Dallas County Community College v. Bolton

Decision Date02 December 2005
Docket NumberNo. 02-1110.,02-1110.
Citation185 S.W.3d 868
PartiesDALLAS COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE DISTRICT, et al., Petitioners, v. William H. BOLTON II, et al., Respondents.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Sydney W. Falk, Jr., Bickerstaff Heath Smiley Pollan Kever & McDaniel, L.L.P., Austin, amicus curiae for Texas Association of Community.

P. Michael Jung, Christine Roseveare, Strasburger & Price, L.L.P., W. Neil Rambin Sedgwick Detert Moran & Arnold, Dallas, Bruce A. Griggs, Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, P.C., Austin, for Petitioners.

Carla S. Hatcher, Thorpe, Hatcher & Washington, L.L.P., Marc R. Stanley, Martin Darren Woodward, Stanley Mandel & Iola, L.L.P., Dallas, for Respondents.

Justice WAINWRIGHT delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justice HECHT, Justice MEDINA, Justice GREEN, Justice JOHNSON, and Justice WILLETT joined.

William H. Bolton II and other students sued the Dallas County Community College District over the imposition of fees charged by the District to fund technology purchases and to support student services, claiming that the fees were illegally imposed. The trial court certified a class of students who paid these fees. After a jury trial, the trial court entered a judgment awarding the Class approximately $15 million. The court of appeals applied a shorter two-year statute of limitations, limited the award of prejudgment interest, and accordingly ordered a reduction in the total amount of the recovery. It affirmed the remainder of the judgment. We hold that the Texas Education Code authorized the District to impose the technology fee. We further conclude that the Class cannot seek repayment of the student services fee because the District established as a matter of law that the fee was a voluntary payment and the undisputed evidence did not establish that the fee was paid under duress to rebut the voluntary payment rule. We therefore reverse the court of appeals' judgment.

I. Factual and Procedural History

The Dallas County Community College District is a junior college district comprised of seven separate colleges which are Brookhaven, Cedar Valley, Eastfield, El Centro, Mountain View, North Lake, and Richland. Each of them operates independently under a president who reports to the Chancellor of the District. An elected seven-member Board of Trustees administers the District.

During the time period at issue in this case, the District charged a technology fee, intended to support the purchase of technology-related items for student use, and a student services fee, intended to fund extracurricular activities. In 1996, the technology fee was changed from a fixed fee of $10 per semester for all students to an amount set on a sliding scale of $2 per semester credit hour, with a minimum fee of $10 and a maximum fee of $40 for each student per semester. A member of the student government at the Richland campus had previously proposed that the student services flat fee be increased. After consideration, the District in 1997 changed the student services fee from a flat fee of $10 per semester to a sliding scale that matched the technology fee — $2 per semester credit hour, with a minimum fee of $10 and a maximum fee of $40 per student.

On April 13, 1998, William H. Bolton II, Helen Bolton, Bruce Albright, Jason Grimes, and Daniel Martinez sued the Dallas County Community College District and its board of trustees, alleging that the fees were unlawfully imposed and seeking declaratory relief, damages, and attorney's fees arising from the collection of these student fees. The trial court certified a class of students who paid either the technology fee or the increased student services fee during the fall of 1997 or after, based on six or more credit hours taken.

After both the Class and the District moved for partial summary judgment, the trial court held that the technology fee charged by the District was not authorized by law. The trial court also ruled that the District was required by section 54.503(f) of the Texas Education Code to obtain student approval for the increase in the student services fee and held that the Class had established as a matter of law that the student governments at Brookhaven, Cedar Valley, El Centro, and North Lake had not approved the increase in the student services fee.1 The Class stipulated that the Eastfield campus had approved the increase in the student services fee, and the trial court submitted to the jury the question of whether student governments at Richland and Mountain View had approved the fee. The jury found these campuses had not approved the fee. The trial court further held that, as a matter of law, the class members at these schools paid the student services fee under duress.

In its final judgment, the trial court awarded the Class $13,575,487 for recovery of the technology fee and $1,469,262 for the increased student services fee. It further awarded $271,532 in attorney's fees and expenses to the Class. The trial court excluded the Eastfield campus from the student services fee award because the parties had stipulated that the Eastfield student government approved a student services fee increase, therefore complying, in the trial court's opinion, with the statutory requirement.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment with two exceptions. 89 S.W.3d 707, 724. First, it held that a two-year, rather than a four-year, statute of limitations governed the claim for recovery of illegal fees paid under duress. Id. at 721-22. Second, it held that the Class could not recover prejudgment interest accrued before April 13, 1998. Id. at 722-24. The court of appeals therefore reversed the trial court's judgment in part, affirmed it in part, remanded the case to the trial court for recomputation of damages based on the shorter statute of limitations, and reformed the trial court's judgment regarding prejudgment interest. Id. at 724. The District sought review in this Court.

II. Standard of Review

The parties here filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment under Rules 166a(c) and 166a(i) seeking a determination that the Class's claims were barred by the defense of the voluntary payment rule as a matter of law and asserting that there was no evidence of duress. The Class responded that they were entitled to summary judgment defeating the District's defense as a matter of law because they paid the technology fees under duress, which rebuts a voluntary payment defense. The District had the burden of conclusively establishing its defense of voluntary payment. TEX. R. CIV. P. 166a(c); Cathey v. Booth, 900 S.W.2d 339, 341 (Tex.1995). It introduced evidence that all of the named plaintiffs paid the fees without filing any type of grievance or protest. The District's motion asserted that there was no evidence of duress. See TEX. R. CIV. P. 166a(i) ("[A] party without presenting summary judgment evidence may move for summary judgment on the ground that there is no evidence of one or more essential elements of a claim or defense on which an adverse party would have the burden of proof at trial."). However, the Class representatives submitted no evidence of duress but instead argued that duress was established as a matter of law by the District's imposition of mandatory student fees.

The Class sought summary judgment under Rule 166a(c) on the grounds that it suffered duress as a matter of law and that sovereign immunity did not bar its claims against the District. The Class had the burden to establish that there were no genuine issues of material fact and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. TEX. R. CIV. P. 166a(c).

III. Junior College Fee-Setting Authority

The Legislature authorizes localities to create public junior college districts and support them primarily with local funds. TEX. EDUC. CODE § 130.014 ("If the coordinating board approves of the establishment of the junior college district, it shall then be the duty of the local school board to enter an order for an election to be held ... to determine whether or not such junior college district shall be created and formed . . . ."); id. § 130.003(a) (stating that junior colleges receive state appropriations only in "an amount sufficient to supplement local funds"). The governing boards, also known as the boards of trustees, of the districts retain locally all authority over public junior college districts that is not otherwise vested by statute in the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board or in some other body. Id. § 61.060 ("All authority not vested by this chapter or other laws of the state in the [Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board] is reserved and retained locally in each respective public junior college district . . . ."). The Legislature generally retains the right by statute to regulate specific actions and set fees of the districts; however, absent legislation exercising such authority or delegating specific power to the Board or the Texas Education Agency, the boards of trustees of public junior colleges exercise plenary authority over their operation. See generally TEX. EDUC. CODE §§ 60.060, 130.002, 130.003.

When the Texas Education Code was codified in 1969, chapter 130 was designated for regulation of public junior colleges and chapter 54 was designated for regulation of tuition and fees of other institutions of higher education, with some exceptions. "Institution of higher education" includes public state colleges, public junior colleges, public senior colleges or universities, public technical institutes, and medical and dental schools. Id. § 61.003(8). Although public junior colleges are included in the definition of "institution of higher education," they are not included among the institutions directly regulated by chapter 54. Chapter 54, concerning regulation of tuition and fees, only applies to junior colleges "to...

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