Justia Texas Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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The Supreme Court held that a lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a "disability" that renders a voter eligible to vote by mail within the meaning of Tex. Elec. Code Ann. 82.002(a) and declined to issue a writ of mandamus sought by the State prohibiting Respondents, election officials, from improperly approving applications for mail-in ballots for the July and November 2020 elections, stating that the Court was confident that Respondents will comply. Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail in only five specific circumstances, including if the voter has a "disability." At issue in this case was whether a voter's lack of immunity from COVID-19 and concern about contracting it at a polling place is a "disability" within the meaning of section 82.002. The Supreme Court held that a voter's lack of immunity to COVID-19 is not a "disability" as defined by the Election Code. Because Respondents assured the Court that they will fully discharge their duty to follow the law the Supreme Court concluded that issuing the writ of mandamus to compel them to do so was unwarranted. View "In re State of Texas" on Justia Law

Posted in: Election Law
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The Supreme Court held that open-enrollment charter schools and their charter-holders have governmental immunity from suit and liability to the same extent as public schools and that, in this case, the open-enrollment charter school district had immunity from suit. The Burnham Wood Charter School District, which operates open-enrollment charter schools in El Paso, repudiated a lease with Amex Properties, LLC to lease certain property. Amex sued the district for anticipatory breach of the lease. The district filed a plea to the jurisdiction contending that it was immune from suit to the same extent as public school districts and that no waiver of immunity existed for Amex's claim. The trial court denied the district's jurisdictional plea, and the court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed and dismissed the suit for want of jurisdiction, holding (1) open-enrollment charter schools have governmental immunity to the same extent as public schools; (2) Tex. Local Gov't Code 271 waives governmental immunity for breach of contract claims brought under the chapter; and (3) the lease in this case was not properly executed under section 271.151, and therefore, Amex's breach of contract claim was not waived under section 271.152. View "El Paso Education Initiative, Inc. v. Amex Properties, LLC" on Justia Law

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In this dispute over which faction of a splintered Episcopal diocese is the "Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth" the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the withdrawing faction, holding that resolution this property dispute does not require consideration of an ecclesiastical question and that, under the diocese's governing documents, the withdrawing faction is the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. After a disagreement about religious doctrine the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and a majority of its congregations withdrew from The Episcopal Church. The church replaced the diocese's leaders. Subsequently, both the disaffiliating and replacement factions claimed ownership of property held in trust for the diocese and local congregations. The withdrawing faction argued that under the organizational documents, the unincorporated association's identity is determined by the majority. The church and its loyalists argued that the entity's identity is an ecclesiastic determination. The Supreme Court agreed with the withdrawing faction by applying neutral principles to the disputed facts, holding that the trial court property granted summary judgment in the withdrawing faction's favor. View "Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth v. Episcopal Church" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals holding that the University of the Incarnate Word does not have sovereign immunity when it is sued in connection with its law-enforcement activities, holding that neither the doctrine's purposes nor the operative legislation supports extending sovereign immunity to the University as a private entity. A deceased student's parents sued a University peace officer and the University after the officer shot the student following a traffic stop. The Supreme Court previously held that the University may appeal from an adverse ruling on its jurisdictional plea of governmental immunity but remanded to the court of appeals to consider whether the State's sovereign immunity extends to the University. The court of appeals declined to hold that the University possesses sovereign immunity. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) private universities do not operate as an arm of the State government through their police departments; and (2) extending sovereign immunity to the University does not comport with the doctrine's purposes, nor is it consistent with enabling legislation that extends immunity to peace officers engaged in law enforcement activities. View "University of the Incarnate Word v. Redus" on Justia Law

Posted in: Personal Injury
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In this case involving the collusive fraud of an insured and the driver of the other car involved in a car crash the Supreme Court adopted an exception to the eight-corners rule to determine the liability insurer's duty to defend, holding that courts may consider extrinsic evidence regarding whether the insured and a third party suing the insured colluded to make false representations of fact for the purpose of securing a defense and coverage. Osbaldo Hurtado Avalos and Antonio Hurtado (collectively, the Hurtados) sued Karla Guevara after the car accident and sought coverage from Loya Insurance Company (Insurer). Insurer furnished an attorney to defend Guevara, but when Insurer discovered that Guevara and the Hurtados had lied to secure coverage Insurer denied both a defense and coverage. The trial court rendered judgment against Guevara, who assigned to the Hurtados her rights against Insurer. Hurtados then filed suit against Insurer. The trial court granted summary judgment for Insurer. The court of appeals reversed, holding that Insurer had duty to defend under the eight-corners rule. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the trial court (1) correctly considered extrinsic evidence regarding whether Guevara and the Hurtados colluded to secure a defense and coverage; and (2) correctly determined that the evidence conclusively showed collusive fraud. View "Loya Insurance Co. v. Avalos" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that Lockheed Martin Corporation's receipts from the sales of F-16 fighter jets to the U.S. government were improperly sourced to Texas for purposes of calculating its Texas franchise tax, holding that Lockheed Martin demonstrated its entitlement to a refund of franchise taxes. The fighter jets at issue were manufactured in Fort Worth and destined for foreign-government buyers. In accordance with federal law, the foreign buyers contracted with the U.S. government to purchase the jets, and the U.S. government contracted with Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin filed for a refund of the portion of its franchise taxes for the tax years 2005 through 2007 attributable to the sales of the F-16 aircraft. The Comptroller denied the claim, and Lockheed Martin brought this suit. The trial court rendered judgment for the Comptroller, and the court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) Lockheed Martin's "sale" of each F-16 was to the respective foreign-government "buyer" for whom the aircraft was manufactured, and the government's involvement had no bearing on whether to apportion the receipts from that sale to Texas; and (2) the F-16s were delivered to the "buyers" outside of Texas, and therefore, the receipts from the sales of those aircraft were not properly sourced to Texas. View "Lockheed Martin Corp. v. Hegar" on Justia Law

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In this construction contract dispute, the Supreme Court held that the San Antonio River Authority possessed the authority to agree to arbitrate claims under Texas Local Government Code Chapter 271 and exercised that authority in the contract and that the judiciary, rather than an arbitrator, retains the duty to decide whether a local government has waived its governmental immunity. The River Authority hired Austin Bridge and Road L.P. for a construction project. The parties agreed to submit any disputes about the contract to arbitration. Austin Bridge invoked the contract's arbitration provisions when disagreements about the scope of work and payment arose. After the arbitrator denied the River Authority's plea of governmental immunity, the River Authority sued Austin Bridge, arguing that it lacked the authority to agree to the contract's arbitration provisions. The trial court concluded that the arbitration provisions in the contract were enforceable. The court of appeals agreed that the River Authority had the authority to agree to arbitrate but concluded that a court, rather than an arbitrator, must decide whether the River Authority was immune from the claims against it. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that chapter 271 waived the River Authority's immunity from suit for Austin Bridge's breach of contract claim. View "San Antonio River Authority v. Austin Bridge & Road, L.P." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court accepted a question certified to it by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and answered that a lender is entitled to equitable subrogation where it failed to correct a curable constitutional defect in the loan documents under Tex. Const. art. XVI, 50. Sylvia Zepeda obtained a loan from CIT Group and later refinanced her debt with a loan from Embrace Home Loans, Inc., using her homestead as collateral. Zepeda subsequently notified Embrace that the loan documents did not comply with section 50 because Embrace had not signed a form acknowledging the homestead's fair market value. Embrace subsequently sold the loan to Freddie Mac. When Freddie Mac did not respond to Zepeda's notification of the constitutional defect, Zepeda sued to quiet title, arguing that Freddie Mac did not possess a valid lien on her property. The federal district court concluded that Freddie Mac was not entitled to equitable subrogation because it was negligent in failing to cure the constitutional defect in the loan documents. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that, under Texas law, a lender who discharges a prior, valid lien on the borrower's homestead property is entitled to subrogation, even if the lender failed to correct a curable defect in the loan documents. View "Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. v. Zepeda" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals reversing the trial court's judgment and commitment order and reinstated the judgment of the trial court ordering Gregory Jones civilly committed as a sexually violent predator (SVP) under Tex. Health and Safety Code chapter 841, holding that the trial court erred when it declined to submit an instruction explaining that a verdict for Jones required only ten votes out of a jury of twelve, but the error was harmless. A civil-commitment trial conducted under chapter 841 provides that a verdict may be rendered by the agreement of ten members of a twelve-person jury. By statute, however, a civil-commitment verdict finding that the defendant is a sexually violent predator must be unanimous. On appeal, Jones argued that the trial court erred when it declined to submit his instruction that a final verdict for the defendant required only ten out of twelve votes. The court of appeals agreed, held that the error was harmful, and reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the trial court's failure to submit the requested 10-2 instruction did not probably cause the rendition of an improper judgment, and therefore, the trial court's legal error was harmless. View "In re Commitment of Gregory Jones" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In this products-liability and wrongful-death suit, the Supreme Court vacated the order of the trial court sanctioning an attorney for commissioning a pretrial survey that commenced in the county of suit shortly before trial, holding that the sanctions order, issued under the court's inherent authority, could not stand because evidence of bad faith was lacking. After a hearing, the trial court imposed sanctions against the attorney that commissioned the pretrial survey, ordering the attorney to complete ten hours of legal ethics education and pay the movants $133,415 in attorneys fees and expenses. The court did not find that the attorney violated any disciplinary rules or other applicable authority, instead concluding that the attorney's conduct was intentional, in bad faith, and an abuse of the legal system and the judicial process. The court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the attorney's attitude and intermittent obstinance at the sanctions hearing likely taxed the trial court's patience but did not itself justify the imposition of sanctions; and (2) the attorney's errors in commissioning and executing the survey did not constitute bad faith. View "Brewer v. Lennox Hearth Products, LLC" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics