Opinions Released June 8, 2017

Rivers v. State, No. 13-16-00407-CR (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Contreras; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Benavides)

In this appeal from a felony conviction, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed whether a trial court may impose court costs on an indigent criminal defendant and, if so, whether the statute authorizing such costs violates the equal protection clause.

Janetta Consuela Rivers pleaded guilty to fraudulent possession of fifty or more items of identifying information—a first-degree felony—and was sentenced to eleven years’ confinement, a $1,000 fine, and $251 in court costs.

Rivers appealed, claiming the court erred by assessing court costs against her because he was indigent. The case was transferred from the Third Court of Appeals to the Thirteenth Court of Appeals pursuant to an order from the Texas Supreme Court.

Held: It is not unconstitutional for a trial court to require an indigent criminal defendant to pay statutorily mandated court costs, even though similar court costs cannot be imposed on indigent civil litigants. The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Although the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has not yet ruled on the issue, the Thirteenth Court noted that several courts of appeals—including the Third Court of Appeals—have held that an indigent criminal defendant can be required to pay legislatively mandated court costs. However, Rivers claimed these decisions required reconsideration in light of the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Campbell v. Wilder, 487 S.W.3d 146 (Tex. 2016), where the Court held that a trial court cannot assess costs against indigent litigants in a civil divorce proceeding. The Thirteenth Court rejected this argument, characterizing Campbell as irrelevant to indigent criminal defendants.

Rivers next argued that the statutes authorizing the imposition of court costs against indigent criminal defendants were unconstitutional in violation of the equal protection clause, since court costs cannot be imposed against indigent civil litigants. However, to prevail on her equal protection claim, Rivers was required to prove that (a) she was treated differently than similarly situated parties; and (b) the difference in treatment had no rational basis. This two-pronged test plainly acknowledges that different factual situations need not be treated the same under the law. The Waco Court of Appeals recognized as much in Martinez v. State, 507 S.W.3d 914 (Tex. App.—Waco 2016, no pet.), holding that “indigent civil litigants and indigent criminal defendants are not similarly- situated persons.” The Thirteenth Court of Appeals adopted this reasoning and held that the statutes imposing court costs on indigent criminal defendants are not unconstitutional.

Having overruled both challenges to the judgment, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Hillman v. Nueces County, Texas et al, No. 13-16-00012-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Valdez; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Hinojosa)

In this appeal from an order granting a plea to the jurisdiction, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed whether the rule set forth in Sabine Pilot v. Hauck—creating an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine if the employee was fired for refusing to break the law—extends to governmental employers so as to waive governmental immunity.

Eric Hillman worked for the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office as an assistant district attorney. He discovered exculpatory evidence regarding a defendant in one of his cases. Hillman’s supervisor told him not to disclose the evidence, but Hillman responded that he was ethically and statutorily obligated to release the information. After Hillman disclosed the information to the defendant, he was fired.

Hillman sued Nueces County, Mark Skurka, and the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office (collectively, the “County”) for wrongful termination. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting immunity, and the trial court granted the plea. Hillman appealed.

Held: The government has not waived immunity for wrongful termination suits, even when the employee was fired for refusing to break the law. The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals reviewed the jurisdictional issues de novo, noting that the standard for a plea to the jurisdiction mirrors that of a motion for summary judgment. The court began by reiterating that local government entities have governmental immunity unless the immunity is waived by clear and unambiguous statutory language.

Here, Hillman cited Sabine Pilot v. Hauck, 687 S.W.2d 733 (Tex. 1985), for his contention that immunity was waived in a suit for wrongful termination where the employee was fired for refusing to perform an illegal act. In Sabine, a private employer filed an employee for refusing to break the law. The Texas Supreme Court thus carved out an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine, holding that an employee has a cause of action if the employee is fired for the sole reason of refusing to perform an illegal act.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals considered Sabine in the context of a governmental employer in Ochoa v. City of Palmview, No. 13-14-00021-CV, 2014 WL 7404594 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi June 19, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.). There, the court held that Sabine did not apply to governmental employees so as to waive the government’s immunity. Thus, following Ochoa, the Thirteenth Court held that Sabine does not waive governmental immunity for a wrongful termination suit when a government employee is fired for refusing to commit an illegal act.

Hillman next argued that the County waived its immunity under the Michael Morton Act, which generally requires the State to produce and permit duplication of a defendant’s case file, including any exculpatory or impeachment evidence. However, Hillman did not cite a specific provision of immunity, but rather, he argued that the Michael Morton Act “in-and-of-itself” provides permission for a wrongful termination suit.  The Thirteenth Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the Michael Morton Act did not clearly and unambiguously waive governmental immunity for wrongful termination suits.

Thus, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Read the Full Opinion Here