Governmental Immunity & Declaratory Judgment

Governmental Immunity Austin Texas lawyer

Aug 15, 2013 — by Jeff Mundy
Tags: Civil Procedure Civil Rights


Sovereign immunity protects the State from lawsuits for money damages, and political subdivisions of the State are entitled to this immunity—referred to as governmental immunity—unless it has been waived.  An exception to governmental immunity exists when the plaintiff seeks declaratory relief against state officials who allegedly act without legal or statutory authority because "[a] state official's illegal or unauthorized actions are not acts of the State."  For a suit to fall within this "ultra vires" exception to governmental immunity, the suit "must not complain of a government officer's exercise of discretion, but rather must allege, and ultimately prove, that the officer acted without legal authority or failed to perform a purely ministerial act." 

In Heinrich, the Texas Supreme Court clarified the proper defendant in an ultra vires suit for declaratory relief. Because the "acts of officials which are not lawfully authorized are not acts of the State, " the State maintains immunity from suit, and the governmental entity is not a proper defendant.  Ultra vires suits must instead be brought against the relevant state actors in their official capacity, "even though the suit is, for all practical purposes, against the state." A claimant who successfully establishes an ultra vires claim is entitled to prospective injunctive relief, but he may not recover retrospective monetary damages. 

Sovereign immunity also protects the State from suits to "control state action."  A suit seeks to control state action when the trial court's judgment would "effectively direct or control a government official in the exercise of his or her statutory authority."  Sovereign immunity may bar an action to declare statutory authority if the suit is predicated "upon factual allegations that fall entirely within a state official's discretionary power." A discretionary act is one that requires the exercise of "personal deliberation, decision and judgment." The Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act ("DJA") is a remedial statute designed to "settle and to afford relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, status, or other legal relations." The DJA does not enlarge a trial court's jurisdiction, and a party's request for declaratory relief does not alter the suit's underlying nature.  Private parties cannot circumvent governmental immunity by characterizing a suit for money damages as a claim for declaratory relief. 


"A declaratory judgment is appropriate only if a justiciable controversy exists as to the rights and status of the parties and if the controversy will be resolved by the declaration sought." ... (holding that DJA is intended to provide means of determining parties' rights when controversy has arisen but before wrong has been committed and is "preventative in nature");  ... ("For a justiciable controversy to exist, there must be a real and substantial controversy involving a genuine conflict of tangible interests and not merely a theoretical dispute."). A request for declaratory judgment is moot "if the claim presents 'no live controversy.'"...Declaratory relief is not warranted unless the claim "presents a 'substantial controversy' of 'immediacy and reality.'" A controversy ceases to exist when the issues presented are no longer "live" or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome. ...("Past exposure to illegal conduct does not in itself show a present case or controversy regarding injunctive relief, however, if unaccompanied by any continuing, present adverse effects."). If a case becomes moot, the plaintiff loses standing to maintain his claims. ...(holding that because plaintiffs "no longer face the unconstitutional conduct about which they complain, " any prospective relief that court might grant "cannot help them, " and their injunctive and declaratory relief claims are moot); ... ("Standing is a prerequisite to subject-matter jurisdiction, and subject-matter jurisdiction is essential to a court's power to decide a case."); ... ("Subject matter jurisdiction is essential to the authority of a court to decide a case. Standing is implicit in the concept of subject matter jurisdiction.").


The Board of Trustees of the The Galveston Wharves v. O'Rourke, (Tex. App. - Houston, 2013)

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