Two especially interesting decisions were released last Friday by the Texas Supreme Court.
In Engelman Irrigation District v. Shields Brothers, Inc., the Court affirmed the ruling of the Thirteenth Court of Appeals (sitting in Corpus Christi) that a decades-old (circa 1998) final judgment against a government entity—the Engelman Irrigation District—could not be declared void on the grounds that a 2006 ruling of the Texas Supreme Court on government immunity should be given retroactive effect in this instance. The Court refused to permit a collateral attack on a final judgment that became final several years before the 2006 decision was issued.
The Irrigation District was sued in 1992 for breaching a contract to supply water. The jury awarded the plaintiff over $271,000.00 in damages, along with interest and attorney’s fees. This judgment has never been paid although the verdict was affirmed by the courts in 1998. Thereafter, the Irrigation District sought authorization to file for bankruptcy under the Water Code, but this request was denied and that administrative order was also affirmed. However, one of the pillars of the Corpus Christi’s court’s 1997 ruling on sovereign immunity, the 1970 Texas Supreme Court decision in Missouri Pacific Railway Co. v. Brownsville Navigation District, was overruled by the Court in 2006 in the case of Toole v. City of Mexia, which held that in this context, a governmental entity had not waived its ability to claim sovereign immunity. Here, the Court held that while judicial decisions generally operate retroactively, it is the judiciary’s role to map the contours of a judge-made doctrine such as sovereign immunity, and consequently, the earlier judgment was not subject to a collateral attack.
The other case is D Magazine Partners, L.P. d/b/a D Magazine, et al. v. Rosenthal, and the Court against confronts the Texas “Anti-SLAPP” Act, known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). This law has played a prominent rule in some recent environmental controversies, where the complaint protests allegedly defamatory news items reported in the press or in the media, and the defendant invokes the protections of the TCPA to secure his or her First Amendment rights. In this case, the plaintiff alleged that D Magazine defamed her by publishing an article and posting an old photograph that argued that she was a “welfare queen” although residing in a toney Dallas neighborhood. The courts agreed that the plaintiff satisfied her evidentiary burden under the statute that she had been falsely accused—which was borne out by communications from the relevant state agency, the Texas Health and Human Service Commission. The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Court of Appeals (sitting in Dallas) that denied the publication’s motion to dismiss under the TCPA, and the case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. The Court, however, cautioned the lower courts against relying of the online service Wikipedia as a primary source for their decisions. Wikipedia was consulted for the common understanding of the term “welfare queens.” It noted in part that “Wikipedia consultants do not necessarily represent a cross-section of society, as research has shown they are overwhelmingly male, under forty years old, and living outside the United States.”