Tuesday, June 14, 2011

UDJA Fees when the case becomes moot

Statutory Legal Fees under the Texas version of the UDJA Attorneys' fees under the Declaratory Judgments Act [UDJA or DJA], chapter 37 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. The Act provides, “In any proceeding under this chapter, the court may award costs and reasonable and necessary attorney's fees as are equitable and just.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 37.009 (West 2008). A party to a declaratory-judgment action need not prevail in order to recover an award of attorneys' fees. Martin v. Cadle Co., 133 S.W.3d 897, 906-07 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2004, pet. denied); accord City of Temple v. Taylor, 268 S.W.3d 852, 858 (Tex. App.-Austin 2008, pet. denied). Mootness Doctrine “A case becomes moot if a controversy ceases to exist or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hallman, 159 S.W.3d 640, 642 (Tex. 2005). “A case is not rendered moot simply because some of the issues become moot . . . .” In re Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., 166 S.W.3d 732, 737 (Tex. 2005) (orig. proceeding). “The mootness doctrine implicates subject matter jurisdiction.” City of Dallas v. Woodfield, 305 S.W.3d 412, 416 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2010, no pet.). “[W]hen a case becomes moot the only proper judgment is one dismissing the cause.” Polk v. Davidson, 196 S.W.2d 632, 633 (Tex. 1946); see also Woodfield, 305 S.W.3d at 416 (“If a case is moot, the appellate court is required to vacate any judgment or order in the trial court and dismiss the case.”). Texas Supreme Court authorities on fees and mootness The Texas Supreme Court has decided three cases that address the question of whether an outstanding claim for attorneys' fees will prevent the dismissal of an otherwise moot case. The first is Camarena v. Texas Employment Commission, 754 S.W.2d 149 (Tex. 1988). Camarena and others sued the Commission, seeking a declaratory judgment that a statute excluding most agricultural workers from the Texas Unemployment Compensation Act was unconstitutional. Id. at 150. The trial court granted Camarena the declaration he sought, but it denied his request for attorneys' fees based on sovereign immunity. Id. The legislature amended the statute to give farm workers phased- in unemployment coverage, and the trial court rendered an amended judgment holding the new statute constitutional. Id. The Commission appealed, contending that the case had become moot, and Camarena cross-appealed the denial of attorneys' fees. Id. The court of appeals held that the case was moot and that immunity barred Camarena's claim for fees. Id. at 150-51. The Texas Supreme Court, however, held that the claim for attorneys' fees was a live claim that prevented the case from becoming moot. Id. at 151. It further held that the fee claim was not barred because chapter 106 of the civil practice and remedies code waived sovereign immunity. Id. at 151-52. Thus, Camarena supports the proposition that a claim for attorneys' fees can prevent a case from becoming moot. Next, the supreme court decided Speer v. Presbyterian Children's Home & Service Agency, 847 S.W.2d 227 (Tex. 1993), a case heavily relied on by the Hansens in this appeal. In Speer, Speer sued the Agency under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act for refusing to hire her as an adoption worker because of her religion. Id. at 228. She sought only declaratory and injunctive relief. Id. The trial court ruled for the Agency, this Court affirmed, and Speer appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. Id. While the case was pending in the supreme court, the Agency ceased offering adoption services and abolished the position for which Speer had applied. Id. The supreme court held that the case was therefore moot and had to be dismissed. Id. at 230. The court distinguished Camarena, holding that because Speer's declaratory and injunction claims had become moot, she could never be a prevailing party under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act and therefore could never recover her attorneys' fees and costs. Id. at 229-30. The El Paso Court of Appeals subsequently elaborated on the distinction between Camarena and Speer. Citing Camarena, the court of appeals held that a claim for attorneys' fees can keep a declaratory-judgment case alive despite substantive mootness because a party does not have to prevail in order to recover its attorneys' fees under the Declaratory Judgments Act. Labrado v. Cnty. of El Paso, 132 S.W.3d 581, 589-91 (Tex. App.-El Paso 2004, no pet.). Speer was distinguishable because Speer sued under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, which required her to prevail in order to recover her attorneys' fees. Id. at 590. Because the mootness of her substantive TCHRA claim meant she could never prevail, a claim for fees could not keep her claim alive. Id. at 590-91. Finally, in the Allstate Insurance Co. case, the supreme court reaffirmed that a dispute over attorneys' fees under the Declaratory Judgments Act is a “live controversy” even if the substance of the case becomes moot during its pendency. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hallman, 159 S.W.3d 640, 642 (Tex. 2005). In that case, Hallman was sued for property damage. Id. at 641. Her liability insurer, Allstate, provided her with a defense under a reservation of rights but commenced a declaratory- judgment action against Hallman contesting coverage of the property-damage claim. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment for Allstate and denied both sides their attorneys' fees, but this Court reversed, held that the claim was covered, and remanded for consideration of Hallman's claim for attorneys' fees. Id. at 642. While the case was on further appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, Hallman won the underlying property-damage case, and Allstate disclaimed any intention of seeking to recoup from Hallman its costs of defending the underlying case. Id. The supreme court cited Camarena and held that Hallman's continuing claim for attorneys' fees kept the case from becoming moot. Id. at 643 (“Hallman's remaining interest in obtaining attorney's fees 'breathes life' into this appeal and prevents it from being moot.”). Accordingly, the court proceeded to decide the merits of the coverage question because of the live attorneys' fees issue. Id. at 643-45. Thus, Allstate Insurance Co. confirms that a claim for attorneys' fees under the Declaratory Judgments Act will keep a case alive even if the request for substantive declaratory relief becomes moot. SOURCE: Dallas Court of Appeals - 05-09-01001-CV - 6/13/11 We conclude that Camarena and Allstate Insurance Co. stand for the proposition that a case under the Declaratory Judgments Act remains a live controversy, even if all requests for substantive declaratory relief become moot during the action's pendency, as long as a claim for attorneys' fees under the Act remains pending. See Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. Tex. Weekly Advocate, No. 03-09- 00159-CV, 2010 WL 323075, at *3 (Tex. App.-Austin Jan. 29, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op.) (“An appeal from the grant or denial of attorney's fees, at least with respect to a UDJA claim, is usually a separate controversy and can persist even when the underlying controversy is moot.”) (emphasis added) (citing Allstate Insurance Co. and Camarena in support). Thus, Chase's and Cramer's claims for attorneys' fees under the Declaratory Judgments Act kept this case from becoming moot even though the Hansens dropped their objection to the sale of the house and the house was actually sold. Speer does not apply to cases under the Declaratory Judgments Act, and the Hansens' reliance on Speer is thus misplaced. In support of their mootness argument, the Hansens also rely on cases such as MBM Financial Corp. v. Woodlands Operating Co., L.P., 292 S.W.3d 660 (Tex. 2009), and City of Carrollton v. RIHR Inc., 308 S.W.3d 444 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2010, pet. denied). These cases are not on point. In each case, the appellate court concluded that a party could not use the Declaratory Judgments Act as a vehicle for recovering attorneys' fees when the declaratory-judgment claims merely duplicated other claims already before the trial court. See MBM Fin. Corp., 292 S.W.3d at 669-71; RIHR Inc., 308 S.W.3d at 454-55. The instant case, by contrast, was an action solely for declaratory judgment, so Chase's declaratory-judgment claims were not duplicative of any other claims. Accordingly, MBM Financial Corp. and similar cases are distinguishable. The Hansens also rely on two other cases that predate Allstate Insurance Co. These cases are not persuasive. In Ware v. Miller, the Amarillo Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff's claim for declaratory judgment “was rendered moot” during its pendency, and it therefore vacated the trial court's judgment (which awarded the plaintiff his attorneys' fees) and dismissed the appeal. 134 S.W.3d 381, 384-85 (Tex. App.-Amarillo 2003, pet. denied). It appears that the Ware court did not consider the possibility that the plaintiff's claim for fees under the Declaratory Judgments Act might have prevented the case from becoming moot. See id. In Kenneth Leventhal & Co. v. Reeves, Reeves sued the defendants for breach of contract and declaratory judgment, and he obtained a judgment awarding him no relief except for attorneys' fees. 978 S.W.2d 253, 256-57 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no pet.). The court of appeals reversed and rendered a take- nothing judgment against Reeves, holding that the judgment for fees could not be sustained under the Declaratory Judgments Act for two reasons. Id. at 258-60. First, Reeves's claim for declaratory judgment was duplicative of his claim for breach of contract, and so it could not enable him to recover fees that were otherwise not recoverable. Id. at 258-59. We agree with this reasoning. Second, the court concluded that Reeves's claim for declaratory relief had become moot during its pendency and therefore would not support an award of attorneys' fees to either side. Id. at 259-60. This reasoning is contrary to Allstate Insurance Co., which is binding on us, and so we decline to follow Reeves. Neither side cited our recent opinion in City of Richardson v. Gordon, 316 S.W.3d 758 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2010, no pet.). In Gordon, we addressed a fact-specific issue concerning attorneys' fees in relation to the Declaratory Judgments Act and governmental immunity. We conclude that Gordon is limited to its facts and should not be construed beyond its application to the discrete facts of that case. SOURCE: Dallas Court of Appeals - 05-09-01001-CV - 6/13/11

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