Sunday, April 22, 2007

April 20, 2007 Texas Supreme Court Opinions

The Supreme Court opinions issued April 20, 2007 cover much legal ground and do not lend themselves to an easy summary under a common theme.

After a lull lasting several weeks, during which only a couple of per curiam opinions were handed down, the Supreme Court, on Friday issued thirteen opinions covering a wide array of issues spanning family law, employment law, leases, medical malpractice, and other areas of law and practice, not to mention sovereign immunity, a perennial theme. Two of the signed opinions were authored by Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson. Justice Nathan L. Hecht, Justice Scott A. Brister, Justice Harriet O'Neill, and Justice Dale Wainwright wrote one opinion each. The remaining decisions were issued per curiam. In this batch of opinions, dissent was remarkably absent. Justice Johnson delivered a concurring opinion in one of two cases involving Baylor University. Baylor v. Coley, No. 04-0916 (Tex. Apr. 20, 2007)(Hecht);
Baylor Univ. v. Sonnichsen, No. 04-0851 (Tex. Apr. 20, 2007).

Baylor's Day in the Supreme Court - University prevails in two employment disputes

The two university cases involved contract issues regarding employment. In Baylor Univ. v. Sonnichson, a former coach's fraud claims failed because he was seeking the same damages he could not recover for breach of an alleged oral contract because that claim was barred by the statute of frauds. In Bayler v. Coley, the Plaintiff likewise ended up empty-handed. The Court held that the there was no evidence that the University had breached Coley's contract, and that there was no jury charge error regarding constructive discharge. Justice Johnson wrote separately on the issue of preservation of jury charge error and concluded that Coley' s proposed jury instruction was not substantially correct because it contained a comment on the weight of the evidence by referring to her as being tenured in a position, rather than a field, which would have allowed for greater flexibility in assignments and responsibilities without resulting in a potentially actionable demotion. The nature of Coley's job responsibilities was not clearly defined and was a contested issue.

Two more in a steady stream of sovereign immunity decisions

Sovereign immunity, which accounts for a large number of cases in which the Supreme Court granted review recently, was not an issue in these two higher education employment cases because Baylor is a private university. In an unremarkable sovereign immunity case decided on Good Friday, the Court reversed for reconsideration in light of new case law by the trial court, as it has done in other cases decided in per curiam opinions. See State of Texas v. Precision Solar Controls Inc. (Tex. April 5, 2007). In the latest sovereign immunity case, U.S. v. Boateng, the Texas Supreme Court had occasion to examine a different angle. In this case, immunity was invoked by the United States (on behalf of a Medicare intermediary), rather than a state entity or a local government. Moreover, the defensive plea was asserted in a bill a review proceeding in which the party seeking relief from a prior judgment necessarily appears as petitioner, rather than defendant. The Supreme Court denied the United States' petition, thus allowing the case to be remanded to the trial court on mandate of the court of appeals, which had reversed the trial court's order granting the bill of review without trial. The Supreme Court opined that fact issues regarding the extent of the immunity claims remained unresolved.

In a second sovereign immunity case in which a decision was handed down April 20, 2007, the Supreme Court examined whether a takings claim is the proper avenue for the owner of a patent who performs services under contract with the State to assert his intellectual prporty rights. The patent-holder, Herbert Holland, had filed suit claiming the State’s unauthorized use of his patented technology constituted a taking under Article I, section 17 of the Texas Constitution. Writing for the Court, Justice Harriet O'Neill, rejects the takings claim, when, as here, the State’s use is pursuant to colorable contract rights, even though the contract was not between the State and Holland individually. Because the State was not acting under its powers of eminent domain, Holland could not assert a valid takings claim against the State for the alleged unlawful use of his patent. Finding that the state retained its immunity from suit under these circumstances, the Supreme Court reverses the court of appeals' judgment and dismisses Holland’s claim for want of jurisdiction. State of Texas v. Holland, No. 05-0292 (Tex. Apr. 20, 2007)

Domestic Relations, Benefits, and Wills

Several of the most recent decisions of the Supreme Court impact family law practitioners and probate lawyers. In the Estate of Marvin Nash afforded the Court an opportunity to address the effect of a divorce on a will, while in Holmes v. Kent, in a per curiam opinon, the Court resolved a benefits dispute under the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) by finding that a former teacher had not followed proper procedure to remove her former husband as designated beneficiary of an optional annuity prior to her death. The Court adopted the position urged by the TRS, which had filed an amicus brief in which it argued that the statutory requirements for changes in beneficiaries should be strictly adhered to.

Although the Supreme Court does not hear criminal cases, it had occasion to grant habeas corpus relief in a case in which a party sought to enforce contractual alimony by having the ex-spouse jailed for nonpayment. Finding that failure to comply with a private agreement regarding alimony created a debt not enforceable by contempt, the Supreme Court ordered the ex-husband released from custody. In Re Alvin Green, No. 06-0496 (Tex. Apr. 20, 2007)(per curiam).

Variations on Malpractice: Doctor vs. Lawyer and Doctor vs. Doctor

Two of the decided cases involved health care liability claims. In Low v. Henry, the Supreme Court reviewed the propriety of a sanctions order for factually false allegations against physicians in a medical malpractice case. In an opinion authored by Justice Wainwright the Court agrees with the trial court that pleading abuse did occur, but remands for reconsideration of the $50,000 in sanctions imposed on the attorney, which the Court deems severe and not supported by sufficient evidence. Low v. Henry, 50 Tex. Sup. J. 606 (Tex. 2007). In Jackson v. Axelrad Justice Brister wrote the opinion for the court resolving a dispute over the responsibilities of a patient in the medical malpractice context, where the patient-plaintiff himself was also a medical doctor, rather than a lay person to whom special knowledge and expertise cannot be imputed, and should have reported a critical symptom.

Commercial Tenants Beware!

On the business law front, the Supreme Court addressed an important and recurring issue in commercial leasing. Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Jefferson held that the "as-is" provision of the parties' contract, and the express warranty disclaimer contained therein were valid and enforceable, and thus barred the tenant's suit against the landlord.
Gym-N-I Playground, Inc. v. Snider, No. 05-0197 (Tex. Apr. 20, 2007)(Jefferson)

Second Bite at Out-of-State Defendants

In IRA Resources, Inc. v. Griego, an appeal from the trial court's ruling on a special appearance, the high court determines that the court of appeals had improperly found special jurisdiction, and remands with instructions that the court reexamine the case to see if the criteria for general jurisdiction were satisfied. The court of appeals had not reached that issue.

Mandamus Relief Granted (Conditionally, as is Customary)

The Supreme Court granted mandamus in two of the cases disposed of April 20, 2007. As it had done on several occasions before, it directed a trial court to enforce arbitration. In Re RLS Legal Solutions, LLC. It did so notwithstanding the concerns Chief Justice Jefferson had recently voiced in his State of the Judiciary Address about the erosion of legal and appellate remedies by private arbitration. In addition, the Court granted mandamus to require disqualification of counsel in a suit by a doctor against a medical center for revoking his hospital privileges, holding that there was no adequate other remedy. The hospital's attorney had previously been associated with the firm that represented the doctor and the representation of the current client would have required him to call into question the advice given the doctor by his former law partner. In Re Michael Angelo Basco, No. 05-0771 (Tex. Apr. 20, 2007)(per curiam)

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