Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mootness exception: Attorney fee claim may survive even though underlying dispute becomes moot


WHEN THE MOOTNESS DOCTRINE DISPOSES OF THE DISPUTE THAT SPURRED THE LAWSUIT, BUT NOT OF THE PLAINTIFF'S CLAIM FOR ATTORNEY FEES 

A court cannot decide a case that becomes moot during the pendency of the litigation. Heckman v. Williamson Cnty., 369 S.W.3d 137, 162 (Tex. 2012). A case is moot if "there has ceased to exist a justiciable controversy between the parties." Id. In a declaratory judgment action, a justiciable controversy exists concerning the rights and status of the parties when the controversy will be resolved by the declaration sought. Robinson v. Alief Indep. Sch. Dist., 298 S.W.3d 321, 324 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2009, pet. denied). But no justiciable controversy exists if the issues presented are no longer "live" or if the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome. Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 162.

However, a "live" issue in controversy exists when there is a question about whether a party has a legally cognizable interest in recovering attorney's fees and costs. Camarena v. Tex. Emp't Comm'n, 754 S.W.2d 149, 151 (Tex. 1988); see also Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hallman, 159 S.W.3d 640, 643 (Tex. 2005) (holding that party's interest in obtaining attorney's fees "breathe[d] life" into appeal of declaratory judgment where underlying claims had become moot).

SOURCE: SOURCE: TYLER COURT OF APPEALS - 12-13-00231-CV - 1/15/2014 Pate v. Edwards (public employment dispute with declaratory judgment claim alleging violation of state constitutional rights and seeking injunctive relief).

PARTY MAY STILL SEEK ATTORNEY'S FEES  UNDER SOME CIRCUMSTANCES WHEN CLAIM BECOMES MOOT:  DJA AUTHORIZES SUCH FEES AND DOES NOT LIMIT THEM PREVAILING PLAINTIFFS 

The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act authorizes an award of attorney's fees on an equitable basis. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 37.009 (West 2008). Thus, in a declaratory judgment action, a party need not "substantially prevail" in the litigation to receive attorney's fees. Barshop v. Medina County Underground Water Conservation District 925 S.W.2d 618, 637-38 (Tex. 1996). Instead, a trial court may award just and equitable attorney's fees to a nonprevailing party. Texas A&M Univ.-Kingsville v. Lawson, 127 S.W.3d 866, 874-75 (Tex. App.-Austin 2004, pet. denied).

Even though Edwards's underlying constitutional claims are moot, her claim for attorney's fees is a separate controversy that persists. See Camarena, 754 S.W.2d at 151. Further, Edwards obtained a ruling in her favor before the case was rendered moot. The trial court awarded her a temporary restraining order and a temporary injunction. Because there is a question about whether Edwards has a legally cognizable interest in recovering attorney's fees and costs, her claim for attorney's fees is a live controversy and not moot. See id.

We overrule Pate's sole issue as to Edwards's claim for attorney's fees.

SOURCE: Pate v. Edwards, Tex: Court of Appeals (Tyler), 12th Dist. 2014