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Naismith Engineering, Inc. v. City of Aransas Pass

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

September 19, 2019

NAISMITH ENGINEERING, INC., Appellant,
v.
THE CITY OF ARANSAS PASS, TEXAS, Appellee.

          On appeal from the 343rd District Court of San Patricio County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Longoria and Perkes

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORA L. LONGORIA JUSTICE.

         Appellant Naismith Engineering, Inc. (NEI) appeals from a plea to the jurisdiction granted in favor of appellee the City of Aransas Pass, Texas (the City). By one issue, NEI argues that the trial court erred when it granted the City's plea. We affirm.

         I. Background

         The City's manager, authorized by the City Council, entered into a contract with NEI to design improvements to the boat-ramp area of the City's Conn. Brown Harbor (CBH project). The scope of work by NEI for the CBH project included engineering, permitting, and administration services for the boating access and facilities at Conn. Brown Harbor. NEI provided the design and the City then awarded the construction contract to J.M. Davidson, Ltd.

         The City sued NEI, J.M. Davidson, Ltd., and RLI Insurance Company, who provided the surety on J.M. Davidson, Ltd.'s performance bond, alleging that there were deficiencies related to the CBH project. The City sought over $1,000,000 in damages. NEI subsequently counterclaimed against the City, seeking to recover outstanding fees for work performed pursuant to NEI's contract to work for the City as the engineer of record. NEI alleged that "[NEI] performed work ranging from general project services to general harbor engineering and planning and services for waterline extension. [The City] has failed to pay [NEI] for rendered services in breach of the parties' agreement." In its second amended counterclaim, NEI sought "approximately $611,575.36, plus interest, for work performed under the contractual relationship."

         Arguing that it had governmental immunity, the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction challenging NEI's counterclaim. NEI countered that immunity had been waived by chapter 271 of the Local Government Code. See Tex. Loc. Gov't Code Ann. § 271.152. The trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction, dismissing NEI's counterclaim. This appeal followed.

         II. Plea to the Jurisdiction

         A. Standard of Review

         Whether a court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a dispute that involves a governmental agency is a question of law. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). On appeal, courts use a de novo standard in determining whether the plaintiff's pleadings allege sufficient facts to demonstrate that a trial court has jurisdiction over the controversy. Id. In reviewing the pleadings, courts are not to weigh whether the plaintiff's claims have merit; instead, courts must decide whether the pleadings and the evidence before the trial court demonstrate that the court may exercise jurisdiction over the parties' dispute. See County of Cameron v. Brown, 80 S.W.3d 549, 555 (Tex. 2002).

         In reviewing whether the pleadings demonstrate that the trial court has jurisdiction over the subject of the dispute, the plaintiff's pleadings must "affirmatively demonstrate the court's jurisdiction by alleging a valid waiver of immunity." Dall. Area Rapid Transit v. Whitley, 104 S.W.3d 540, 542 (Tex. 2003). When the plea "challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts," the relevant evidence submitted by the parties is considered, when necessary, in resolving the defendant's challenge. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227. In this appeal, the dispute concerns whether NEI's pleadings and the evidence demonstrate that the Legislature waived the City's immunity regarding NEI's alleged breach of contract claim.

         B. Applicable Law

Political subdivisions in Texas have long enjoyed immunity from suit when performing governmental functions like that involved here. While this immunity can be waived, we have consistently deferred to the Legislature to do so; indeed, we have said immunity from liability "depends entirely upon statute." For its part, the Legislature has mandated that no statute ...

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