Brown v. City of Houston, 21-20302

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM.
PartiesAlfred Dewayne Brown, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. City of Houston, Texas; Harris County, Texas; Breck McDaniel; Ted C. Bloyd; D. L. Robertson, Defendants-Appellees.
Docket Number21-20302
Decision Date01 April 2022

Alfred Dewayne Brown, Plaintiff-Appellant,

City of Houston, Texas; Harris County, Texas; Breck McDaniel; Ted C. Bloyd; D. L. Robertson, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 21-20302

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 1, 2022

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

Before Wiener, Graves, and Duncan, Circuit Judges.


Plaintiff-Appellant Alfred Dewayne Brown challenges the dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit. His case presents a novel and significant question of Texas state law, so we certify to the Texas Supreme Court.


I. Introduction

Brown spent more than twelve years in state prison - ten on death row - because of his wrongful conviction for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk. In 2017, following his release from incarceration, Brown filed this § 1983 action in federal district court based on his wrongful prosecution and conviction.

Back in 1965, Texas instituted the Tim Cole Act, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 103.001 et seq. It provides state compensation to individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of state crimes in state courts. Under the statute, "[a] person is entitled to compensation if: (1) the person has served in whole or in part a sentence in prison under the laws of this state; and (2) the person . . . has received a full pardon on the basis of innocence for the crime for which the person was sentenced."[1]

Brown sought mandamus relief from the Texas Supreme Court after the Texas Office of the Comptroller rejected his application for Tim Cole Act compensation several times.[2] In December 2020, the Texas Supreme Court overturned the Comptroller's decision and ordered the State to pay Brown the compensation he was owed under the Tim Cole Act.[3] Texas then paid Brown's Tim Cole Act claim. The instant litigation addresses the viability of Brown's federal lawsuit filed under § 1983 in 2017, long before he recovered under the Tim Cole Act.

It is uncontested that Brown has met the criteria of the Tim Cole Act and has received compensation under it. What the parties dispute here is the


impact of the following provision of the Act on his previously filed § 1983 suit:

A person who receives compensation under this chapter may not bring any action involving the same subject matter including an action involving the person's arrest, conviction, or length of confinement, against any governmental unit or an employee of any governmental unit.[4]

The federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants-Appellees and dismissed Brown's § 1983 case with prejudice. In doing so, that court explained that: "A state's payment for wrongful conviction under the [Tim Cole] Act provides immunity to suits against state and local government entities and employees seeking additional payment for the same wrongful conviction. The court concludes that, presented with the facts in this case, the Texas Supreme Court would likely . . . conclude that § 103.153(b) bars Brown's lawsuit." The district court noted that this case presents "a novel issue of Texas law" as "[t]he Texas Supreme Court has considered the Tim Cole Act several times, but it has not addressed the specific issue presented here."

II. Standard for Certification to the Texas Supreme Court

The Texas Supreme Court "may answer questions of law certified to it by any federal appellate court if the certifying court is presented with determinative questions of Texas law having no controlling Supreme Court precedent."[5] We consider three factors in determining whether to certify:

1. the closeness of the question and the existence of sufficient sources of state law;
2. the degree to which considerations of comity are relevant in light of the particular issue and case to be decided; and
3. practical limitations on the certification process: significant delay and possible inability to frame the issue so as to produce a helpful response on the part of the state court.[6]

No party to the instant litigation has moved to certify the question to the Texas Supreme Court, but we may certify a question sua sponte.[7] "[C]ases like this one-'where important state interests are at stake and the state courts have not provided clear guidance on how to proceed, '-are candidates for certification."[8]

III. Application

Brown contends that he may maintain his § 1983 suit because he filed it before he received compensation under the Tim Cole Act. He explains that he is only maintaining his earlier-filed lawsuit but the statute's plain language only proscribes bringing an action subsequent to receiving Tim Cole Act compensation.

Defendants-Appellees assert that in analyzing case law, "the Texas Supreme Court understands § 103.153(b) [as providing that] the State's payment provides immunity to suits against state and local governmental entities and employees seeking additional...

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