Tag Archives: lawsuit

2001 – Taxpayer Protest of Arlington Street Maintenance Fee

In 2000, the City Council of the City of Arlington, Texas adopted an ordinance that established a street maintenance fee which was assessed in city water bills.  This fee was later amended and then finally repealed in 2003. 

During that time, on May 15, 2001, an Arlington taxpayer filed a lawsuit in the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas against the City of Arlington, arguing that the fee constituted an illegal tax. Other Constitutional challenges were also raised, including allegations that the street maintenance fee violated equal protection and due process rights, was void for vagueness, and provided no mechanism for redress of unlawful collection of the tax. In addition, the taxpayer asserted that the City had violated the Texas Debt Collection Act, and he brought a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The City of Arlington claimed general authority to assess fees of this nature by ordinance, rather than charter amendment, but the taxpayer argued that it was a tax which was not permitted under the city charter without approval of the voters. Judge Bonnie Sudderth ultimately issued a summary judgment ruling that the City of Arlington exceeded its authority by taxing the citizens without their consent in violation of the city charter.

While the case was pending, the taxpayer also sought an injunction to prohibit the City from collecting the street maintenance fee and to require the City to refund the full amount of street maintenance fees collected. The lawsuit was brought by the taxpayer on his own behalf as an individual and resident of Arlingtonas well as on behalf of the proposed class of persons – all taxpayers from the City ofArlington- who had been billed for the street maintenance fee.

In response, the City asserted a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that the trial court did not have jurisdiction due to the plaintiff’s lack of standing to sue because his claim did not meet the $500 amount-in-controversy requirement. The City also claimed immunity from suit.  Judge Bonnie Sudderth denied the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and granted a motion for partial summary judgment declaring the maintenance fee an unlawful tax imposed without consent required of the citizens, but denied the injunctive relief sought.

After so ruling, Judge Sudderth expressed concern to the parties that due to the unique nature of the case and the fact that because there was little guidance in the law on the correct application of the law to the facts of the case, the parties could potentially expend considerable costs of litigation which might be unnecessary if the appellate court disagreed with her interim rulings.  Because of this, Judge Sudderth suggested that the parties agree to request a written order for interlocutory appeal to the Second Court of Appeals.

This agreed interlocutory appeal mechanism was a new creature of statute (Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code, Section 51.014[d]), having at that time recently been enacted by the Texas Legislature.  The new law provided that parties in litigation may agree to appeal an otherwise non-appealable interlocutory ruling if: (1) the ruling involves a controlling question of law as to which there is a substantial ground for difference of opinion, (2)  an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation;  and (3)  the parties agree to the order.

Without such agreement, the interlocutory summary judgment ruling would not have been appealable at that time, and the parties would have been required to wait until the entire case, including the class action certification issues, were concluded before testing Judge Sudderth’s ruling on appeal.  The parties agreed to go forward with an immediate agreed appeal, as suggested by Judge Sudderth, which the Second Court of Appeals accepted.  (This was the first agreed appeal that the Second Court of Appeals ever accepted under the new law.)

As a result of that agreed interlocutory appeal, Judge Sudderth’s ruling was reversed – not because her ruling was erroneous regarding the illegality of the tax – but on the ground that the taxpayer lacked “standing” to complain about it because the taxpayer failed to show a “particularized injury distinct from that suffered by the general public.” 

In the interim, the City of  Arlington held an election on the issue and the tax was ultimately approved by the voters.

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2009 – Taking the Big Fight to Court

On May 28, 2005, the Championship boxing match between Julio Cesar Chavez and Ivan Robinson was aired as a closed-circuit “pay per view” event, available only to those who had purchased authorization to access and broadcast it.  Special licensing requirements were imposed on commercial establishments who planned to publicize and broadcast the event in their theaters, arenas, bars, clubs and restaurants.  Steps were also taken to prevent unauthorized use by those who didn’t purchase a license or obtain permission to access the event.  The transmission of the event was electronically coded, or “scrambled”, requiring decoding with electronic decoding equipment in order for the signal to be clearly received and telecasted.

On the evening of the match, a Tarrant County business known as “Playmates” broadcast the boxing match to its patrons without obtaining a license to do so, violating federal cable piracy laws. Although J&J Sports Productions, the broadcast licensee of the Chavez/Robinson match, discovered this violation fairly quickly thereafter, they waited three and a half years to file a lawsuit. 

On December 30, 2008, the lawsuit was filed in the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County.  In the lawsuit, J&J sought damages of approximately $200,000, plus attorney’s fees.  They also sought a permanent injunction to prevent any further exhibition of unauthorized or unlicensed broadcasts by Playmates.

Approximately a year after the suit was filed, Playmates filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that J&J had waited too long to bring their action and that the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations.  The crux of the summary judgment dispute that presented itself to Judge Bonnie Sudderth was whether the federal 4-year statute of limitations would apply to the case, or whether the 2-year Texas statute of limitations would apply. 

Judge Sudderth ruled that Texas’ 2-year statute of limitations applied to the dispute.  In her ruling, Judge Sudderth explained that by choosing to file the lawsuit in state court, rather than federal court, J&J removed the binding effect of U.S. Fifth Circuit precedent, and, therefore, state law should apply. Therefore, even though Playmates had violated federal cable piracy laws, J&J waited too long to complain about it, and the lawsuit was dismissed.

Judge Sudderth’s decision was affirmed on appeal on September 23, 2010.

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2001 – Railroad Collision and the Missing Signal Post

In 1993, a veteran lead engineer was operating a train in heavy fog when he spotted a red stop light at an approaching intersection with another rail line.  Using an emergency braking maneuver, he managed to stop the lead engine a few feet into the crossing.  Seconds later, an approaching train collided nearly head-on into the stopped train, causing the engineer’s death and serious injuries to other crew members.  One year later, a lawsuit was filed by the engineer’s estate and family members, who claimed that a faulty positioned and unlit distance signal which, if visible, would have warned of the approaching intersection, caused the collision.

Seven years later, in 2000, the case went to trial in the 342nd District Court.  In the interim, both sides had inspected the scene of the collision, including the distance signal and had videotaped the signal as they rode a train over the tracks while the signal was in place.  But by the time of trial, for unknown reasons the actual signal post had been taken from the accident scene; it was missing and could not be found. 

At trial, the railroad’s attorneys used a “typical” distance signal that had been pieced together from other used signals as a demonstrative aid.  This exhibit was different from the original signal - it had newer equipment and a more powerful light bulb.  Its surface had also been wiped clean before it had been brought into the courtroom.  When the judge learned of this, he accused the railroad’s attorneys of altering evidence, declared a mistrial, imposed a $10,000 fine against the railroad’s attorney personally and levied a $10,000,000 fine against the railroad.  Several days later, however, without explanation, the judge set aside the fines and recused himself from presiding any further over the case.

Shortly thereafter, the Presiding Regional Judge assigned the case to Judge Bonnie Sudderth of the 352nd District Court.  Prior to retrial of the case, plaintiffs sought to have the sanctions reinstated.  Judge Sudderth denied the request, finding that nothing in the record showed that the railroad had tried to pass off the exhibit as something that it wasn’t.  “It seems abundantly clear that everyone in the courtroom – the judge, the attorneys, the witness and the jury – knew that the signal was a demonstrative aid, and nothing more.”  The signal, Judge Sudderth ruling against the sanctions motion, could have been “run through a car wash” with no harm, since everyone in the courtroom was aware that it was an exemplar, not the original signal.  However, the judge did find that by failing to preserve such a critical piece of evidence, the railroad had “negligently destroyed” it, and Judge Sudderth gave the jury a spoliation instruction that they could “presume that the destroyed signal was unfavorable” to the railroad’s position in the lawsuit.

Less than a year later, it was tried again to a jury, who found no negligence on the part of the railway or the engineer at the time of the collision.  (The National Transportation Safety Board had also investigated the incident and found no fault on the part of the railroad or any of its crew members.)  The jury’s verdict was not appealed, and the parties later reached a confidential financial settlement to  finally put the matter to rest.

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2004 – Class Action Lawsuit Regarding Edna Gladney Adoption Files

Lee and Carolyn Williams of Fort Worth won an early victory in the lawsuit they filed in the 352nd District Court against the Gladney Center for Adoption when State District Judge Bonnie Sudderth ordered that the Center release approximately 800 pages of medical records related to the birth mother of their adoptive daughter.  However, when the parents sought to certify their lawsuit as a class action, arguing that Gladney should be forced to open up medical and psychological records for 4,000 other adoptions which dated back to the mid-1970’s, Judge Sudderth disagreed.

The parents, after experiencing years of troubling behavior by their daughter, starting with fitful sleeping and incessant crying as a baby and developing into serious misbehavior at school, including biting and fighting, initially sought medical and psychological information about the birth mother from the Gladney Center in order to obtain more effective medical treatment for their daughter, who was later diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder.  The Center responded that these records were unavailable due to confidentiality.

When, at age 12, she pulled a kitchen knife on her mother, the parents sought legal counsel to help them try once again to find out more about her genetic history.  Although the Center reiterated that the birth mother had refused permission for the release most of the information they sought, it did provide some new information about family medical history, including cancer, alcoholism and “mental problems” in general.

The parents continued seeking treatment for their daughter, who despite these problems, graduated from high school in just three years, from college in another three years, eventually earning a Master’s Degree in accounting for the Universityof North Texas.  Even with her high academic achievement, her parents contended that because of her behavioral problems, she couldn’t keep a job.  By this time, the parents had filed their lawsuit in the 352nd District Court, claiming that the Gladney center had violated state law by withholding information from them.  They requested that  Judge Bonnie Sudderth force the GladneyCenter to not only release the information they sought but also to release similar information regarding all adoptions from 1975-1989.

Gladney responded that because the birth mothers in many of the adoptions during this time period had been promised strict confidentiality at the time, they would not voluntarily release this information.  They cited state laws which required them to maintain the confidentiality of the records and argued that recent laws which opened up some records didn’t apply to adoptions which had happened years earlier.  Gladney essentially took the position that existing law tied their hands.

The Williams’ daughter was adopted under a “closed” adoption system, which means that the birth parents and adoptive parents remained unknown to each other, and at the time of her adoption the existing state laws were stringent, making access to adoption records virtually impossible to obtain.  By the 1980s, however, the adoption laws in Texas began to relax, allowing adoptive parents to obtain some health, social, educational and genetic background information, but still requiring that information which would reveal the identity of the birth parents remained withheld.  

In 2003, Judge Bonnie Sudderth ordered the Gladney Centerto turn over this information to the Williams family.  However, when the Williams’ sought class action certification of their lawsuit, which would have required that all Gladney Center birth parents from 1975-1989 receive notification of the court proceedings and their right to participate in them, Judge Sudderth refused.  If successful, the class action lawsuit would have resulted in the automatic opening of records for all adoptive parents during that time period. 

The Gladney Center fiercely resisted these efforts, pointing out that if the class action was certified, the Center would be required to mail notices to thousands of birth mothers, advising them of the existence of the class action lawsuit and informing them of its potential effect.  Gladney argued that the mere act of mailing the notice would violate the birth mother’s privacy rights.  Most birth mothers, Gladney argued, expected that the promise of confidentiality given to them would always be protected.

In refusing the class action request, Judge Sudderth cited concerns that so doing would open up a “Pandora’s Box” on matters that many birth parents had received assurance would forever remain closed.  She characterized the issues surrounding these closed adoptions as “so highly individualized, intensely personal and emotionally charged” that all of the affected persons should not be lumped into one class action group together.  In her letter ruling, Judge Sudderth stated, “Certifying this proposed class would also carry with it a significant risk of opening up a Pandora’s Box on matters which at least some in the proposed class would prefer to remain closed,”

Not surprisingly, Gladney’s attorneys agreed with Judge Sudderth’s ruling, pointing out that Texas law permits class action certifications only when rigorous standards have been met proving that the claims should be grouped together. 

Although the Williams family disagreed with Judge Sudderth’s ruling, they decided not to appeal to a higher court.  Instead, they stated publicly that they would concentrate their efforts on helping other families get their individual records in the future, as they had.

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