151 F.3d 186 (5th Cir. 1998), 97-20138, Harris v. City of Houston

Docket Nº:97-20138, 98-20001.
Citation:151 F.3d 186
Party Name:John D. HARRIS; et al., Plaintiffs, John D. Harris; Harris County Utility District, No. 1,2,3,4,5,8,10,93,145,236,262,350 and 356, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF HOUSTON, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:August 11, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 186

151 F.3d 186 (5th Cir. 1998)

John D. HARRIS; et al., Plaintiffs,

John D. Harris; Harris County Utility District, No.

1,2,3,4,5,8,10,93,145,236,262,350 and 356,

Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

CITY OF HOUSTON, Defendant-Appellee.

Nos. 97-20138, 98-20001.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 11, 1998

Page 187

Ronald D. Secrest, Eric J.R. Nichols, Laura Nicole Batey, Beck, Redden & Secrest, Houston, TX, for Plaintiffs-Appellants in both cases.

Jonathan M. Day, Sylvia Matthews Egner, Michael John Wynne, Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, Houston, TX, for Defendant-Appellee in both cases.

Andrew P. Johnson, III, Johnson, Radcliffe & Petroo, Houston, TX, for Plaintiffs-Appellants in 98-20001.

Gene L. Locke, Houston, TX, Robert S. Bickerstaff, Jr., Bickerstaff, Heath, Smiley, Pollan, Kever & McDaniel, Austin, TX, for Defendant-Appellee in 98-20001.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before KING, EMILIO M. GARZA and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.

EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judge:

These consolidated appeals challenge the district court's refusal to enjoin the City of Houston's annexation of a residential area known as Kingwood. Finding that we can no longer grant plaintiffs the relief they requested below, we vacate the district court's prior orders and remand with instructions to dismiss the case as moot.

I

In January 1996, the City of Houston, Texas (the "City") began discussing the possibility of annexing a relatively affluent, non-minority-dominated residential area north of the City, known as "Kingwood." Throughout the year, the City mayor met with various representatives from Kingwood, and the City Council held various hearings on the subject. On December 11, 1996, the City Council enacted separate ordinances annexing Kingwood and abolishing its thirteen utility districts--effective the following day.

On December 23, 1996, the City requested preclearance of the annexation from the Department of Justice ("DOJ"), pursuant to § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ("Voting Rights Act"), P.L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 439 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 1973 et seq.). The City held a special election on January 18, 1997, and a resulting runoff election on February 15--both unrelated to the

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issue of annexation. 1 Because the DOJ did not grant preclearance until February 24, Kingwood residents were not permitted to participate in these elections. See 42 U.S.C. § 1973 (holding that no change in voting takes effect until precleared). The parties agree that as of the date of this appeal, the annexation of Kingwood has been fully accomplished, and no further obstacles remain to Kingwood residents voting in City elections.

This suit, instituted in October 1996, before the City actually accomplished the annexation, was brought by many different plaintiffs alleging different injuries as well as separate causes of action. The one common denominator for the group was their unanimous request for relief--an injunction against the annexation and all efforts to implement it. Mary Almendarez and Thomas Phillips ("minority plaintiffs"), minority residents of the City, alleged that both the purpose and effect of the annexation were to dilute the votes of minority residents, in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment. Kingwood's thirteen utility districts--namely Harris County Utility Districts Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and 10 and Harris County Municipal Utility Districts Nos. 93, 262, 350, and 356 (collectively, "Utility Districts" or "Districts")--claimed that the December 11 ordinances exceeded the City's statutory annexation authority as set out in various sections of the Texas Local Government Code. John D. Harris, a resident of Kingwood, alleged that permitting the annexation to go forward before the January election would deprive him of his right to vote in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

In addition to requesting an injunction against the annexation and all implementing actions such as the seizure of property and the provision of certain basic services to Kingwood residents, Almendarez, Phillips, Harris and the Utility Districts (collectively "plaintiffs") requested that the district court stay the annexation at least until the January election and preferably until some final decision could be reached on the state-law claims of the Utility Districts. In the alternative, the plaintiffs requested that if the annexation went forward, the special election scheduled for January 18th be enjoined until the City received preclearance and could permit Kingwood residents to vote. The plaintiffs also requested declaratory relief to the effect that the City's actions were unconstitutional and invalid under state law. At no time did any plaintiff request damages, nominal or compensatory, nor did any plaintiff request that the district court invalidate the special election or dismantle the annexation once accomplished. 2

Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied plaintiffs' request for preliminary injunctive relief and dismissed the claims of the Utility Districts for lack of standing. Harris and the Utility Districts ("appellants") appealed from this order, but before we heard arguments in the case, the district court entered a final judgment denying all relief to the plaintiffs. The appellants subsequently filed a second notice of appeal, and on their unopposed motion we consolidated the first appeal from the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction with the second appeal from the district court's final judgment in favor of the City. The minority plaintiffs appealed neither from the denial of preliminary injunctive relief, nor from the district court's final judgment.

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Their claims regarding the allegedly discriminatory purpose and impact of the annexation, styled under the Voting Rights Act as well as the Fifteenth Amendment, are therefore not before us. 3

II

"To qualify as a case fit for federal-court adjudication, 'an actual controversy must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed.' " Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, ----, 117 S.Ct. 1055, 1068, 137 L.Ed.2d 170 (1997). Whether an actual controversy remains at this stage of the litigation is a question that we resolve de novo. 4 See Elder v. Holloway, 510 U.S. 510, 516, 114 S.Ct. 1019, 1023, 127 L.Ed.2d 344 (1994) (noting that questions of law generally "must be resolved de novo on appeal").

As an initial matter, we find it beyond dispute that a request for injunctive relief generally becomes moot upon the happening of the event sought to be enjoined. See, e.g., Seafarers Int'l Union of N. Am. v. National Marine Servs., Inc., 820 F.2d 148, 151-52 (5th Cir.1987) ("[O]nce the action that the plaintiff sought to have enjoined has occurred, the case is mooted because 'no order of this court could affect the parties' rights with respect to the injunction we are called upon to review.' ") (quoting Honig v. Students of the Cal. Sch. for the Blind, 471 U.S. 148, 149, 105 S.Ct. 1820, 1821, 85 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985)); Marilyn T., Inc. v. Evans, 803 F.2d 1383, 1384 (5th Cir.1986) (holding plaintiff's appeal from the denial of preliminary injunctive relief against the suspension of a license moot once the license was permanently revoked); see also Oakville Dev. Corp. v. FDIC, 986 F.2d 611, 613 (1st Cir.1993) (holding that an appeal becomes moot once circumstances dictate that the court can no longer grant meaningful relief) (collecting cases). At that point, no order of the court can affect the rights of the parties with regard to the requested relief. See DeFunis v. Odegaard, 416 U.S. 312, 316, 94 S.Ct. 1704, 1705, 40 L.Ed.2d 164 (1974) (noting that the "starting point" for an analysis of mootness is the "familiar proposition that 'federal courts are without power to decide questions that cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case before them' ") (quoting North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246, 92 S.Ct. 402, 404, 30 L.Ed.2d 413 (1971)). Applying this general rule to the case at hand, the claims of the appellants for prospective relief against the annexation and the special election are indeed moot. Kingwood has been a part of the City for almost a year and a half; since the January 1997 election and subsequent February run-off, the entire City Council has gone through an election cycle, with no impediment to Kingwood's participation. The Constitutional harms Harris sought to enjoin, if indeed there were any, have come and gone; we simply cannot enjoin that which has already taken place. Cf. In re S.L.E., Inc., 674 F.2d 359, 364 (5th Cir. 1982) (noting that "[i]f a dispute has ... evanesced because of changed circumstances, including the passage of time, it is considered moot.")

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Harris and the Districts attempt to demonstrate nevertheless the existence of an ongoing, live controversy. The appellants cite Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, & Assocs., Inc. v. Brown, 948 F.2d 1436, 1446 (5th Cir.1991), for the proposition that "a suit is moot only when it can be shown that a court cannot even 'theoretically grant' relief." In an attempt to demonstrate how we might "theoretically" find a remedy for their claims, the appellants suggest that we order the annexation undone or, in the alternative, that we invalidate the results of the January 18th election and subsequent February run-off. These arguments illustrate not only a fatal misconstruction of Vieux Carre, but also an inadequate recognition of our role in resolving, rather than reviving, legal disputes.

In Vieux Carre, an historic preservation society (the "Society") brought suit against the Army Corps of...

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