SE Texas Record

Friday, September 20, 2019

Court sides with Houston in legal battle with firefighters

Lawsuits

By Charmaine Little | Jun 24, 2019


HOUSTON -- The Texas 14th Court of Appeals affirmed June 20 the city of Houston’s and a number of city officials’ jurisdictional plea in the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund’s lawsuit that alleged changes to the fund were unconstitutional.

The firefighters fund filed a lawsuit against the city and several of its officials, as well as the state of Texas, alleging new amendments to the fund via Senate Bill 2190 violate the Texas Constitution, specifically Article XVI, Section 67(f). It requested declaratory, injunctive and mandamus relief along with a financial judgment in its favor and attorney fees. However, the defendants had filed jurisdictional pleas, alleging the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, which were granted in a lower court, and the appeals court affirmed.

The appeals court first determined if the lower court erred when it greenlighted the city’s jurisdictional plea as the firefighters fund said SB 2190 is unconstitutional. 

The court said, “If the city is immune from suit under the doctrine of governmental immunity, courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims against the city.” While the fund said it determined a waiver for the city’s governmental immunity when it asked for declaratory judgment, the court said, “The city’s governmental immunity is waived only to the extent the fund has pleaded a viable constitutional claim…Thus, the fund’s request for a declaratory judgment that S.B. 2190 is unconstitutional is not enough to show a waiver of the city’s governmental immunity.”

The appeals court also answered the question of whether the firefighters fund has properly alleged that S.B. 2190 facially violates Section 67(f). It pointed out that simply showing a new regulation calls for unconstitutional actions just some of the time, isn’t sufficient. Instead, to prevail in claims that a statute is facially unconstitutional, it has to be unconstitutional in every situation, which isn’t the reality in this case, the court ruled.

The appeals court added that the lower court didn’t err when it granted the jurisdictional pleas, ruling, “[The] amendment could not cure the fund’s pleadings. Even so, the fund failed to request an opportunity to amend its pleadings in this regard after the trial court sustained the city’s jurisdictional plea.”

Chief Justice Kem Thompson Frost authored the opinion, and justices Charles A. Spain and Margaret “Meg” Poissant concurred.

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