Posted by Rich Phillips
On February 3, 2017, the Supreme Court of Texas issued opinions in three argued cases. The Court did not grant any new petitions for review. Read the entire order list here.
The Court issued opinions in the following cases:
No. 15-0073, Paxton v. City of Dallas — This case arises from a dispute between the City of Dallas and the Texas Attorney General regarding the application of the Texas Public Information Act to information that the City claims is protected by the attorney-client privilege. The case produced two lengthy, impassioned opinions (both of which use the word "preposterous" to describe the other opinion). When a governmental body receives a request under PIA, it has ten days to identify information it believes should be withheld from production under one or more statutory exceptions and to ask the Attorney General to confirm that the exceptions apply. If the governmental body misses that deadline, the PIA imposes a presumption that the information must be produced unless the body establishes a "compelling reason to withhold the information." The City of Dallas received two separate request under the PIA. The City identified responsive information that was subject to the attorney-client privilege (which is a statutory exception under PIA), but did not timely submit a request to the Attorney General to affirm that the information was excepted from disclosure. When the city submitted its late requests, the Attorney General ruled that the information must be produced.
In an opinion by Justice Guzman (joined by Chief Justice Hecht and Justices Green, Willett, Lehrmann, Devine, and Brown), the Court held that protection of the attorney-client privilege is a "compelling reason" to withhold the information even if the city was late in submitting the issue to the Attorney General. The Court reasoned that the attorney-client privilege is a central feature of the American legal system and that missing the statutory deadline was not sufficient to find that the city had waived the privilege. In reaching this conclusion, the Court rejected the Attorney General's argument that "compelling reasons" to withhold the information are limited to (1) information that must be kept confidential by law (that is, the disclosure of the information could subject the person disclosing it to criminal penalties); and (2) information that could jeopardize third parties if disclosed.
Justice Boyd (joined by Justice Johnson) filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Boyd would have held that the mere fact that the city claimed that the information is protected by the attorney-client privilege is not enough to satisfy the compelling reason test because the legislature already provided protection for privileged material by including it in the exceptions to disclosure. He reasoned that the majority's approach made the compelling-reason requirement meaningless when applied to privileged material. Justice Boyd agreed with the majority that the compelling reason should not be as limited as the Attorney General argued, but would have found it to be narrower than the majority. He would have held that compelling reason means "a reason that, under all the facts and circumstances, is so important and urgent that reasonable minds can only conclude that it clearly outweighs the Act's fundamental policy of ensuring that the public can promptly obtain its information from the government."
No. 15-0142, Crawford v. XTO Energy — In this oil and gas dispute, the Supreme Court addressed whether adjoining landowners are necessary parties to a suit about proper payment of royalties and the application of the strip-and-gore doctrine. Plaintiff Crawford sued XTO, claiming that he is owed royalties attributable to a strip of land covering about 8 acres. Crawford's mother conveyed the acreage to Texas Electric Service Company, which owns and operates a power line on the property and reserved for herself the oil and gas under the acreage. She later sold all of her interest (including mineral rights) in the land north and south of that strip. She later leased the minerals under the strip. That land was pooled with the land to the north and south (and other leases) and a well was drilled on the pooled acreage. XTO declined to pay Crawford royalties attributable to the 8 acres, relying on a title opinion that concluded that the mineral interest associated with that strip of land had been conveyed in the later sales of the land north and south under the strip-and-gore doctrine. This doctrine provides that where an owner conveys all land he owns adjacent to a narrow strip of land and that strip is no longer of use to him, it is presumed that the owner meant to convey the strip as well.
XTO argued that the current owners of the land north and south of the strip at issue are necessary parties and that the case should be dismissed for failure to join them. The trial court and the court of appeals agreed. The Supreme Court reversed. In an opinion by Justice Lehrmann, the Court reasoned that the adjacent owners did not "claim an interest relating to the subject of the action" as required to make them necessary parties under Rule 39. The fact that the adjacent owners could make such a claim did not alone make them necessary parties. The decision to pay royalties to the adjacent landowners instead of Crawford was a unilateral decision by XTO. The Court noted that there was no record evidence that any of the adjacent owners had ever demanded or asserted ownership of the minerals under the strip of land. The Court also noted that if XTO is worried about multiple, inconsistent judgments, it has the option to add the adjacent owners as third-party defendants under Rule 37.
The Court also clarified that failure to include a reporter's record in the record on appeal will waive error only where the hearing at issue was an evidentiary hearing. Hearings at which counsel present argument, but no new evidence, are not essential to the record on appeal and are not subject to the presumption that the omitted record supports the trial court's decision.
No. 15-0912, Colorado County, Texas v. Staff — This case arises out of the termination of a Colorado County Deputy Sheriff, respondent Mark Staff. The County (an at-will employer) terminated his employment due to "performance deficiencies," some of which were identified in the written notice of his termination. It appears from the record that the primary incident was a traffic stop recorded by his dash camera. Staff's supervisors determined that his conduct was "rude," "unacceptable," and "grossly unprofessional." There was also a similar event that had occurred several years prior to his termination. Staff argued that under Texas Government Code sections 614.022 and 614.023, he could not be terminated as a result of alleged misconduct without a written complaint signed by the person who was the subject of the alleged misconduct. In an opinion by Justice Guzman, the Supreme Court held (1) )that these sections do not alter the at-will employment relationship; (2) that the phrase "the person making the complaint" in these sections is not limited to the "victim" of the alleged misconduct; and (3) the signed disciplinary notice was sufficient to satisfy these sections' requirement of a written statement. Accordingly, the Supreme Court found that the County complied with these two sections and rendered judgment against the former employee.