamation and the malicious prosecution claims.

         On May 30, 2017, the Garcias filed suit for defamation, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Jim Wells County Deputies Brandon Torres and Ernesto Rivera Jr. The Garcias simultaneously filed suit against Coalition Against Insurance Fraud for defamation.

         On July 28, 2017, the deputies filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to section 101.106 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. See id.

         On November 29, 2017, the trial court heard oral arguments and testimony from the 79th Judicial District Attorney and the Jim Wells County Sheriff; and, on October 31, 2018, the trial court denied the motion to dismiss.

         The deputies filed this interlocutory appeal.

         Standard of Review

         Because a motion to dismiss filed by an employee pursuant to section 101.106(f) challenges the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction, an appellate court conducts a de novo review. Westbrook v. Penley, 231 S.W.3d 389, 394 (Tex. 2007). Likewise, our determination of the matters involves statutory construction, which is also reviewed under a de novo standard. See ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. v. Coleman, 512 S.W.3d 895, 899 (Tex. 2017) (per curiam); Railroad Comm'n v. Tex. Citizens for a Safe Future & Clean Water, 336 S.W.3d 619, 624 (Tex. 2011). We apply the plain meaning of the text, absent a different definition provided by the legislature, unless the plain meaning leads to absurd results. Marks v. St. Luke's Episcopal Hosp., 319 S.W.3d 658, 663 (Tex. 2010).

         Arguments of the Parties

         The deputies contend the uncontroverted evidence establishes the deputies were within the scope of their employment to investigate the reports, arrest the Garcias, and answer the medias' questions; thus, the trial court erred in denying their motion to dismiss pursuant to section 101.106(f) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.106(f).

         The Garcias contend the deputies' affidavits were conclusory and contained inadmissible hearsay, the evidence contested that the deputies were in the course and scope of their employment, and the deputies were sued in their individual capacity.

         Immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act

         Sovereign immunity and governmental immunity protect the State and its political subdivisions, respectively, from lawsuits and liability. See Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 253 S.W.3d 653, 655 (Tex. 2008). The Texas Tort Claims Act provides a limited waiver of that immunity for certain suits against governmental entities. Id.; see also Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021. After the Texas Tort Claims Act's enactment, "plaintiffs often sought to avoid the Act's damages cap or other strictures by suing governmental employees, since claims against [the employees] were not always subject to the Act." Garcia, 253 S.W.3d at 656.

         Section 101.106(f) of the Tort Claims Act requires the trial court to dismiss a cause of action against a protected employee when the employee's conduct ...


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