Supreme Court of Texas Blog: Legal Issues Before the Texas Supreme Court
-----------

State of the Texas Judiciary 2015

by

On Wednesday, Chief Justice Hecht delivered his first “State of the Judiciary” address to the Texas Legislature. The State Bar has a page on storify […]

On Wednesday, Chief Justice Hecht delivered his first “State of the Judiciary” address to the Texas Legislature. The State Bar has a page on storify collecting some photos and tweets.

I wasn’t able to live tweet this year, or even to watch live. But I’ve had a chance to watch the video and wanted to pass along the highlights.

Statutory interpretation

The speech began with a subject of occasional tension between the branches: statutory interpretation. (The debate about the role of “text” versus “legislative intent” is a long one, and one that understandably looks different to the legislator whose unspoken intent may not be reflected well in the text.)

Read more…

Comments Off on State of the Texas Judiciary 2015Tags: News and Links

Eight grants of review for oral argument in March [Feb. 20, 2015]

by

With today’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court granted review in eight cases to be heard in March. It did not issue any opinions.

The […]

With today’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court granted review in eight cases to be heard in March. It did not issue any opinions.

The first two petitions on this grant list have the added distinction of being grants of rehearing. The Court originally denied both on October 3, 2014. Today’s orders reinstate them and set them for argument.

Details about each case will appear in this blog post as they are added to my system.

Grants of Review and Rehearing

KACHINA PIPELINE COMPANY, INC. v. MICHAEL D. LILLIS, No. 13-0596

Set to be argued on March 24, 2015

Grants

BCCA APPEAL GROUP, INC. v. CITY OF HOUSTON, TEXAS, No. 13-0768

Chosen for future argument by order issued February 20, 2015

ROYSTON, RAYZOR, VICKERY, & WILLIAMS, LLP v. FRANCISCO (FRANK) LOPEZ, No. 13-1026

Set to be argued on March 26, 2015

MIRTA ZORRILLA v. AYPCO CONSTRUCTION II, LLC AND JORGE LUIS MUNOZ, No. 14-0067

Set to be argued on March 26, 2015

IN RE ROYSTON, RAYZOR, VICKERY, & WILLIAMS, LLP, No. 14-0109

Set to be argued on March 26, 2015

Comments Off on Eight grants of review for oral argument in March [Feb. 20, 2015]Tags: Order Lists

Texas Supreme Court issues temporary order stopping same-sex marriage licenses in Austin

by

Some detail added on Thursday evening.

This week, two state judges in Travis County have issued orders indicating that Texas’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, […]

Some detail added on Thursday evening.

This week, two state judges in Travis County have issued orders indicating that Texas’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, culminating in an order that permitted one license to be issued. (Here’s some collected coverage from KUT, our local NPR station.)

As that news story was blanketing local media this morning, the Texas attorney general was filing papers with the Texas Supreme Court requesting a stay of these Travis County rulings. The State’s motion was filed at 11:02am and asked the Court to issue immediate relief; I’ve uploaded a copy of the State’s motion. The Court issued a stay this afternoon, an order that the orders list document describes as granting the relief the AG has requested “in part.” Although the full text of the stay order is not (as I write this) yet on the Court’s website, you can get a sense of what “in part” means from the State’s request. The State requested the Court to stay both the temporary restraining order below and “all further state trial proceedings that seek to resolve the issues” of same-sex marriage or divorce. When we do see the order, I’d expect a formal stay of the order in this case but for the Court to stop short of actually “staying” other trial proceedings, some of which might not yet have been filed. [Update: Yes, here’s the stay order. It covers the specific restraining order below and does not mention other proceedings.]

There was speculation this afternoon about whether the marriage license already issued is valid. Chuck Lindell of the Statesman summarizes the AG’s press release about the stay, which suggests it is not:

My understanding, having now read the State’s motion for emergency relief, is that the AG has not yet requested a ruling on that question. (The State’s formal “petition,” which is not yet online, might request broader relief.)

As a legal matter, this subtlety about whether the license was “void”, or merely issued in error, has implications for whether it can be challenged after-the-fact, and perhaps by whom. That same question is deeply entangled with the AG’s attempt to intervene in a 2010 case in which a different Travis County judge issued a same-sex divorce decree. That set of appeals is still pending; the State argues in its filings today that the Court should freeze these new Travis County orders at least until that prior appeal is disposed.

Those merits decisions have been slowed down by, presumably, the Texas Supreme Court waiting on some relevant US Supreme Court cases to first be resolved. (The three petitions are among the oldest pending cases at the Court.) With the US Supreme Court now expected to issue its next ruling on same-sex marriage by the end of June, I would expect the Texas Supreme Court to wait to see the outcome before deciding this issue with finality. We may, or may not, from the Fifth Circuit in the meantime.

Resources

Because the State is challenging two distinct orders, there are two docket numbers in the Court.

  • IN RE STATE OF TEXAS, No. 15-0135 : On Tuesday, the State filed a petition asking the Court to stay the first, more general order from a Travis County judge declaring Texas’s ban on same-sex marriages to be facially unconstitutional. Today, the Supreme Court granted that requested stay in full.

  • IN RE STATE OF TEXAS, No. 15-0139 : The second petition was filed Thursday morning, about two hours after a Travis County court issued a restraining order demanding the county clerk issue one specific marriage license. The Texas Supreme Court granted the stay request only “in part.” You can read the State’s motion for emergency relief to get a sense of the issues. As a bonus, that motion attaches most of the trial court filings from earlier today. I’ll post the text of the stay order when available.

Comments Off on Texas Supreme Court issues temporary order stopping same-sex marriage licenses in AustinTags: News and Links

Admissibility of seat-belt evidence in accident cases; Insurance coverage for the BP oil spill [Feb. 13, 2015]

by

With today’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court issued opinions in two cases. It did not choose any new cases for review.

Opinions Evidence about seat-belt use […]

With today’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court issued opinions in two cases. It did not choose any new cases for review.

Opinions

Evidence about seat-belt use is now admissible in auto accident cases

In 1974, the Court ruled that evidence about whether a car’s occupant was wearing a seat belt was not admissible in an auto-accident case. Carnation Co. v. Wong, 516 S.W.2d 116 (Tex. 1974). Today, the Court overrules that decision.

It explained that the legal background motivating that rule had changed. First, Texas no longer has a contributory-negligence system, under which a plaintiff could be absolutely barred from recovery if they were even the slightest degree negligent. It now has a system of comparative negligence, with a plaintiff’s recovery merely reduced by the percentage of their own fault — unless that fault exceed 50%.1

Second, the Court noted that mandatory seat-belt laws began, and became more strict, after its 1974 ruling. Given that change, the Court referred to its prior holding as “a vestige of a bygone legal system and an oddity in light of modern societal norms.”

The Court rejected the argument that intervening statutes had, implicitly through silence, approved the blanket rule against the admission of seatbelt evidence. In 1985, while approving Texas’s first mandatory-seatbelt law, the Legislature had passed a prohibition on the admission of evidence about seatbelt use that was even broader than the Court’s. But in 2003, the Legislature repealed that provision while making other changes. The Court saw this repeal — without adding other language about the seat-belt question — as the Legislature choosing for its part to be silent. Thus, the Court rejected the argument that the Legislature had weighed in either way.

The Court holds that normal rules of evidence should apply, leaving the details to be sorted out in the usual way:

Today’s holding opens the door to a category of evidence that has never been part of our negligence cases, but we need not lay down a treatise on how and when such evidence should be admitted. Seat-belt evidence has been unique only in that it has been categorically prohibited in negligence cases. With that prohibition lifted, our rules of evidence include everything necessary to handle the admissibility of seat-belt evidence. As with any evidence, seat-belt evidence is admissible only if it is relevant. … The defendant can establish the relevance of seat-belt nonuse only with evidence that nonuse caused or contributed to cause the plaintiff’s injuries. And the trial court should first consider this evidence, for the purpose of making its relevance determination, outside the presence of the jury. … Expert testimony will often be required to establish relevance, but we decline to say it will be required in all cases. And, of course, like any other evidence, even relevant seat-belt evidence is subject to objection and exclusion under Rule 403.

The Court also considered how this should be handled for children who are not wearing seat belts, concluding that it can be proper for a jury to consider both whether an adult in the car bears some responsibility for that injury, as well as whether the child was acting as would an “ordinarily prudent child of [the same] age, intelligence, experience and capacity.”

And the Court addressed whether the jury should be asked who caused the accident (what the Court calls “occurrence-causing conduct) and then asked separately who caused each person’s injury (“injury-causing conduct”). The Court said no, that both kinds of fault should be folded into a single apportionment question. “There is nothing about injury-causing conduct that renders it incompatible with being considered alongside occurrence-causing conduct in one responsibility apportionment for the harm suffered by the plaintiff.”


  1. The facts involve a collision in which multiple passengers were ejected from a car, including children, and there is conflicting evidence about which adults or children were wearing seatbelts. Even without hearing evidence of seat-belt use, the jury assessed fault for the accident as being 51% to the trucking company and 49% to the family-car driver. Even with the reduction, the family’s award here was $2.3 million. 

Previously:
BP does not have insurance coverage as an "additional insured" under the policy purchased by Transocean

In 2010, a drilling rig owned by Transocean and developed by BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to months of subsurface oil leakage, damage to coastal communities and industries, and other serious claims. In the parties’ drilling contract, Transocean was to be responsible for above-surface pollution risks while BP was to be responsible for subsurface pollution risks. Another provision of the contract required Transocean to provide "additional insured" protection to BP.

BP sued over the scope of this "additional insured" coverage, arguing that Transocean’s insurers must cover BP’s losses, regardless whether the specific cause was above or below the surface.

The Fifth Circuit originally ruled in favor of BP, concluding that the insurance policy itself did not limit the scope of coverage afforded to BP and that, under EVANSTON INSURANCE COMPANY v. ATOFINA PETROCHEMICALS, INC., No. 03-0647, it should not look beyond the text of that document to find a limitation to coverage. On rehearing, however, the Fifth Circuit withdrew its opinion and chose to certify this question to the Texas Supreme Court to authoritatively address two questions under Texas law:

  1. Does ATOFINA compel a finding that BP is covered for these damages?

  2. Does the doctrine of contra proferentem (that is, construing a contract against the person who drafted it) apply even in a sophisticated commercial context?

The Texas Supreme Court reached the opposite result, basing its decision on a less restrictive reading of ATOFINA, one that is compatible with the idea that an insurance policy can effectively “incorporate” another document needed to understand its scope:

Texas law has long allowed insurance policies to incorporate other documents by reference, and policy language dictates the extent to which another document is so incorporated. The policies here provide additional-insured coverage automatically where required and as obligated by written contract in which an insured has agreed to assume the tort liability of another party. Because BP is not named as an insured in the Transocean policies or any certificates of insurance, the insurance policies direct us to the additional-insured provision in the Drilling Contract to determine the existence and scope of coverage. Applying the only reasonable construction of that provision, we conclude that, as it pertains to the damages at issue, BP is an additional insured under the Transocean policies only to the extent of the liability Transocean assumed for above-surface pollution.

Having concluded that BP is covered by Transocean’s policies only to the extent that the drilling contract required, the Court answered the first question no, that there is no coverage.

The Court did not reach the second question about the contra preferentum doctrine because that rule applies only to ambiguous text, and it saw no ambiguity here.

Comments Off on Admissibility of seat-belt evidence in accident cases; Insurance coverage for the BP oil spill [Feb. 13, 2015]Tags: News and Links · Order Lists

Four opinions, no grants [Feb. 6, 2015]

by

With today’s orders list, the Court issued signed opinions in two cases, issued two per curiams, and did not grant any new cases for review.

Lack […]

With today’s orders list, the Court issued signed opinions in two cases, issued two per curiams, and did not grant any new cases for review.

Lack of consent is part of the definition of trespass, not an affirmative defense

A farming company (FPL) got into a dispute with an environmental-wastewater company (EPS) that was injecting wastewater into the deep subsurface where it, allegedly, ended up beneath FPL's property. The farming company sued the enviornmental-wastewater company for trespass, that trespass taking place in the deep subsurface water table beneath its land.

If that scenario sounds familiar, it may be because this case is making its second visit to the Texas Supreme Court. In 2011

This case is making its second visit to the Supreme Court. The first time, the court of appeals held that the farming company could not sue for trespass because the State regulator had issued a permit. The Texas Supreme Court reversed, holding that the permit was not a bar to civil liability. FPL FARMING LTD. v. ENVIRONMENTAL PROCESSING SYSTEMS, L.C., No. 09-1010

On remand, the court of appeals ruled that the farming company should get a new trial. Part of its reasoning was that the jury charge was defective because it required the plaintiff farming company to prove a lack of consent to recover for trespass. In the court of appeals’s holding, that was an affirmative defense on which the defendant should have had the burden to establish the presence of consent.

With this opinion, the Texas Supreme Court disagreed. It surveyed a line of its own cases, going back to the days of the Republic, which described consent as part of the definition of trespass itself. Responding to FPL’s citation to some courts of appeals that used the term “affirmative defense” to describe the question of consent, the Court suggested that may have been discussing just the general concept that a defendant who did prove consent would defeat the claim, no matter whose burden of proof it actually way. As such, those courts may have “perhaps hastily used the term ‘affirmative defense’ to describe this proposition.” (The Court also notes that “[t]here is no pattern jury charge for a trespass to real property cause of action in Texas.” One suspects that might change.)

Having held that a plaintiff in a trespass claim does bear the burden to prove the lack of consent, the Court concluded that the jury charge here was not erroneous. Because this part of the Court’s decision was sufficient for the defendant to prevail, and because the Court was rendering judgment rather than sending the case back for a new trial, the Court saw no need in this case to reach the broader question of whether Texas law imposes a duty on a landowner to avoid causing this kind of “deep subsurface wastewater migration” beneath neighboring land.

Previously:
Making a UDJA claim to stave off foreclosure can subject you to paying the lender’s attorney’s fees

When Wells Fargo began a foreclosure process on a home-equity loan, this homeowner fought by back filing what the Court calls a “separate and original proceeding” (a phrase that will come into play in its reasoning). In that separate suit, the homeowners sought injunctive relief, asserted fraud claims, and sought relief under the UDJA. Wells Fargo, in response, sought its own declaration and asked for attorney’s fees under the UDJA.

The trial court ultimately ruled for Wells Fargo and awarded it attorney’s fees under the UDJA. The homeowners appealed, arguing that Wells Fargo did not assert a valid declaratory claim. The court of appeals agreed — but to strike down the fees, it had to go a step further. Either side can recover under the UDJA, so to reverse the award, the court of appeals also had to determine whether the homeowners had a valid UDJA claim. It concluded that neither side had a valid UDJA claim and, thus, that there was no basis for a fee award.

The Supreme Court reversed. On the procedural question, it ruled that the homeowners' challenge to the award was fatally incomplete. Because they had not challenged whether his own UDJA claim was valid, the court of appeals could not reach that question sua sponte. And, thus, the basis for the court of appeals’s ruling was invalid.

That led to a constitutional question: Can a lender recover attorney’s fees in this situation, consistent with Texas’s constitutional provisions about home-equity lending?

The Court held that the key was that this was a “separate and original proceeding.” Rather than defending the lender’s original suit (in which, the Court suggests, no fees would have been available), the homeowners filed this separate proceeding.

Previously:
Objecting to a trial court’s pretrial sanction order can preserve error against an eventual spoliation instruction

This is a negligent-spoliation case. After a contested hearing before trial, the district court ordered that a spoliation instruction would be given to the jury. When it came time to approve the jury charge, however, the defendant did not renew this objection. The court of appeals held that this waived any complaint about spoliation.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that the objections made before trial were clear enough, and clearly enough ruled upon, that the question of whether some spoliation question was proper had been adequately preserved. (It noted that there was no challenge here to the precise wording of the instruction, a challenge that might have required a different type of objection or ruling.)

Moving a police car to point its headlights into oncoming traffic is a “use” of property for which immunity is waived

The plaintiff contends that a car accident was caused by the headlights of a police car, which was at the time being moved and was facing oncoming traffic. The County invoked sovereign immunity. The question on appeal is whether this situation withs within the “use of property” exception in the Texas Tort Claims Act.

The Supreme Court held that it does fit the exception and, thus, that a waiver of sovereign immunity had been pleaded. The key fact turned out to be that, in this case, the police car was being operated (“relocat[ed]”) at the time of the accident.

The County argued that an accident caused by headlights alone could not fit within the waiver, citing a Houston case from 2007 in which that court found immunity against an accident claimed to have been caused by a parked police car with its emergency lights activated. Texas DPS v. Grisham, 232 S.W.3d 822 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2007, no pet.). The driver in that case claimed the accident was caused by the fact that they had to change lanes to comply with state law. That court of appeals, however, held that the police car in question was not in “use” merely by virtue of being parked with its emergency lights on.

In this case, the Supreme Court was expressly careful not to either approve or disapprove the holding of Grisham. (“Although we express no opinion as to the substance of the Grisham panel’s analysis, we decline to follow its reasoning here.”). That may be a question for another day.

To decide this case, the Supreme Court chose merely to distinguish Grisham, noting that the police car here was unquestioningly being operated at the time. This was not a parked car, it was a car in motion.

The Court also rejected the County’s argument that the accident was caused by the “illegal conduct” of the driver, an illegality based on the Transportation Code requirement to change lanes or reduce speed when approaching a parked emergency vehicle. This car, it noted, was not parked. And the ultimate effect of such a finding would, the Court noted, be merely to reduce proportionate responsibility; there is not a general bar to suit based on “illegal conduct.”

Comments Off on Four opinions, no grants [Feb. 6, 2015]Tags: News and Links

Three decided cases and nine grants [Jan. 30, 2015]

by

With this orders list, the Court issued opinions resolving three cases and granted nine cases for oral argument.

This flurry of grants gives the Court a […]

With this orders list, the Court issued opinions resolving three cases and granted nine cases for oral argument.

This flurry of grants gives the Court a complete argument calendar for late February and begins to fill a (new) argument week scheduled for late March.1

Opinions

The effect on a statute of limitations when public records are tainted by fraud

A mineral owner sued the operator for fraud that occurred more than four years before suit, the effects of which continued in the stream of payments to the current day. The operator responded with, among other arguments, a limitations defense. The mineral owner contended that the discovery rule should have tolled that limitations period because it reasonably relied on the operator's representations. The operator contends that any such reliance was unreasonable because Railroad Commission records contained the needed information.

The opinion discussed whether "reasonable diligence" is one of fact or law, answering that it's ultimately one of fact but that there are categories of evidence — including some public records — that put a party conclusively on notice, thus starting the clock for limitations.

The Court distinguished those public-record cases because, here, the fraud had also "tainted" the integrity of the public records, with allegedly false information being included in the latest filings. Although the defendant contended that comparing these later records with earlier records should have put someone on notice of the fraud, the Court held that would require too much to be "reasonable diligence" as a matter of law.

Among the other issues, the Court interpreted the parties' "most favored nations" clause for royalty payments. The court of appeals had held this clause was not violated when the State in effect received preferential royalty payments because the State was not a market actor and thus the policy concerns were somewhat different. The Supreme Court held that the contract text did not draw such a distinction and, thus, that the contract had been breached.

Previously:
  • Three opinions, one grant (June 16, 2014)
  • The special role of the Attorney General in reporting child-support issues to a federal database

    Can a trial court reviewing allegations of family violence affecting child custody have, along with that, order OAG to change how it has flagged the case file in a federal database?

    Although the Court’s analysis dealt with a federal regulatory system, it approached this question as a matter of state statutory interpretation. The relevant list of statutory remedies included a catch-all provision “any other order.” The Court emphasized that it was evaluating that phrase within the larger context, not taken in isolation.

    When construing statutes, or anything else, one cannot divorce text from context. The meaning of words read in isolation is frequently contrary to the meaning of words read contextually in light of what surrounds them. Given the enormous power of context to transform the meaning of language, courts should resist rulings anchored in hyper-technical readings of isolated words or phrases. The import of language, plain or not, must be drawn from the surrounding context, particularly when construing everyday words and phrases that are inordinately context-sensitive.

    Against that background, the Court explained that Texas had designed the Office of Attorney General as its “Title IV-D agency, [which] must collect, store, and maintain” certain information required by federal law — information that included this flag.

    The Court concluded that the phrase “any other order” was not meant to upset this balance, nor did it create a distinct right to judicial review under state law of the agency’s decision whether to flag the file in the federal database.

    An unresolved request for UDJA fees can undermine the finality of a summary judgment

    The Court dealt with what it called “the familiar issue of whether a trial court’s order ... is final for purposes of appeal.” This order came after a motion for summary judgment by an insurer (Farm Bureau), in which the trial court denied relief and ruled that the insurer did have a duty to cover the claims. Although both sides had requested attorney’s fees, the order made no mention of those requests — but it did contain a “Mother Hubbard” clause and made an award of court costs. Farm Bureau appealed the merits.

    The court of appeals dismissed for want of jurisdiction, reasoning that the order could not be a final judgment because there was not a formal cross-motion for summary judgment filed by the insured. The Supreme Court disagreed that the lack of an underlying motion would deprive the judgment of force. Quoting its own decision in Lehmann v. Har-Con Corp., 39 S.W.3d 191 (Tex. 2001), the Court explained that “[i]f the trial court’s intent to enter a final judgment is ‘clear from the order, then the order is final and appealable, even though the record does not provide an adequate basis for rendition of judgment.’ In that case, ‘the judgment is final—erroneous, but final.’” So that basis would not defeat jurisdiction here.

    But the Supreme Court saw a second problem with jurisdiction, namely, that the trial court had not ruled on attorney’s fees. In contrast to the merits issue — where the order spoke directly to the claims — there was no mention of attorney’s fees in the order and no other indication in the record that the trial court’s order was meant to resolve the question of fees. “In the absence of evidence of the trial court’s intent with respect to the parties’ claims for attorney’s fees, we find that the trial court’s order did not dispose of all parties and claims.”

    Grants

    For late February

    PLAINS EXPLORATION & PRODUCTION COMPANY v. TORCH ENERGY ADVISORS INCORPORATED, No. 13-0597

    Set to be argued on February 24, 2015

    JLG TRUCKING, LLC v. LAUREN R. GARZA, No. 13-0978

    Set to be argued on February 26, 2015

    For late March

    1. The Court calendar had an early February argument sitting, but no cases were ever scheduled for that week. []

    Comments Off on Three decided cases and nine grants [Jan. 30, 2015]Tags: Order Lists

    SCOTX to decide the future of Texas school finance [Jan. 23, 2015]

    by

    The big item on today’s otherwise quiet orders list is the Court formally accepting a case about the Texas school-finance system.

    Schedule set in school finance […]

    The big item on today’s otherwise quiet orders list is the Court formally accepting a case about the Texas school-finance system.

    Schedule set in school finance cases

    The Court has now formally said that it will hear this "direct appeal" of the school finance ruling that held certain portions of the system unconstitutional.

    The Court has agreed to the briefing schedule suggested by the parties, which puts the briefs due on April 13, 2015 (for the State and others challenging the judgment); July 2, 2015 (for those defending the judgment); and a reply on August 11, 2015 (for the State and others challenging the judgment).

    That briefing schedule extends beyond the July 1, 2015 deadline set by the trial court's order. The State's motion states its belief that this deadline was suspended automatically by the appeal.

    The briefing schedule also permits the Legislature to finish its session (and perhaps even a special session). Both sides will have an opportunity to address how any new legislation might affect this case.

    Based on this schedule, I would expect the Court to hear oral argument in September 2015.

    The briefing so far just consists of very short notices of appeal ("jurisdictional statements") filed by four groups challenging aspects of the judgment below:

    • the State Defendants (the commissioner of education and others)

    • a group led by the Texas Charter School Association

    • a group led by the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition

    • a group of six school districts that have broken with the main group of plaintiffs (Calhoun ISD, Abernathy ISD, Aransas ISD, Frisco ISD, Lewisville ISD, and Richardson ISD)

    Comments Off on SCOTX to decide the future of Texas school finance [Jan. 23, 2015]Tags: Order Lists

    Quiet orders list [Jan. 16, 2015]

    by

    It was a quiet orders list this week, with no grants made or opinions issued.

    With the holiday next Monday, the Court has scheduled its next […]

    It was a quiet orders list this week, with no grants made or opinions issued.

    With the holiday next Monday, the Court has scheduled its next private conference for this Thursday, January 22.

    Comments Off on Quiet orders list [Jan. 16, 2015]Tags: Order Lists