Luttrell v. El Paso Cnty., 08-16-00090-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Texas
Docket NumberNo. 08-16-00090-CV,08-16-00090-CV
Decision Date20 December 2017


No. 08-16-00090-CV


December 20, 2017

Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 5 of El Paso County, Texas

(TC# 2014DCV3070)


Appellants are four residents of El Paso who were found in contempt by Senior Judge Jerry Woodard for failing to obey a jury summons. Appellants filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated persons, naming Judge Woodard and El Paso County, requesting a declaration that their contempt judgments were void for lack of jurisdiction, and that Judge Woodard imposed court costs and fees in an "illegal" manner in their cases. In addition, Appellants sought a permanent injunction restraining and enjoining the defendants from charging illegal costs and fees in the future, a refund of all court costs, fines and fees already paid by Appellants.

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Because the trial court ultimately dismissed Judge Woodard from the case, with Appellants' consent, based on the doctrine of judicial immunity, this left the County as the sole defendant in the case. The County filed a Plea to the Jurisdiction also seeking dismissal from Appellants' lawsuit, primarily arguing that it had governmental immunity from suit. In response, Appellants amended their Petition, adding an ultra vires claim against the County, as well as a claim for an illegal "taking" under the Texas Constitution. Appellants contend that the trial court erred in granting the County's Plea, arguing that they raised valid causes of action in their Petition for which the County's immunity was waived, or in the alternative, that the trial court erred by not giving them an opportunity to amend their Petition to correct any jurisdictional defects in their pleadings, and demonstrate that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over one or more of their claims. We find that the petition as it currently stands does not state a valid cause of action for which the County's immunity was waived; however, we agree with Appellants that they should be given the opportunity to amend their petition to attempt to state a valid cause of action over which the trial court would have jurisdiction, and we therefore reverse the trial court's judgment and remand for that purpose.


In an apparent reaction to ongoing problems with prospective jurors in El Paso County not appearing for jury duty when summoned to do so, the "Council of Judges of El Paso" and Judge Stephen Ables, the Presiding Judge of the Sixth Administrative Judicial Region, began taking steps to devise a plan to address this issue as early as 1999.1 The record reflects that at a July 1999

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meeting, the Council voted to appoint a visiting judge for "purposes of studying methods of jury selection, the jury wheel, purging and adding jurors and methods of sanctions against jurors not responding to qualification questionnaires and juror summons." In addition, on that same day, the Council "ordered that Judge Jerry Woodard be appointed to be assigned to the Jury Hall[,]" to perform the duties outlined above.2 Shortly thereafter, on October 28, 1999, the Council also voted to approve the assignment of Judge Woodard and Judge Fashing to "handle jurors," and more specifically, to "question the [jury] panels, handle jury issues and qualify the jurors."3

Beginning on December 1, 1998, Judge Ables signed a series of orders, effective from January 1, 1999 through June 30, 2011, for three- to six-month periods of time, each labeled as an "order of assignment by the presiding judge," assigning Judge Woodard to the district courts and county courts of law, later adding the county criminal courts of law to the list, for six-month periods of time.4 The assignment orders did not specify any particular cases, or type of cases, over which Judge Woodward was to preside.5 For reasons that are unclear from the record, Judge Ables thereafter signed an order assigning Judge Woodard for the period from November of 2013

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to June 30, 2014 to the 384th District Court in which El Paso's then-local administrative judge, Judge Patrick Garcia sits. Once again, however, that assignment order did not clearly state the case or cases over which Judge Woodard was to preside.

Although the mechanism by which this occurred is not entirely clear from the record, the parties agree that, in several instances, when a juror failed to respond to a jury summons in a particular court in El Paso County, that court would either "refer" or "transfer" the matter to Judge Woodard for the purpose of allowing him to conduct contempt proceedings against the recalcitrant juror. The record does not indicate when this practice started or how many jurors were found in contempt by Judge Woodard.

According to Appellants, Judge Garcia entered an order dated June 12, 2014, finding that all of the orders issued by Judge Woodard prior to that date were void, and vacating Judge Woodard's past contempt orders. The record, however, does not indicate how the matter came to Judge Garcia's attention, or what prompted him to enter that order; further, the record does not contain a copy of that order.

Appellants' Lawsuit

On September 29, 2014, Appellants filed their first Petition on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated individuals, naming Judge Woodard and El Paso County as defendants, alleging that they were among those who were adjudged to be in contempt by Judge Woodard.6 In their Petition, Appellants requested a declaration that their contempt judgments entered were void for lack of jurisdiction, claiming that Judge Woodard acted without legal authority in their cases. Among other things, Appellants alleged that the County had essentially created a rogue

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court, which they refer to as the "Woodard Jury Duty Court," pointing out that the Texas Constitution only allows the state legislature to create courts, and that neither the Council of Judges nor the County had the legal authority to create any such court.7 Appellants further alleged that although Judge Woodard appeared to be acting in their cases pursuant to the Judge Able's assignment orders, he had no authority to act in their cases, as he had failed to take constitutional oath of office each time he accepted an assignment from Judge Ables to handle a contempt case, thereby rendering any actions taken in those cases void.8 In addition, Appellants alleged that Judge Woodard did not hold proper hearings prior to finding them and other jurors in contempt,

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claiming that Judge Woodard improperly acted as both "a judge and a prosecutor" in their cases, thereby depriving them of their due process rights.9

Appellants also alleged, without explanation, that Judge Woodard imposed "illegal" court costs and/or fees that were not authorized by statute, claiming that he "would actively conceal that he was imposing court costs without any legal authority to do so." In addition, although they did not specify what role the Commissioner's Court may have played in this matter, Appellants requested a declaration that "all Commissioners Court Orders authorizing the defendants to charge and collect court costs and any fee found for contempt of court to be [declared] unconstitutional, void, and unenforceable." Appellants also sought a permanent injunction "restraining and enjoining" the defendants from "charging Plaintiffs court costs and fees in an illegal manner" in the future, a refund of all court costs, fines and fees paid by Appellants, in the sum of $500 per plaintiff, as well as a "fourfold" refund of the "fees" that Appellants paid, together with attorney's fees and costs of court.

Judge Woodard's Motion to Dismiss

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On November 4, 2014, Judge Woodard filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, claiming, among other things, that he had absolute judicial immunity from the lawsuit. At a hearing held on May 9, 2016, Appellants' attorney conceded that Judge Woodward was entitled to judicial immunity, and the trial court thereafter granted the motion, and entered a judgment dismissing all of the claims against Judge Woodard with prejudice to the refiling of the same "in any form," without objection from Appellants.

The County's Plea to the Jurisdiction

On November 7, 2014, the County filed its answer to Appellants' lawsuit, as well as a Plea to the Jurisdiction, claiming that it had governmental immunity from the lawsuit, and that the trial court therefore lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the matter. In its Plea, the County pointed out that Appellants had failed to allege that the County's immunity had been waived by any legislative grant of jurisdiction, and argued that Appellants had not alleged or described any facts that would support a finding that its immunity had been waived.

In response, Appellants filed their first amended petition on November 17, 2015, attempting to address the County's arguments. In their amended pleadings, Appellants added two new claims for relief. First, Appellants alleged that Judge Woodard, who they referred to as a "state official," had acted "without legal or statutory authority" when he imposed the "court costs and fees" under consideration herein, thereby raising what appears to be an "ultra vires" claim. Although their arguments were not entirely clear, at the hearing on the County's Plea to the Jurisdiction, Appellants alternated between alleging that Judge Woodard, Judge Ables, the El Paso Council of Judges, and the County had all acted illegally in allowing for the imposition of the allegedly unlawful costs and fees.

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Second, Appellants alleged that the County had engaged in an "unlawful taking of property" when it "intentionally charged and collect[ed] [Appellants'] money for public use." At the hearing on the County's Plea to the Jurisdiction, Appellants'...

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