With today’s order list, the Texas Supreme Court granted four new cases to be heard in the fall and, at the same time, resolved three cases from its pending docket.

The order list also included an interesting (dissenting) opinion on a “motion to clarify” one of the Court’s previously decided cases. The question involved how the punitive damages cap is to be applied by a lower court after the Court reduces the compensatory damages.

Today’s Merits Decisions

  • Pastor Rick Barr and Philemon Homes, Inc. v. City of Sinton, No. 06-0074 (Hecht, J.) (DocketDB) The Court decided a case under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, finding that a religious ministry aimed at prisoners had been discriminated against by a local zoning ordinance.

  • Nabors Drilling, U.S.A., Inc. v. Francica Escoto, et al., No. 06-0890 (Green, J.) (DocketDB) The Court refuses to place a tort duty on employers “whose work conditions may contribute to fatigue in an off-duty employee.” In this case, the employee got into a traffic accident while driving home. Had the employee been drunk instead of merely tired, Texas tort law would have imposed a duty on the employer.

    Although the Court said the risk that fatigued employees pose to other motorists when driving home was “generally known,” it declined to hold the employer responsible based on its assessment of the public policies involved in recognizing a tort duty. The Court also refused to place a tort duty on the employer to educate its employees about the dangers of driving while fatigued.

  • City of DeSoto, Texas v. Justin White, No. 07-1031 (Green, J.) (DocketDB) This case concerns the appeals process given to a suspended police officer.

    “If the officer appeals to a hearing examiner, his ability to seek further review in a district court is severely limited. The suspended police officer in this case elected to appeal to a hearing examiner, but the City failed to inform him of the appeal limitation, as it was required to do by statute.” The Texas Supreme Court holds that this procedural error did not deprive the hearing examiner of jurisdiction to dispose of the police officer’s appeal.

Should Punitive Damages Be Reduced on Remand When the Court Reduces the Economic Damages?

Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, Inc v. Athena Hogue, et al., No. 04-0575 (Wainwright, J., dissenting) (DocketDB)

The Court decided this case last August and (after resolving a motion for rehearing) issued its formal mandate along with a corrected opinion in January, passing control of the case back to the lower courts.

With today’s order list, the Court resolves a “motion to clarify” that appellate mandate with regard to the punitive damages cap.

The Court struck down part (but not all) of the compensatory damages. “No party raised an issue with the calculation of the punitive damages cap during this appeal…”

Through this “motion to clarify,” Columbia Medical asks the Texas Supreme Court to state that its original mandate required the trial court to recalculate punitive damages to reflect that new, lower level of compensatory damages.

Today, the Court declined the motion without an opinion of the Court. But three Justices (( Justice Wainwright wrote the dissent and was joined by Justice Hecht and Justice Brister. )) joined in a dissenting opinion vehemently arguing that the punitive damages should be reduced — and that the Court’s denial of the motion “should not be read as a rejection of Columbia Medical’s position”:

Here, there is only one answer to the legal issue, and the Court’s denial of the motion to clarify should not be read as a rejection of Columbia Medical’s position. When the Court reverses a portion of economic damages that form the basis of the cap on punitive damages, it is elementary that the cap must be recalculated and reduced to account for the change. It is also elementary that a reduction in compensatory damages on appeal requires, for example, the parties to recalculate the apportionment of damages among defendants, to reconsider settlement credits, and to recalculate post-judgment interest. We should not need to expend time on such matters, but when necessary, we should answer the question and settle the dispute. Because denying the motion to clarify will likely embroil the parties in further litigation, when this Court has jurisdiction to put an end to the dispute easily, I respectfully dissent from the denial of the motion to clarify.

That the Court’s denial of a motion does not, technically, reach the merits is almost always true. But, in the context of an appellate mandate, this is particularly interesting. (( The “appellate mandate” is the formal document embodying an appellate court’s judgment sent to lower courts. When a lower court goes outside the bounds of that command, a motion or petition can be filed to “enforce” that mandate. But, if you’re reading the footnotes on this blog, you probably knew that already. ))

What lower court would want to step outside a direct command from the Texas Supreme Court? Here, the lower court now has three Justices on the record saying that one answer is “elementary.” But no one knows how the other six Justices feel about the same substantive question.

This outcome also leaves appellate practitioners in doubt about what steps are necessary to preserve error in similar cases involving a punitive damages cap.

Mold Damages on the Docket

State Farm Lloyds and Erin Strachan v. Wanda M. Page, No. 08-0799 (DocketDB) This petition asks if a standard Texas homeowners policy covers damage caused by mold.

Medical Malpractice Expert Reports

Eberhard Samlowski, M.D. v. Carol Wooten, No. 08-0667 (DocketDB) This is yet another petition about what is required for a medical-malpractice plaintiff’s expert report to avoid dismissal. This case asks if a particular report represented a good enough first effort to require the trial court to grant a 30-day extension of time to file a better report. Here, the trial court declined to grant the extension, and the court of appeals reversed.

Energy Prices

The Court also granted two cases involving regulated energy prices:

State of Texas v. Public Utility Commission, No. 08-0421 (3 petitions) (DocketDB)

Texas Industrial Energy Consumers v. Centerpoint Energy Houston Electric, LLC and Public Utility Commission of Texas, No. 08-0727 (2 petitions) (DocketDB)