Bonin v. Sabine River Auth. of Tex.

Decision Date10 February 2020
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 1:19-CV-00527
Citation438 F.Supp.3d 747
Parties Perry BONIN, Ace Chandler, Michael Manuel, et al., Plaintiffs, v. SABINE RIVER AUTHORITY OF TEXAS, Sabine River Authority, State of Louisiana, Tobin Holbrook, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Texas

John Gerard Werner, Christopher David Mahfouz, Glen W. Morgan, Reaud Morgan & Quinn LLP, Beaumont, TX, for Plaintiffs.

Robert Acreman, pro se.

Jacqueline Acreman, pro se.

Larry Addison, pro se.

Ricky Alexander, pro se.

Linda Alfred, pro se.

Charles W. Goehringer, Jr., Kelli Burris Smith, Germer PLLC, Beaumont, TX, Shane L. Kotlarsky, Lewis Brisbois, Houston, TX, John Powers Wolff, III, Keogh, Cox & Wilson, Ltd., Baton Rouge, LA, for Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

Michael J. Truncale, United States District Judge Before the Court is Defendant Sabine River Authority, State of Louisiana ("SRA-L")'s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint. [Dkt. 7]. SRA-L seeks dismissal of this case with prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Id. The Court has considered the motion, all other relevant filings, and the applicable law. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that dismissal is not warranted.

I. BACKGROUND

The Plaintiffs are Texas and Louisiana property owners who allege that SRA-L and Sabine River Authority of Texas ("SRA-T") (collectively "Defendants") "took, damaged, or destroyed" their property by causing or contributing to a Sabine River flood that damaged their property. [Dkt. 1, p. 6]. The Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants caused a "deliberate release of water from the Toledo Bend spillway gates into the Sabine River" in March of 2016. Id. at 1–2. The Defendants opened "nine spillway gates" over a twenty-four-hour period "in response to the fact that the water level had surpassed 172.5 feet." Id. at 2. However, Plaintiffs claim that "the opening of the spillway gates was merely the ‘last straw’ in a series of deliberate actions which Defendants had taken in the days, months and years prior to the flooding." Id. Plaintiffs alleged that homes, businesses, churches, and other properties along the Sabine River were flooded, "burial vaults were disinterred and scattered, and animals and livestock were killed, in the name of and by the authority of the Defendants...deliberately acting in the exercise of the powers granted [to them] by [their] respective State[s]." Id. at 6.

Plaintiffs allege three specific types of deliberate actions:

a. Defendants deliberately chose to re-apply for and accept a renewal license to operate the facility in questions, knowing that there was a substantial certainty that downstream flooding would occur;
b. Defendants, notwithstanding clear authority from the Federal Energy Commission ("FERC") to operate the reservoir with a water level anywhere between 168.0 and 172.0 feet, chose to allow the water level to remain very close to this upper bound throughout the month of February 2016, despite their ability and authority to release water through the spillway gates at amounts greater than the 144cfs that Defendants caused to be released each day during February 2016; and
c. Defendants, notwithstanding clear authority from FERC to operate the reservoir with a water level anywhere between 168.0 and 172.0 feet, went from approximately August 2015 through and including the flooding at issue in March 2016 with only one of the two hydroelectric generators operational; having the other hydroelectric generator operating would have caused an addition 7,000-10,000 cfs of water to be released and thereby lower the water level.

Id. at 2.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and absent jurisdiction conferred by statute or the Constitution, lack the power to adjudicate claims. See Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. , 511 U.S. 375, 377, 114 S.Ct. 1673, 128 L.Ed.2d 391 (1994) ; Howery v. Allstate Ins. Co. , 243 F.3d 912, 916 (5th Cir. 2001) ; Stockman v. Fed. Election Comm'n , 138 F.3d 144, 151 (5th Cir. 1998). A motion to dismiss filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal district court. See FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1). Rule 12(b)(1) authorizes dismissal of a case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction when the district court lacks statutory and constitutional power to adjudicate the case. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1) ; Home Builders Ass'n of Miss., Inc. v. City of Madison , 143 F.3d 1006, 1010 (5th Cir. 1998).

Once a defendant files a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) and challenges jurisdiction, the party invoking jurisdiction has the burden to establish subject matter jurisdiction. See Menchaca v. Chrysler Credit Corp. , 613 F.2d 507, 511 (5th Cir. 1980) ; McDaniel v. United States , 899 F. Supp. 305, 307 (E.D. Tex. 1995). The Court may only grant a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction if it is certain that the claimant cannot prove any plausible set of facts that would entitle the claimant to relief. Lane v. Halliburton , 529 F.3d 548, 557 (5th Cir. 2008).

When deciding Defendant SRA-L's motion, the Court may consider "(1) the complaint alone; (2) the complaint supplemented by the undisputed facts evidenced in the record; or (3) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts." Lane , 529 F.3d at 557 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Barrera-Montenegro v. United States , 74 F.3d 657, 659 (5th Cir. 1996) ). The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations set forth in the complaint and construe those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Truman v. United States , 26 F.3d 592, 594 (5th Cir. 1994).

III. DISCUSSION
A. Sovereign Immunity

It is widely understood that a federal court's jurisdiction is "limited by the Eleventh Amendment and the principle of sovereign immunity that it embodies." Vogt v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Orleans Levee Dist. , 294 F.3d 684, 688 (5th Cir.), cert. denied , 537 U.S. 1088, 123 S.Ct. 700, 154 L.Ed.2d 632 (2002) ; see Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida , 517 U.S. 44, 54, 116 S.Ct. 1114, 134 L.Ed.2d 252 (1996) ; Union Pac. R. Co. v. La. Pub. Serv. Comm'n , 662 F.3d 336, 340 (5th Cir. 2011) ; Bowens v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons , No. CIV.A. 1:04CV688, 2005 WL 3133475, at *4 (E.D. Tex. Nov. 23, 2005) (Crone, J.). According to the Eleventh Amendment, "[t]he judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State."1

U.S. CONST. amend. XI. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has "made clear that the Constitution does not provide for federal jurisdiction over suits against nonconsenting States." Kimel v. Fla. Bd. of Regents , 528 U.S. 62, 73, 120 S.Ct. 631, 145 L.Ed.2d 522 (2000) ; accord Welch v. Tex. Dept. of Highways & Pub. Transp. , 483 U.S. 468, 472, 107 S.Ct. 2941, 97 L.Ed.2d 389 (1987).

Sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment extends not only to "actions in which a State is actually named as the defendant, but also certain actions against state agents and state instrumentalities." Sw. Bell Tel. Co. v. City of El Paso , 243 F.3d 936, 937 (5th Cir. 2001) (citing Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Doe , 519 U.S. 425, 429, 117 S.Ct. 900, 137 L.Ed.2d 55 (1997) ). As such, even when the State is not a named defendant, "the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity will extend to any state agency or other political entity that is deemed the ‘alter ego’ or an ‘arm’ of the State." Vogt v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Orleans Levee Dist. , 294 F.3d 684, 688–89 (5th Cir.), cert. denied , 537 U.S. 1088, 123 S.Ct. 700, 154 L.Ed.2d 632 (2002) (citing Doe , 519 U.S. at 429, 117 S.Ct. 900 )); see Raj v. La. State Univ. , 714 F.3d 322, 328–29 (5th Cir. 2013). Therefore, "the Eleventh Amendment will bar a suit if the defendant state agency is so closely connected to the State that the State itself is ‘the real, substantial party in interest.’ " Vogt , 294 F.3d at 689 ; Fairley v. Louisiana , 254 F. App'x 275, 277 (5th Cir. 2007).

However, "[t]here is no bright-line test for determining whether a political entity is an ‘arm of the State for the purposes of Eleventh Amendment immunity." Vogt , 294 F.3d at 689. Instead, "the matter is determined by reasoned judgment about whether the lawsuit is one which, despite the presence of a state agency as the nominal defendant, is effectively against the sovereign state." Earles v. State Bd. of Certified Public Accountants of La. , 139 F.3d 1033, 1037 (5th Cir. 1998). In making that inquiry, the Fifth Circuit has traditionally considered six factors, often referred to as the Clark factors: (1) whether the state statutes and case law characterize the agency as an arm of the state; (2) the source of funds for the entity; (3) the degree of local autonomy the entity enjoys; (4) whether the entity is concerned primarily with local, as opposed to statewide, problems; (5) whether the entity has authority to sue and be sued in its own name; and (6) whether the entity has the right to hold and use property. See, e.g., Cozzo v. Tangipahoa Par. Council–President Govt. , 279 F.3d 273, 281 (5th Cir. 2002) ; Vogt , 294 F.3d at 689 ; Anderson v. Red River Waterway Comm'n , 231 F.3d 211, 214 (5th Cir. 2000) ; Clark v. Tarrant County , 798 F.2d 736, 745 (5th Cir. 1986) (creating what is known as the Clark factors).2 "[T]he most significant factor in assessing an entity's status is whether a judgment against it will be paid with state funds." Delahoussaye v. City of New Iberia , 937 F.2d 144, 147–48 (5th Cir. 1991).3

SRA-L claims that it is an arm of the state and therefore is entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The Plaintiffs disagree, contending that SRA-L should not be given Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Court will now apply the Clark factors.

1. Characterization under state law

The first factor is...

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