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Johnson v. Boehnke

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

September 18, 2019

Paul Johnson, Appellant
Mark Boehnke, Marilyn Wilson, Leslie Muller, and Richard Petree, Appellees


          Before Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Kelly


          Thomas J. Baker, Justice

         In this interlocutory appeal, Paul Johnson contends that the trial court erred in granting the plea to the jurisdiction filed by several employees[1] of the Bastrop Central Appraisal District (the District) and dismissing his claims against them. We affirm the portion of the trial court's order dismissing Johnson's claims against the employees in their official capacities and dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction the portion of this appeal pertaining to Johnson's claims against the employees in their individual capacities.


         Johnson filed an original petition against the District appealing an order of its Appraisal Review Board (ARB) denying his application for an "open space" appraisal, which would have reduced his property taxes. See Tex. Tax Code §§ 23.51(1) (defining "qualified open-space land"), 42.01 (providing property owner right to appeal order of ARB); see also id. § 23.54 (outlining procedures for filing application for open-space appraisal). Johnson amended his petition several times, adding claims for fraud and "official oppression" and seeking damages. Johnson then filed his live (third amended) petition, adding as defendants several District employees in both their official and individual capacities. Johnson alleged that the employees (1) "subjected him to assessments they knew were unlawful" because they knew the appraisal manual they followed in processing his application was "in conflict with" the law and (2) "demanded" he provide them with information to process his application that they knew he was not legally required to provide.

         The employees filed a plea to the jurisdiction, contending that (1) Johnson does not have standing to pursue criminal charges for official oppression, see Tex. Penal Code § 39.03(a); (2) Johnson irrevocably elected to sue the District rather than its employees regarding the same subject matter, depriving the court of jurisdiction over his claims against the employees, see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.106(a); and (3) the Property Code provides an exclusive remedy for Johnson's complaint, depriving the court of jurisdiction to consider his claims against the individual employees, see Tex. Tax Code § 42.09(a).

         The trial court found that the plea to the jurisdiction was "meritorious" and held that the employees "are entitled immunity from the claims asserted against them." Accordingly, the trial court granted the plea and dismissed "all claims" against the employees with prejudice. Johnson filed this interlocutory appeal of that order.


         A plea to the jurisdiction challenges a court's authority over the subject matter of a claim. City of Ingleside v. City of Corpus Christi, 469 S.W.3d 589, 590 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam). Whether a court has subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo. Id. We construe the pleadings liberally and in light of the pleader's intent to determine if the plaintiff has alleged facts affirmatively demonstrating the trial court's jurisdiction to hear the claim. Meyers v. JDC/Firethorne, Ltd., 548 S.W.3d 477, 486 (Tex. 2018).


         Johnson contends on appeal that "each ground that Appellees pled for their Plea to the Jurisdiction is groundless." Because the trial court's order did not specify which of the grounds it found meritorious, we need not address each ground raised by the employees if we conclude that the trial court's order was correct on any of the grounds. See Combined Specialty Ins. v. Deese, 266 S.W.3d 653, 657 (Tex.App.-Dallas 2008, no pet.).

         Election of remedies

         The employees contended in their plea to the jurisdiction that Johnson's initial filing of his lawsuit against only the District constituted an irrevocable election under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) barring any suit or recovery by him against any individual employee of the District regarding the same subject matter. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.106(a). Therefore, they argue on appeal, the trial court properly dismissed his claims against them. See Molina v. Alvarado, 463 S.W.3d 867, 871 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam) (holding that when plaintiff initially filed suit against only governmental unit rather than its employee, that irrevocable election barred him from later suing employee of governmental unit regarding same subject matter, and rendering judgment for employee on his summary-judgment motion). Johnson retorts that the TTCA's election-of-remedies provision does not apply because he filed "ultra vires" claims against the employees rather than claims "under" the TTCA. However, while Johnson frames his claims on appeal as "ultra vires," his pleadings allege only intentional torts against the employees-for which he seeks damages-and do not allege any ultra vires claims against them. See City of El Paso v. Heinrich,284 S.W.3d 366, 372, 374 (Tex. 2009) (defining ultra vires claims as those alleging that governmental officer either acted without legal authority or failed to perform purely ministerial act and ...

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