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Watson v. City of Southlake

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

September 19, 2019

James H. Watson and Others Similarly Situated, Appellant
City of Southlake, Appellee James H. Watson and Others Similarly Situated, Appellant
City of Allen, City of Amarillo, City of Arlington, City of Austin, City of Balch Springs, City of Balcones Heights, City of Bastrop, City of Baytown, City of Bedford, City of Burleson, City of Cedar Hill, City of Conroe, City of Coppell, City of Corpus Christi, City of Dallas, City of Denton, City of Duncanville, City of El Paso, City of Elgin, City of Farmers Branch, City of Fort Worth, City of Frisco, City of Garland, City of Grand Prairie, City of Haltom City, City of Humble, City of Hurst, City of Hutto, City of Irving, City of Jersey Village, City of Killeen, City of League City, City of Little Elm, City of Longview, City of Marshall, City of Mesquite, City of North Richland Hills, City of Richland Hills, City of Roanoke, City of Round Rock, City of Tomball, City of University Park, City of Watauga, American Traffic Solutions, Inc., American Traffic Solutions, LLC, Xerox State & Local Solutions Inc., and The State of Texas, Appellees

          On Appeal from the 153rd District Court Tarrant County, Texas Trial Court Nos. 153-278080-15, 153-298996-18

          Before Sudderth, C.J.; Gabriel and Birdwell, JJ.



         Appellant James H. Watson challenges the constitutionality of the state and local laws that provided for automated red-light cameras. He sues on behalf of a putative class of citizens, seeking a declaration and injunction against enforcement of these red-light-camera laws, as well as the return of the fines that he and other citizens were assessed.

         In this consolidated appeal, Watson contends that the trial court erred by granting pleas to the jurisdiction in favor of all but one defendant. While Watson's appeal was pending, the Texas Supreme Court addressed a nearly identical set of arguments against the constitutionality of red-light-camera laws, and it rejected the appellant's challenges on grounds of standing, immunity, and failure to exhaust administrative remedies. See Garcia v. City of Willis, No. 17-0713, 2019 WL 1967140, at *3–7 (Tex. May 3, 2019). Also while this appeal was pending, the Legislature undid the whole of the red-light-camera statute, repealing it and replacing it with a measure that generally prohibited the use of red-light cameras for traffic enforcement. Act of May 17, 2019, 86th Leg., R.S., ch. 372, H.B. 1631, §§ 2, 6; see Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 707.020. Thus, following the guidance of Garcia, and accounting for the effect of the Legislature's repeal, we reject Watson's arguments and affirm.

         I. Background

         In 2002, the Texas Office of Attorney General issued an opinion suggesting that under state law at the time, cities could not use red-light cameras to impose civil penalties. See Tex. Att'y Gen. Op. No. JC-0460 (2002). In 2007, the Legislature responded to that opinion by enacting chapter 707 of the transportation code, which authorized municipalities to establish, by ordinance, a system of red-light cameras and civil fines. See Act of May 16, 2007, 80th Leg., R.S., ch. 1149, § 1, 2007 Tex. Gen. Laws 3924 (former Tex. Transp. Code Ann. §§ 707.001–.019). Under the former statute, participating municipalities could assess a civil fine of up to $75 for red-light violations, along with a late fee of up to $25 if payment was not timely made. Id. (former Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 707.007). If the penalty was not paid at all, the statute authorized the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to refuse to renew the vehicle's registration. Id. (former Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 707.017(a)). The statute provided that persons charged with violations could contest the penalty at an administrative hearing. Id. (former Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 707.014(a)).

         After the enactment of chapter 707, the City of Southlake adopted a red-light-camera ordinance, as did many other municipalities. Southlake's ordinance provided that violations were subject to a civil fine of $75, a $25 late fee, and additional fees if the violator's check was returned for insufficient funds.

         On Halloween of October 2014, Watson, a resident of Louisiana, was cited for violating Southlake's ordinance. It is undisputed that Watson did not take advantage of his administrative remedies. Instead, he filed suit in district court. Watson alleged that he was not in the vehicle or even in the state of Texas at the time of the purported violation, and he did not give permission to whoever was driving his vehicle. Watson alleged that he nonetheless paid the $75 fine under duress, fearing that he would be assessed late fees, would be refused renewal of his registration, and would suffer damage to his credit score.

         However, Watson did not simply sue Southlake for the return of his $75. Rather, Watson sought class certification and purported to sue on behalf of all others who had been affected by Texas's red-light-camera laws. To that end, Watson sued municipalities throughout Texas that had enacted red-light-camera ordinances. Watson also sued Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., the private company that administered Southlake's red-light-camera program, as well as three other similarly situated private administrators: American Traffic Solutions, Inc.; American Traffic Solutions, LLC; and Xerox State & Local Solutions, Inc. Finally, Watson's petition named the State of Texas as defendant for its role in enacting the unconstitutional enabling statute. In all, he sought the return of millions of dollars that had been, he said, wrongfully "fleeced" from citizens; he alleged an amount in controversy of well over a million dollars. Watson alleged several claims:

• unconstitutional takings;
• reimbursement of the civil fines;
• injunction prohibiting the government defendants from enforcing their red-light-camera laws;
• declaratory judgment that the red-light-camera laws were unconstitutional under several provisions of the Texas constitution; and
• claims for common law misrepresentation and deceptive trade practices violations against the private administrators.

         Before long, many of the government defendants filed pleas to the jurisdiction. In its plea, the State of Texas argued that it was not involved in the issuance of Watson's fine, and Watson therefore lacked standing to bring claims against the State. According to the State, it was purely passive in the matter, and Watson had suffered a cognizable injury only at the hands of Southlake and Redflex-the entities which had issued his ticket. The State further reasoned that even if Watson had standing, his claims were barred by sovereign immunity. Many of the municipalities and private administrators voiced their own standing and immunity arguments. Other municipalities contended that Watson's claims were barred due to his failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

         On April 6, 2018, the trial court rendered two orders concerning the pleas to the jurisdiction, from which Watson appeals. In one order, the trial court granted Southlake's plea to the jurisdiction on the basis of immunity. Watson subsequently filed an accelerated interlocutory appeal of that order in appellate cause number 02-18-00143-CV.

         In another order, the trial court granted pleas to the jurisdiction in favor of all defendants except Southlake and Redflex, reasoning that Watson had no standing to raise his claims against the State, the other municipalities, or the private administrators who were not involved in Watson's ticket. The trial court subsequently severed these claims and rendered a final judgment dismissing them with prejudice. Watson timely appealed this final judgment in appellate cause number 02-18-00151-CV. Together, the order and the judgment left Redflex as the only remaining defendant in the case. We consider Watson's appeals together.

         II. Standing & Mootness

         The trial court implicitly concluded that Watson had standing to sue Southlake and Redflex, but it explicitly concluded that he lacked standing to sue any of the other defendants who were not involved in his particular ticket.

         By what we deem his first issue, Watson challenges the trial court's ruling that he lacked standing to sue any of these other defendants. Before we consider his issue, however, we take up sua sponte the question of whether Watson had standing to bring prospective claims against any defendant in this appeal.

         A. Applicable Law

         Standing is a question of law that we review de novo. Heckman v. Williamson Cty., 369 S.W.3d 137, 149–50 (Tex. 2012). The burden is on the plaintiff to affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction. Id. at 150. When assessing a plea to the jurisdiction, our analysis begins with the live pleadings. Id. We construe the plaintiff's pleadings liberally, taking all factual assertions as true, and look to the plaintiff's intent. Id. Because it is a component of subject matter jurisdiction, standing cannot be waived and may be raised for the first time on appeal. Meyers v. JDC/Firethorne, Ltd., 548 S.W.3d 477, 484 (Tex. 2018).

         "In Texas, the standing doctrine requires a concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between the parties that will be resolved by the court." Id. Under Texas law, the standing inquiry begins with determining whether the plaintiff has personally been injured. Id. at 485. The second element requires that the plaintiff's alleged injury be "fairly traceable" to the defendant's conduct. Id. To establish the third standing requirement, a plaintiff must show that there is a substantial likelihood that the requested relief will remedy the alleged injury. Id.

         Standing is a "prerequisite to subject-matter jurisdiction, and subject-matter jurisdiction is essential to a court's power to decide a case." Garcia, 2019 WL 1967140, at *2. We are "duty-bound" to explore potential standing problems sua sponte. See id.

         B. Watson Lacks Standing to Raise Prospective Claims for Relief

         Watson seeks two forms of prospective relief. First, he seeks a declaration that multiple sections of the statute-and the ordinances enacted under that statute-are unconstitutional. Second, he seeks injunctive relief prohibiting all defendants from enforcing or collecting money under these red-light-camera laws. Watson also ...

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