When is government immunity lifted by acts of government officials? Ultra Vires Revisited – Lawsuits & Appeals & Compensation
Ultra Vires and Immunity
On June 3, 2022, the Texas Supreme Court issued two important opinions on the subject of waiver of government immunity based on the doctrine of
First-Van Boven–the Court endorsed a doctor’s claims that the immunity of members of a government agency (the Texas Medical Board) had been waived due to ultra vires for the Board’s failure to follow applicable guidelines in a disciplinary matter involving a physician. In the second-Schröder–the Court sided with officials of a local planning and zoning commission in their approval of a subdivision, despite the objection of a neighboring homeowners’ association. This blog summarizes both opinions.
Are Texas Medical Board officials waiving government immunity by failing to follow National Practitioner Data Bank guidelines?
In Van Boven c. Freshour, —SW3d—, —2022 WL — (Tex. Jun 3, 2022) [20-0117](“Van Boven“) the issue was whether members of the Texas Medical Board acted ultra vires in refusing to overturn a reported temporary sanction against a physician at the National Practitioner Data Bank.
In the administrative proceeding, the Commission determined that the allegations underlying the penalty had not been proven, and this finding became final. Once sanctions were determined to be unproven, applicable disciplinary review guidelines required the Board to submit a cancellation report to the databank to remove the original report from the physician’s file. Instead of submitting a Cancellation Report, the Council submitted an Action Review Report, which the guidelines described as “an action report that modifies a previously reported undesirable action.” When an action review report is filed, the initial report is still part of the doctor’s file. The doctor in question, Van Boven, applied for a writ of mandamus requiring the Commission to submit a rescinded report. Van Boven argued that the Commission’s immunity from prosecution was waived because the Commission acted ultra vires by submitting a review report to action rather than a cancellation report. See Van Boven to the P. 1-9.
The trial court dismissed the Commission officials’ appeal to jurisdiction based on governmental immunity, but the appeals court reversed and entered judgment dismissing Van Boven’s suit for lack of jurisdiction. The Texas Supreme Court overturned the dismissal, finding that, on the facts of the case, the Council was required to file a rescinded report with the databank and that the officials’ actions to the contrary were ultra vires, so that these officials are not immune. claims by Van Boven. Van Boven to the P. 16. In describing the confluence of governmental immunity and ultra vires doctrine, the Supreme Court said:
The Council’s sovereign immunity from suit as a state agency extends to its officials who act according to law, but not to those who act ultra vires, i.e. “without lawful authority or [by] fail[ing] to perform a purely ministerial act.” An official acts without legal authorization when he “exceeds the limits of his authority or if his acts are contrary to the law itself.” An official omits to perform a ministerial act when he is not complying with a law which “prescribes and defines the functions to be performed with such precision and certainty as to leave nothing to the exercise of discretion or judgment.” A public servant who acts ultra vires does not does not act for the State and is not entitled to its immunity. But “it is not an ultra vires act for a public official to make an erroneous decision within the framework of the authority conferred on him.”
Van Boven to the P. ten.
Under what circumstances do officials of a planning and zoning commission engage ultra vires acts and therefore lose the protection of governmental immunity?
In Schroeder v Escalera Ranch Owners’ Ass’n, Inc., – SW3d -, (Tex. June 3, 2022) [20-
0855] (“Schröder“), the question was whether government immunity protected a zoning commission’s decision that a proposed subdivision complied with applicable law. There, a developer sought approval from a planning commission and zoning of a preliminary flat for a new subdivision. The commission concluded that the flat met the requirements of the UDC, and that it had an obligation under the law to approve the conforming flat. of neighboring landowners sued the commission members in their official capacity for mandamus, claiming the dish did not comply with the city’s applicable Unified Development Code (UDC). governmental immunity, the commissioners argued that they had a ministerial duty to approve a dish they determined to be compliant.The trial court allowed the commissioners’ plea are. The appeals court reversed, finding that the increased traffic and accompanying safety risks amounted to a particular injury and that the determination of dish compliance was a matter of discretion, liable to judicial review for manifest abuse.
The Texas Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision, finding that government immunity protected the commissioners’ compliance determination. In describing the confluence of government immunity applicable to the approval of dishes and the ultra vires doctrine, the Supreme Court said:
“[P]food approval is a discretionary function that only a government unit can perform. “But once the relevant government unit determines that a dish complies with the applicable regulations, it has a ministerial obligation to approve that dish. The Commission has issued such a decision in this case. If it is correct in its determination of compliance, the Commission then had a ministerial obligation to approve the platform. . . .
Governmental immunity protects political subdivisions of the state from lawsuits and liability. The legislature can waive government immunity by statute. . . However, government immunity “will not preclude a prosecution against a government official for acting outside his or her authority, that is, an ultra vires prosecution.” “To fall within this ultra vires exception, a prosecution must not complain of the exercise of discretion by a government official, but must instead allege, and ultimately prove, that the official acted without authorization. lawful or has not performed a purely ministerial act.” “[A] A government official with some discretion to interpret and apply a law may nevertheless act “without lawful authority”, and thus ultra vires, if he exceeds the limits of his authority or if his acts are in conflict with the law itself.” If the impugned actions “were not truly outside the agent’s authority or in conflict with the law,” then the plaintiff has not declared a valid ultra vires claim and immunity government will block the prosecution.
Schröder to the P. 4-6. The Court, in concluding that the Commissioners fully considered the applicable UCC requirements and applied those requirements in determining compliance, concluded as follows:
The plating process is intended to be quick and favorable to approval. The legislature created a ministerial obligation to approve a conforming dish, with no reciprocal obligation to refuse a nonconforming dish. If a municipal planning and zoning commission wants to refuse a dish for non-compliance, it has only thirty days to do so. After that, the dish is generally approved, even if it is non-compliant. And unlike the related area of zoning, where the Legislature has statutorily approved lawsuits brought by a wide range of plaintiffs to challenge allegedly improper zoning decisions, the Legislature has not created a mechanism for third parties to seek judicial review. veneer approval from a municipality. Providing one against the commissioners in this case would undermine both our well-established limits on ultra vires suits and the legislature’s obvious preference for speedy veneer decisions. Commissioners are required to interpret the CDU, consider certain items listed, and determine whether a platform meets CDU standards. Since the Commissioners complied with this obligation by determining that the . . . preliminary dish complied with the applicable standards, the trial court had no jurisdiction to impose a contrary order by mandamus.
Schröder to the P. 11-13.
Knowledge. These two reviews Van Boven and Schröder illustrate the ongoing challenges citizens face when they are harmed or potentially harmed by the actions or inactions of government officials. Governmental immunity affords state and local government officials a strong and sometimes impenetrable shield when faced with legal action or liability for actions or inactions that are or may be contrary to applicable law. the governmental function to be performed or to be performed by such officials. The law recognizes a few swords that can penetrate this shield, one of which is legislative enactment and the other is a concept called the “ultra vires exception”. See also Freeman Law attorney, Jason Freeman blog at The Ultra Vires Exception to Sovereign Immunity in Texas (April 12, 2022); and Freeman Law attorney, Cory Halliburton’s What is a Texas Whistleblower Act whistleblower report? (regarding government immunity and the waiver thereof for qualified reports made by government employees).
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.