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Galveston County v. Quiroga

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

January 7, 2020

GALVESTON COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellant
v.
BONNIE QUIROGA, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 212th District Court Galveston County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 14-CV-1289

          Panel consists of Justices Wise, Zimmerer, and Spain.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Jerry Zimmerer, Justice.

         In this interlocutory appeal Galveston County, Texas ("the County") appeals the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment. In two issues the County challenges the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction over appellee Bonnie Quiroga's actions under the Texas Whistleblower Act and the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act. Concluding that the trial court does not have jurisdiction over Quiroga's claims under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act and one of her claims under the Whistleblower Act, we vacate the trial court's order denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction and dismiss those claims. We affirm the trial court's denial of the County's plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment on Quiroga's whistleblower claim as it pertains to alleged recordings in the Galveston County Jail.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         According to Quiroga's first amended petition, she was employed by the County for approximately thirty years before her discharge on July 24, 2014. In 2000, the County district court judges recommended Quiroga for the position of Director of Justice Administration, a position created in 1998. The Galveston County Commissioners Court appointed Quiroga to the position. As Director of Justice Administration Quiroga performed functions related to the trial judges for the District and County Courts of the County. Quiroga was appointed to her position by one or more of the trial judges, and the appointment was confirmed, and salaries appropriated, by the County Commissioners Court. On July 24, 2014, County Judge Mark A. Henry terminated Quiroga's employment.

         Quiroga filed suit against the County alleging (1) the County Judge and County Commissioners Court were not authorized to terminate Quiroga; (2) Quiroga's termination was a result of retaliation in violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act; and (3) the County Commissioners Court violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. Quiroga couched her allegations against the County Commissioners as requests for declaratory relief. In requesting relief, however, Quiroga sought back wages, a certificate of county life insurance, pre- and post-judgment interest, and attorneys' fees.

         The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction in which it alleged the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because (1) Quiroga's requests for declaratory relief could not survive as a matter of law; and (2) Quiroga had not pleaded sufficient elements of a Texas Whistleblower Act claim. Attached to the County's plea to the jurisdiction were portions of Quiroga's pretrial deposition. In her deposition Quiroga stated that her Whistleblower Act claims were limited to two reports of allegedly illegal activities Quiroga made within 90 days of the date she was terminated. Quiroga reported to the Galveston County District Attorney that allegedly unlawful listening devices had been installed in the County Jail, and reported the unlawful use of official information to County Judge Mark Henry in his capacity as a member of the purchasing board. Quiroga confirmed in her deposition that she was not seeking reinstatement of employment.

         The County sought dismissal of Quiroga's claims on sovereign immunity grounds alleging that Quiroga's claims did not waive the County's immunity from suit. After a non-evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the County's plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment. The County filed this interlocutory appeal of the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction pursuant to section 51.014(a)(8) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8).

         In two issues the County contends the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over Quiroga's (1) Whistleblower Act claims; and (2) Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act claims.

         Analysis

         I. Standard of Review

         Whether a trial court has subject-matter jurisdiction is a matter of law that is reviewed de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226, 228 (Tex. 2004). A party may challenge the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction by filing a plea to the jurisdiction. Id. at 225-26. When the plea challenges the claimant's pleadings, we determine whether the claimant has pleaded facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction, construing the pleadings liberally and in favor of the claimant. Id. at 226. When the plea challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, we consider evidence submitted by the parties just as the trial court did. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227. We take as true all evidence favorable to the claimant, and we indulge all reasonable inferences in her favor. Id. at 228. In performing this review, an appellate court does not look to the merits of the case but considers only the pleadings and evidence relevant to the jurisdictional inquiry. See id. at 227; Cnty. of Cameron v. Brown, 80 S.W.3d 549, 555 (Tex. 2002).

         II. Governmental Immunity

         As a political subdivision of the state, the County is immune from suit absent an express legislative waiver of immunity. State v. Lueck, 290 S.W.3d 876, 880 (Tex. 2009). Immunity from suit focuses on whether the state has expressly consented to suit; when immunity exists, it deprives a trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction. Reata Constr. Corp. v. City of Dallas, 197 S.W.3d 371, 374 (Tex. 2006); College of the Mainland v. Meneke, 420 S.W.3d 865, 869 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.).

         The County uses the terms sovereign immunity and governmental immunity in its pleadings. However, they involve two distinct concepts. Sovereign immunity refers to the State's immunity from suit and liability. Fed. Sign v. Tex. S. Univ., 951 S.W.2d 401, 405 (Tex. 1997). In addition to protecting the State from liability, it also protects the various divisions of state government, including agencies, boards, hospitals, and universities. Lowe v. Tex. Tech Univ., 540 S.W.2d 297, 298 (Tex. 1976). Governmental immunity, on the other hand, protects political subdivisions of the State, including counties, cities, and school districts. City of LaPorte v. Barfield, 898 S.W.2d 288, 291 (Tex. 1995).

         Counties, as political subdivisions of the State, have governmental immunity from suits for damages unless the immunity has been waived. City of Houston v. Houston Mun. Employees Pension Sys., 549 S.W.3d 566, 576 (Tex. 2018). Immunity "shield[s] the public from the costs and consequences of improvident actions of their governments." Tooke v. City of Mexia, 197 S.W.3d 325, 332 (Tex. 2006); see also City of El Paso v. Heinrich, 284 S.W.3d 366, 371 (Tex. 2009) ("[S]uits for contract damages against the state are generally barred by immunity[.]"). Private parties cannot circumvent sovereign immunity from suit by characterizing a suit for money damages as a declaratory-judgment claim. Texas Nat. Res. Conservation Com'n v. IT-Davy, 74 S.W.3d 849, 856 (Tex. 2002).

         In its first issue on appeal the County contends that Quiroga's Whistleblower Act claims are foreclosed by governmental immunity and that the trial court erred in denying the County's plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment.

         III. Elements of a Whistleblower Claim

         The Texas Whistleblower Act is designed to enhance openness in government and to compel the government's compliance with law by protecting those who inform authorities of wrongdoing. City of Houston v. Levingston, 221 S.W.3d 204, 218 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.). Under the Whistleblower Act, "A state or local governmental entity may not suspend or terminate the employment of . . . a public employee who in good faith reports a violation of law by the employing governmental entity or another public employee to an appropriate law enforcement authority." Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 554.002(a).

         Quiroga invoked the Texas Whistleblower Act as the express legislative waiver of immunity from suit that allowed her to sue the County on her two whistleblower claims. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 554.0035. Under this statute, "A public employee who alleges a violation of this chapter may sue the employing state or local governmental entity for the relief provided by this chapter." Id. "Sovereign immunity is waived and abolished to the extent of liability for the relief allowed under this chapter for a violation of this chapter." Id. In Quiroga's pleading she alleged two reports that she contends met the elements of Whistleblower Act claims thus waiving the County's immunity. In the first report Quiroga alleged:

On the day prior to the purported July 24, firing, Plaintiff reported to District Attorney Jack Roady the fact that County Judge Mark A. Henry had caused confidential spaces (i.e., those used by defense counsel and inmates) to be 'bugged' by the installation of recording devices. Such action violated the rights of inmates to due process of law under the United States and State Constitutions, as well as the inmates' right to the assistance of counsel under United States Constitution, Amd. VI, and Texas Constitution, ...

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