Opinions Released July 14, 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.

Texas Department of Public Safety v. Jones, No. 13-15-00375-CV (Mem. Opinion by Chief Justice Valdez; Panel Members: Justices Garza and Longoria)

In this appeal from an administrative license revocation, the Texas Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) challenged the district court’s reversal of an administrative driver’s license suspension.

Jeremy Jones was stopped for going 25 mph in a 15 mph zone on a city street in Port Aransas, Texas. Mr. Jones consented to a blood test, revealing that he had a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held that the officer’s testimony and blood alcohol test provided a sufficient basis for a license suspension by a preponderance of the evidence, and suspended Mr. Jones’ license.

On appeal, the county court at law held that there was no evidence that Mr. Jones knew he was speeding. Citing Abney v. State, 394 S.W.3d 542 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013), the court found that DPS had the burden to show that Mr. Jones passed a posted speed limit sign, and that DPS failed to carry its burden. DPS appealed.

Held: The county court at law should have upheld the ALJ’s license suspension because the offense of speeding does not require evidence that the driver passed a speed limit sign, and thus there was more than a scintilla of evidence to support the ALJ’s finding.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals conducted a de novo review of the county court at law’s ruling. The court began by noting that it would not examine “whether the agency’s decision was correct, but only whether the record demonstrates some reasonable basis for the agency’s action.”

The court then discussed the meaning of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision in Abney. There, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that the State did not carry its burden because it failed to present evidence that the driver saw a “left lane passing only” sign before being ticketed for failure to comply with a traffic-control device. The Thirteenth Court distinguished Abney based on the underlying traffic statute, noting that the Transportation Code does not allow a person to be found guilty for failure to comply with a traffic-control device if such device is not in a proper position to be legible to the ordinary person at the time and place of the offense. Speeding however, is a strict liability offense; there is no statutory requirement that the speed limit sign be legible, nor that a person know he or she is speeding.

Thus, since the DPS Trooper who stopped Mr. Jones testified that he was driving in excess of the speed limit, there was more than a scintilla of evidence supporting a finding that Mr. Jones was speeding. The ALJ’s decision was affirmed, and the license suspension upheld.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Trainer et. al. v. City of Port Arthur, No. 13-15-00459-CV (Mem. Opinion by Justice Garza; Panel Members: Chief Justice Valdez and Justice Longoria)

Reginald Trainer and three other individuals sued the City of Port Arthur, challenging a zoning ordinance.

The Port Arthur Independent School District (“PAISD”) asked the City to rezone a portion of its land for multi-family residential use, enabling PAISD to sell the land to residential developer, ITEX, for the construction of duplexes. Neighboring landowners, including Plaintiffs, protested the rezoning. However, the City Council passed the rezoning ordinance within months, triggering the underlying lawsuit.

Plaintiffs claimed the City Council did not pass the ordinance by the necessary three-fourths vote, and thus the ordinance was invalid. The City however, pointed out that Plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies. The trial court agreed with the City and sent Plaintiffs back to the City’s zoning board of adjustment (“ZBOA”). The ZBOA agreed with Plaintiffs that the rezoning ordinance was invalid. Yet, about a year later, the City granted ITEX a permit for construction of its duplex properties. The permit reflected that the land was zoned in accordance with the new, allegedly-invalid ordinance, rather than the original zoning designation.

The City then came back to the trial court and filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that Plaintiffs’ claims were moot because they received administrative relief, and also pointing out that they had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing the suit. Plaintiffs responded that their claims were not moot because the City Council had not formally repealed the ordinance, and added a new assertion that ITEX’s duplex project was not authorized under the original zoning regulation.

The trial court held Plaintiffs’ claims were moot. The court also held that Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies with respect to their new challenge to ITEX’s permit. Plaintiffs appealed.

Held: Plaintiffs’ claims were not moot because the ZBOA had no authority to invalidate a City ordinance, but Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies with respect to their new challenge against ITEX’s permit.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals began with the mootness issue. Although the ZBOA decision held that the relevant rezoning ordinance was invalid—thus giving the plaintiffs relief—the ordinance had not been repealed by the City Council. The court noted that the ZBOA had no authority to determine the validity of an ordinance passed by the City Council, and thus did not have the effect of repealing the ordinance. Furthermore, it was unclear whether ITEX would have been issued the duplex permit under the original ordinance. Thus, Plaintiffs’ claim were not moot.

Regarding the failure to exhaust administrative remedies however, the Thirteenth Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies with respect to their challenge against ITEX’s permit. Such a failure is a matter of subject-matter jurisdiction. Thus, the trial court did not have jurisdiction to determine whether ITEX’s duplex permit was properly issued, and properly dismissed the claim.

In sum, the court of appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part, remanding the case to the trial court.

Read the Full Opinion Here