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Prewett v. Canyon Lake Island Property Owners Association

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

December 20, 2019

David Matthew Prewett, Prewett Rentals Series 2752 Military LLC, Adrienne V. Prewett, Richard Coons, Jeannette Coons, Tami Jan, Ward Galbreath, Sumit Kapoor, Rachel Kapoor, Nakul Jeirath, Tasha Jeirath, Mark L. Reis, and Janis R. Reis, Appellants
v.
Canyon Lake Island Property Owners Association, Sally W. Duncan, and A. Baker Duncan, Appellees

          FROM COUNTY COURT AT LAW NO. 1 OF COMAL COUNTY NO. 2018CVA0217, THE HONORABLE RANDAL C. GRAY, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Kelly

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Chari L. Kelly, Justice

         In April 2018, the appellants, a group of individuals owning residential property in the Canyon Lake Island subdivision (collectively, the "Homeowners"), sued the Canyon Lake Island Property Owners Association in Comal County Court at Law Number One. The Homeowners later added as defendants Sally W. Duncan and A. Baker Duncan, who also own property in the subdivision.

         According to their petition, the Homeowners have been renting their properties for terms less than 30 days using internet sites such as "VRBO" and "HomeAway" and are now being threatened with legal action by the Property Owners Association and, in fact, have been sued by the Duncans in district court. The Homeowners allege that the Property Owners Association and the Duncans have informed them that the subdivision's deed restrictions bar short-term rentals and have demanded that they stop engaging in any further short-term rental activity. The Homeowners seek a declaration that "the [deed restrictions] do not bar Plaintiffs' leasing according to any duration, limit, minimum or maximum" and claim that they "seek monetary relief of $100, 000 or less and non-monetary relief."

         The Duncans subsequently filed a plea in abatement, asserting that their previously filed action in district court acquired dominant jurisdiction over the dispute. The Duncans also filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional limit of the court. Without ruling on the plea in abatement, the trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction, awarded attorney's fees to the Duncans, and dismissed Homeowners' suit. The Homeowners timely appealed to this Court. For the reasons set forth below, we will affirm the county court's judgment of dismissal.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea that challenges the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction without regard to whether the asserted claims have merit. See Texas Dep 't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004); Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). Because subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law, we review a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction applying a de novo standard. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 225.

         The burden is on the plaintiff to plead or present evidence of facts that affirmatively demonstrate a trial court's jurisdiction. See Heckman v. Williamson County, 369 S.W.3d 137, 149-50 (Tex. 2012). Typically, a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the sufficiency of the plaintiffs pleadings-that is, whether the plaintiff met his initial burden to allege facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction to hear the cause. Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 635 (Tex. 2012). When a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the sufficiency of the plaintiff's pleadings, the court will look to the pleader's intent, construe the pleadings liberally in favor of jurisdiction, and accept the allegations in the pleadings as true. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227.

         A plea to the jurisdiction can also properly challenge the existence of jurisdictional facts. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d at 635. In these cases, the court must consider evidence submitted by the parties when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issue raised. Blue, 34 S.W.3d at 555. The manner in which the trial court analyzes the jurisdictional evidence depends on whether the disputed jurisdictional facts do or do not overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's case. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227. When the disputed jurisdictional facts do not overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's claims, as is the case here, the trial court must review the evidence and make the necessary factual findings to resolve the jurisdictional issue. Vernco Constr., Inc. v. Nelson, 460 S.W.3d 145, 149 (Tex. 2015); University of Tex. v. Poindexter, 306 S.W.3d 798, 806-07 (Tex. App.-Austin 2009, no pet.). In the absence of written findings of fact and conclusions of law, it is implied that the trial court made all the findings necessary to support its judgment. Worford v. Stamper, 801 S.W.2d 108, 109 (Tex. 1990). The trial court's fact findings, explicit or implicit, may then be challenged on appeal in the same manner as any other factual findings, for legal and factual sufficiency. Poindexter, 306 S.W.3d at 806-07; see City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 827 (Tex. 2005) (legal-sufficiency standard); Cain v. Bain, 709 S.W.2d 175, 176 (Tex. 1986) (factual-sufficiency standard).

         ANALYSIS

         Unlike state district courts, county courts at law are courts of "limited jurisdiction." United Servs. Auto. Ass'n v. Brite, 215 S.W.3d 400, 401 (Tex. 2007). Jurisdiction in a county court at law is not presumed, and therefore, "the authority to adjudicate the claims presented must be established at the outset of the case." Abdullatif v. Erpile, LLC, 460 S.W.3d 685, 691 (Tex. App-Houston [14th Dist] 2015, no pet.).

         Comal County Court at Law Number One is a statutory county court at law.[1] See Tex. Gov't Code §§ 25.0481, .0482. Statutory county courts "ha[ve] jurisdiction over all causes and proceedings, civil and criminal, original and appellate, prescribed by law for county courts." Id. § 25.0003(a); see also id. §§ 26.042 (general civil jurisdiction and juvenile jurisdiction of constitutional county courts), .043 (listing specific types of cases in which constitutional county courts do not have jurisdiction). Relevant to this dispute, the jurisdiction of statutory county courts includes jurisdiction over "civil cases in which the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $200, 000, excluding interest, statutory or punitive damages and penalties, and attorney's fees and costs, as alleged on the face of the petition." See id. § 25.0003(c)(1).

         Because declaratory-judgment actions are not generally within the jurisdiction of the Comal County courts at law, a plaintiff seeking declaratory relief in the court must demonstrate that the subject matter of the action falls within the amount-in-controversy limits. See id. § 25.0482 (Comal County Court at Law provisions); but see id. § 27.034(a), (e) (granting jurisdiction to justice courts "of suits relating to enforcement of a deed restriction of a residential subdivision" "regardless of the amount in controversy"); Garrett Operators, Inc. v. City of Houston, 360 S.W.3d 36, 44 (Tex. App-Houston [1st Dist] 2011, pet. denied) (concluding that county court at law lacked jurisdiction to consider claim for declaratory relief because such actions "are not generally within the jurisdiction of Harris County civil courts at law" and no proof was presented that subject matter of action was within court's jurisdictional limits). In the jurisdictional context, the phrase "amount in controversy" means "the sum of money or the value of the things sued for." Tune v. Texas Dep't of Pub. Safety, 23 S.W.3d 358, 361 (Tex. 2000) (quoting Gulf C. & S.F. Ry. v. Cunnigan,67 S.W. 888, 890 (Tex. 1902)). The amount in controversy is generally determined by the allegations in the plaintiffs petition and measured by the amount that the plaintiff seeks to recover. Blue,34 S.W.3d 554. "However, pleadings are not determinative when, as in this case, "the issue in dispute is a license or right rather than damages." Id. In such cases, "[t]he subjective value of [the] privilege, if asserted in good faith, establishes jurisdiction if ...


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