Opinions released December 1, 2016

In this weekly blog, the Law Offices of Brandy Wingate Voss, PLLC will summarize recent decisions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and provide links to decisions on the court’s website.

Gearhart v. Wardell, No. 13-15-00096-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Valdez; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Benavides)

In this appeal from a dismissal, two neighbors dispute the statute of limitations applicable to a suit for an injunction to remove a wall blocking an express easement.

The Gearharts and the Wardells were neighbors, and the Gearharts had an express easement across the Wardells’ property for ingress and egress. In 2009, the Wardells built a wall blocking the easement. The Gearharts found an alternate route to access their land.

Four years later, in September 2013, the Gearharts sued the Wardells, seeking damages as well an injunction ordering the Wardells to remove the wall. The Wardells claimed that the suit was barred by the two-year statute of limitations applicable to suits for trespass, and filed a motion for summary judgment. The Gearharts responded that the two-year statute of limitations did not bar their action for an injunction, although they conceded that their damages were limited to those caused within the last two years. The trial court granted the Wardells’ motion and dismissed the case altogether. The Gearharts appealed.

On appeal, the Thirteenth Court focused on whether the two-year statute of limitations applicable to trespass actions under Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 16.003(a) barred the Gearharts’ request for an injunction.

Held: The statute of limitations for an injunction seeking removal of the Wardells’ wall was ten years, as applies to adverse possession of express easements. The portion of the trial court’s judgment dismissing the Gearharts’ petition for an injunction was reversed and the cause remanded.

The pivotal issue on appeal was which statute of limitations applied to the Gearharts’ claim seeking removal of the Wardells’ wall.

The Wardells claimed that the two-year statute of limitations found in Texas Civil Practice and Remedies code section 16.003(a) applied, as such statute covered trespass actions. Specifically, the Wardells relied on Scott v. Babb, 419 S.W.3d 531 (Tex. App.— San Antonio 2013, no pet.) for the argument that section 16.003(a) applies to trespass cases involving permanent—as opposed to temporary—injury. The Thirteenth Court, however, distinguished Babb. The court noted that Babb applied the permanent/temporary analysis based on the Texas Supreme Court’s use of such framework with regard to damages for a nuisance claim in Schneider Nat. Carriers, Inc. v. Bates. 147 S.W.3d 264 (Tex. 2004). Thus, the Thirteenth Court read both Babb and Bates to narrow the permanent/temporary analysis and the application of 16.003(a) to claims for damages. While this statute of limitations barred the Gearharts’ claim for damages, as the Gearharts conceded, it did not apply to their request for an injunction.

Instead, the Thirteenth Court agreed with the Gearharts that the ten-year statute of limitations set forth in Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 16.026(a) applied to the injunction. Section 16.026(a), by its terms, relates to actions “to recover real property held in peaceable and adverse possession by another who cultivates uses, or enjoys the property.” Since the easement was a real property interest, 16.026(a) applied to extinction of the easement by adverse possession.

The court also distinguished the Gearharts’ case from Wright v. Dierlam, No. 13-12-00004-CV, 2013 WL 1188999 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi Mar. 21, 2013, no pet.) (mem. op.), in which the five-year statute of limitations in section 16.025(a) was applied. There, the easement was by prescription. In the Gearharts’ case however, the easement was expressly stated in the deed.

Thus, finding that the trial court applied the improper statute of limitations and improperly dismissed the injunction claim, the Thirteenth Court reversed the judgment as to the petition for an injunction and remanded the case.

Read the Full Opinion Here

City of Pharr v. Garcia, No. 13-15-00409-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Benavides; Panel Members: Chief Justice Valdez and Justice Rodriguez)

In this interlocutory appeal, the City of Pharr appeals the trial court’s ruling on its plea to the jurisdiction.

In 2008, the City of Pharr sued Jose Escamilla in County Court at Law No. 1 for violations of the zoning ordinances. Escamilla agreed to a final order containing a permanent injunction that required Escamilla, as well as his occupants, assigns, or grantees, to comply with the residential usage restrictions and not to use the property for commercial purposes. In 2013, Escamilla sold the lot to Easton Acquisition, which rezoned the lot—with City approval—and began using the facility as an office-professional district.

Five individuals collectively referred to as “Garcia Plaintiffs” filed two lawsuits attempting to enforce the agreed order and original permanent injunction. First, the Garcia Plaintiffs filed a petition in intervention in the original suit seeking compliance with the 2008 agreed order and injunction. The City moved to vacate the order and dismiss the case based on a change in circumstances. The trial court granted the City’s request and issued accompanying findings of fact and conclusions of law. The judgment was not appealed.

The second lawsuit is the case underlying this appeal. While their petition in intervention was still pending in the County Court at Law No. 1, the Garcia Plaintiffs filed an inverse condemnation claim in a separate court—the 430th District Court. The Garcia Plaintiffs sought damages for the City’s failure to enforce the injunction, asserted ultra vires claims against various city officials and councilmembers for rezoning the property, alleged negligence by Escamilla and Easton, and requested a declaratory judgment and injunction holding the rezoning void. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court dismissed the claims against the city officials but denied the City’s plea as to the declaratory judgment and inverse condemnation claims.

On appeal, the Thirteenth Court analyzed whether the trial court properly denied the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Held: The trial court properly denied the City’s plea to the jurisdiction with respect to the inverse condemnation claim; properly granted the plea with respect to the ultra vires claims; but erred by denying the plea as to the declaratory judgment claim. The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Declaratory Judgment

First, the City argued that Garcia did not provide sufficient evidence to establish jurisdiction over the declaratory judgment action. The Thirteenth Court noted that it would first look to the face of the pleadings to determine the lack of jurisdiction, and it would only consider the City’s additional evidence if necessary.

Section 65.023(b) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code requires an action to enjoin execution of a judgment to be brought in the court in which the judgment was rendered.  The requirement is jurisdictional for the filing party to have standing. Yet, here, the Garcia Plaintiffs attack the County Court at Law No. 1’s judgment in a suit filed in the 430th District Court. The Garcia Plaintiffs did not even update their petition or address the findings of fact and conclusions of law issued by the County Court at Law No. 1, vacating the original injunction. Although the 430th District Court’s lack of jurisdiction was not apparent from the face of the pleadings, the City attached copies of the findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as the dismissal issued by the County Court at Law No. 1. Thus, the Garcia Plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the claim in the 430th District Court, and the declaratory judgment action must be dismissed.

Inverse Condemnation

The City next challenged the trial court’s failure to grant its plea to the jurisdiction with respect to the inverse condemnation claim. To show jurisdiction over the inverse condemnation claim, the Garcia Plaintiffs were required to show that there was a disputed material fact issue regarding jurisdiction, and that the issue should be left to the factfinder. The Garcia Plaintiffs claimed that the rezoning of the relevant lot devalued their properties and that the City had not adequately compensated them for the loss. Such allegations were not only made in the Garcia Plaintiffs’ pleadings, but supported by evidence attached to the pleadings. Thus, the jurisdictional issue must be left to the factfinder and the trial court did not err in denying the City’s plea regarding the inverse condemnation claim.

Ultra Vires

Finally, the City challenged the trial court’s failure to grant its plea with respect to the ultra vires claims. The Garcia Plaintiffs contended that the city officials acted outside their authority by rezoning the plot at issue even though there was an injunction in place regarding the use of the property. However, the original permanent injunction explicitly recognized that the zoning ordinances would be modified from time to time, and the Garcia Plaintiffs failed to show how the rezoning modification was not within the city officials’ discretion. The 430th District Court thus properly dismissed the ultra vires claims.

Read the Full Opinion Here