King v. Paxton

Decision Date06 June 2019
Docket NumberNO. 03-18-00298-CV,03-18-00298-CV
Parties Susan Lewis KING and Austin King, M.D., Appellants, Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, Cross-Appellant v. Ken PAXTON, Attorney General of Texas; and The City of Abilene, Texas, Appellees, Susan Lewis King and Austin King, M.D., Cross-Appellees
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Gisela D. Triana, Justice

Appellants Susan Lewis King and Austin King, M.D., appeal from portions of the district court's summary judgment ordering the disclosure of certain information under the Public Information Act (PIA). Cross-appellant Ken Paxton, the Attorney General of Texas, appeals from other portions of the summary judgment ordering that certain information be withheld from disclosure. We will affirm in part and reverse and render in part the judgment of the district court.


Susan Lewis King (hereinafter referred to as Mrs. King) is a former member of the Texas House of Representatives for District 71 based in Abilene. Austin King, M.D., (hereinafter referred to as Dr. King) is her husband. On the night of October 11, 2015, Abilene Police Department (APD) officers arrived at the Kings' residence to conduct a "welfare check" on Mrs. King, who was home alone at the time. Mrs. King did not immediately answer the door when the officers knocked and instead called 911 to report what she believed to be a burglary. After dispatch convinced Mrs. King that the people knocking on her door were police officers, she opened the door, stepped outside onto her front porch, and proceeded to speak with the officers and other individuals regarding various matters.

Mrs. King's conversations occurred primarily on her front porch but also inside her home. Two of the officers' patrol-car dash cameras that captured video from within the cars and audio from microphones that were worn on each officer's body recorded the event.1 Toward the end of the incident, Mrs. King agreed to accompany the officers to a location where her mental health could be evaluated. The police vehicle that transported Mrs. King to that location was equipped with a camera that recorded video from inside the vehicle, while the body microphones of the two officers involved in the transport recorded the audio inside the vehicle.2

Reporters for a local television station, KTXS, later filed open-records requests seeking to obtain police records related to the incident. The requested records included the audio and video recordings summarized above,3 incident reports and notes prepared by APD officers, and emails exchanged among APD officers, the Abilene City Attorney, and the Department of Public Safety (DPS).

The City of Abilene sought rulings from the Attorney General as to whether the records responsive to the requests should be released. In its requests for information, the City raised two exceptions to disclosure under the Texas Government Code: (1) Section 552.108(a)(2), which excepts from disclosure information held by a law enforcement agency or prosecutor that deals with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime, if the information is in relation to an investigation that did not result in conviction or deferred adjudication; and (2) Section 552.101, which excepts from disclosure "information considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision," and encompasses the doctrine of common-law privacy. The Attorney General issued letter rulings concluding that some but not all of the information was excepted from disclosure, and the Attorney General ordered the City to release the information that it had concluded was not excepted from disclosure. See Tex. Att'y Gen. OR2016-05287, OR2016-05982.

The Kings then filed suit against both the Attorney General and the City of Abilene, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief that the information at issue was excepted from disclosure in its entirety. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The Kings, in their motion, raised additional exceptions to disclosure. These exceptions, which we discuss in detail below, included Section 552.108(b)(2) of the Texas Government Code, Section 1701.661(f) of the Texas Occupations Code, Section 611.002 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, and Section 552.109 of the Texas Government Code. The Kings also argued that disclosure of the information would violate their constitutional and common-law rights to privacy.

The district court granted in part and denied in part the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the Kings and the Attorney General.4 In a decision letter that preceded its ruling, the court explained that it agreed that the material withheld by the Attorney General was excepted from disclosure but concluded that additional information should also be withheld, mostly under the doctrine of common-law privacy. However, the court also ruled that additional information was excepted from disclosure: one of the emails between an APD officer and DPS, citing to Section 411.192 of the Texas Government Code ;5 three portions of the audio recordings of Mrs. King's conversations that occurred while Mrs. King was inside her home, citing to Section 1701.661(f) of the Texas Occupations Code ;6 and three portions of the audio recordings of Mrs. King's conversations with a mental-health professional, citing to Section 611.002 of the Texas Health and Safety Code.7

Both the Kings and the Attorney General have appealed from the district court's judgment.8 The Kings argue on appeal that all of the information at issue should be withheld, while the Attorney General argues on cross-appeal that the Occupations Code exception does not apply to any of the recordings made during the welfare check. The Attorney General does not challenge the district court's decision to order the withholding of any other information.


This case requires us to construe statutory exceptions to disclosure under the PIA. The statutory-construction issues arise in the context of cross-motions for summary judgment that the district court granted in part and denied in part. In our review of such cases, "we determine all issues presented and render the judgment the trial court should have rendered." Colorado Cty. v. Staff , 510 S.W.3d 435, 444 (Tex. 2017) (citing Merriman v. XTO Energy, Inc. , 407 S.W.3d 244, 248 (Tex. 2013) ).

"Statutory construction presents a question of law that we determine de novo under well-established principles." Paxton v. City of Dallas , 509 S.W.3d 247, 256 (Tex. 2017) (citing TIC Energy & Chem., Inc. v. Martin , 498 S.W.3d 68, 74 (Tex. 2016) ). "When construing a statute, our primary objective is to give effect to the Legislature's intent." Staff , 510 S.W.3d at 444. "We seek that intent ‘first and foremost’ in the statutory text, and [w]here text is clear, text is determinative’ of intent." Id. (quoting Greater Hous. P'ship v. Paxton , 468 S.W.3d 51, 58 (Tex. 2015) ; Entergy Gulf States, Inc. v. Summers , 282 S.W.3d 433, 437 (Tex. 2009) ). "The plain meaning of the text is the best expression of legislative intent unless a different meaning is apparent from the context or the plain meaning leads to absurd or nonsensical results." Molinet v. Kimbrell , 356 S.W.3d 407, 411 (Tex. 2011). "When interpreting the Legislature's words, however, we must never ‘rewrite the statute under the guise of interpreting it,’ and we may not look beyond its language for assistance in determining legislative intent unless the statutory text is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation." Staff , 510 S.W.3d at 444 (quoting In re Ford Motor Co. , 442 S.W.3d 265, 284 (Tex. 2014), and citing Texas Mut. Ins. Co. v. Ruttiger , 381 S.W.3d 430, 452 (Tex. 2012) ). Stated another way, "[w]e must enforce the statute ‘as written’ and ‘refrain from rewriting text that lawmakers chose.’ " Jaster v. Comet II Constr., Inc. , 438 S.W.3d 556, 562 (Tex. 2014) (quoting Entergy Gulf States, Inc. , 282 S.W.3d at 443 ). "If a statute uses a term with a particular meaning or assigns a particular meaning to a term, we are bound by the statutory usage." TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. v. Combs , 340 S.W.3d 432, 439 (Tex. 2011) (citing Texas Dep't of Transp. v. Needham , 82 S.W.3d 314, 318 (Tex. 2002) ). "We presume that the Legislature chooses a statute's language with care, including each word chosen for a purpose, while purposefully omitting words not chosen." Id. (citing In re M.N. , 262 S.W.3d 799, 802 (Tex. 2008) ). Moreover, "[l]anguage cannot be interpreted apart from context" and the words chosen by the Legislature "must be read in the context of the whole statute." Id. at 441. Finally, although "absurd" results are to be avoided, we must be mindful that the "absurdity safety valve is reserved for truly exceptional cases, and mere oddity does not equal absurdity."

Combs v. Health Care Servs. Corp. , 401 S.W.3d 623, 630 (Tex. 2013).


General principles in construing the PIA

"The PIA embodies the State's policy that ‘each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.’ " City of Dallas , 509 S.W.3d at 251 (quoting Tex. Gov't Code § 552.001(a) ). "Under the PIA, the public has a right of access to ‘public information,’ a broadly defined term." Id. (citing Tex. Gov't Code §§ 552.002(a), .021). Thus, the Legislature has provided that the PIA "shall be liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information." Tex. Gov't Code § 552.001(b).

"The right to access is not absolute, however; the Legislature incorporated into the PIA more than sixty exceptions to the public-disclosure requirement," ranging from "very broad to more specific categories of information." City of Dallas , 509 S.W.3d at 251. "Those exceptions embrace the understanding that the public's right to know is tempered by the individual and other interests at stake in disclosing...

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