Texas a & M University-Kingsville v. Lawson

Decision Date20 June 2002
Docket NumberNo. 00-1127.,00-1127.
Citation87 S.W.3d 518
PartiesTEXAS A & M UNIVERSITY-KINGSVILLE, et al., Petitioners, v. Grant M. LAWSON, Respondent.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

John Cornyn, Attorney General of the State of Texas, Jeffrey S. Boyd, Office of the Attorney General, Julie Caruthers Parsley, Office of the Solicitor General of Texas, Austin, Meredith Bishop Parenti, Weil Gotshal & Manges, Cherry K. (Wolf) Bounds, College Station, for Petitioners.

Bradley Lee Houston, Austin, for Respondent.

Justice HECHT delivered a plurality opinion, in which Chief Justice PHILLIPS, Justice OWEN, and Justice JEFFERSON joined.

If a government entity agrees to settle a lawsuit from which it is not immune, can it claim immunity from suit for breach of the settlement agreement? We answer no and accordingly affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.1

After Texas A & M University — Kingsville terminated Grant M. Lawson's employment as a faculty member and clarinet instructor, he sued the University for violations of the Whistleblower Act2; violations of his constitutional freedoms of association, expression, petition, and privacy; and interference with business relations. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting that all of Lawson's claims were barred by sovereign immunity. The trial court sustained the plea except as to Lawson's Whistleblower Act claim and his constitutional claims for equitable relief. The parties then reached a settlement agreement according to which the University paid Lawson $62,000 and Lawson released his claims and dismissed the action with prejudice. Although the University contends that Lawson had only been an instructor and never a professor, it also agreed as part of the settlement:

Any official inquiry made to the university regarding Lawson's employment shall be referred to the director of personnel. The director of personnel shall respond by confirming that Lawson was employed as an assistant professor at a salary of 531,000 a year, inclusive of benefits. The director of personnel shall state that he may not provide any other information.

Sometime later, Lawson brought the current action against the University for breach of the settlement agreement, alleging that the University had responded to inquiries from Lawson's potential employers differently than it had agreed. Specifically, Lawson claims that the University's director of personnel told one potential employer that Lawson had been an "instructor" and refused to elaborate on what that meant. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity, which the trial court denied with this explanation:

when somebody sues the state and the court has jurisdiction over that case, which the court did in [Lawson's earlier lawsuit], and that case is settled by the state and the state doesn't live up to the settlement agreement, a plaintiff can bring a suit to enforce or seek damages for violation of that settlement agreement and the state has waived its sovereign immunity, or doesn't have any sovereign immunity, however, you want to look at it, when you're talking about the settlement of a case within the court's jurisdiction.

The University took an interlocutory appeal,3 arguing that Lawson's action is barred, first, because governmental entities are immune from suit for breach of contract, and second, because the settlement agreement required the University to misrepresent that Lawson had been an assistant professor and was therefore void as against public policy. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court but for a different reason than that court had given. The court of appeals held as it had in other cases, "that state agencies waive their immunity from suit by accepting some of the benefits of a contract and refusing to pay for them."4 The court also held that even if the settlement agreement was void — an issue the court did not decide — the University was still not immune from suit.5

We granted the University's petition for review.6 The University makes the same arguments here that it made in the court of appeals.

This Court has jurisdiction over an interlocutory appeal when the court of appeals "holds differently" from a prior decision of another court of appeals or of the supreme court.7 This "conflicts" jurisdiction exists, we have said, when "the rulings in the two cases are `so far upon the same state of facts that the decision of one case is necessarily conclusive of the decision in the other'",8 the test being whether one case "`would operate to overrule the other'"9 had both decisions been rendered by the same court.10 The University contends that the Third Court of Appeals' opinion here is in such conflict with the prior opinion of the Seventh Court of Appeals in Ho v. University of Texas.11 In Ho, the plaintiff sued the University of Texas for, among other things, breach of contract after being dismissed from its doctoral program. The court of appeals held that the action was barred by sovereign immunity, rejecting the plaintiffs argument that the University "by its conduct, ... had waived its sovereign immunity."12 The court stated that "the only exception we have found in which the State, by its own actions waives immunity, is that which applies when the State initiates a suit."13 Because the Third Court of Appeals, had it decided Ho, would have had to overrule that case in order to rule for Lawson in this case, the test for conflicts jurisdiction is satisfied, and we have jurisdiction over this interlocutory appeal.

In Texas, the bar of sovereign immunity is a creature of the common law and not of any legislative enactment.14 It protects the government both from liability and from suit.15 We have held that a governmental entity by entering into a contract waives immunity from liability for breach of the contract but does not, merely by entering into a contract, waive immunity from suit.16 Since the court of appeals' ruling in the present case, we have also rejected its view that immunity from suit is waived merely by accepting some of the benefits of a contract.17 We likewise disagree with that basis for the court of appeals' ruling in this case.

"Historically, we have left to the Legislature whether to waive sovereign immunity."18 In individual cases, the Legislature may waive immunity by resolution.19 Lawson has not obtained such a waiver. For some types of claims, the Legislature has waived immunity by statute, as for example in the Whistleblower Act for suits alleging violations of its provisions.20 For breach of contract claims, the Legislature has waived immunity in some instances but not all21 and has created administrative processes for handling certain contractual disputes with the government.22 Lawson's action for breach of a settlement agreement does not fall within any such waiver or administrative process for contractual claims.

But as just noted, the Legislature has waived immunity from suit for violations of the Whistleblower Act, which was one of Lawson's claims in his earlier suit against the University and his only claim for damages that survived the University's plea to the jurisdiction. Lawson was therefore entitled to sue the University for violating the statute and if he prevailed, to hold the University liable. We agree with the trial court that when a governmental entity is exposed to suit because of a waiver of immunity, it cannot nullify that waiver by settling the claim with an agreement on which it cannot be sued. The government cannot recover waived immunity by settling without defeating the purpose of the waiver in the first place. Such a rule would limit settlement agreements with the government to those fully performed before dismissal of the lawsuit because any executory provision could not thereafter be enforced. One can easily envision circumstances like those now before us when settlement on terms acceptable to the parties either would not be possible or would delay dismissal of the lawsuit. We do not think the Legislature intended by waiving the bar of immunity for claims under the Whistleblower Act that settlements would be prevented or delayed by a revival of the bar in the form of immunity from suit for breach of settlement agreements. While it is certainly true, as the University argues, that a suit for breach of a settlement agreement is separate and apart from the suit on the settled claim, enforcement of a settlement of a liability for which immunity is waived should not be barred by immunity.

This conclusion does not detract from the reasons for the Legislature's role in deciding whether to waive sovereign immunity for contract claims. We have identified four:

"the handling of contract claims against the government involves policy choices more complex than simply waiver of immunity," including whether to rely on administrative processes and what remedies to allow;23

• the government should not be kept from responding to changing conditions for the public welfare by prior policy decisions reflected in long-term or ill-considered obligations;24

• the claims process is tied to the appropriations process, and the priorities that guide the latter should also inform the former;25 and

the Legislature is able to deal not only with these policy concerns but also with individual situations in deciding whether to waive immunity by resolution, cases by case, or by statute.26

Allowing suit against the government for breach of an agreement settling a claim for which immunity has been waived does not interfere with the Legislature's policy choices. On the contrary, having determined to allow suits on such claims and prescribed the available remedies, the Legislature must surely have considered — indeed, hoped — that claims would often be settled. If anything, for the government to be immune from the enforcement of such settlements would impair the purposes of the waiver by limiting its...

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  • State v. City of Galveston
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    • September 10, 2004
    ...common-law principles to determine whether the City enjoys governmental immunity from suit in this case. See Tex. A & M Univ.-Kingsville v. Lawson, 87 S.W.3d 518, 520 (Tex.2002) ("In Texas, the bar of sovereign immunity is a creature of the common law and not of any legislative Municipaliti......
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