City of El Paso v. Heinrich – Case Brief Summary (Texas)

In City of El Paso v. Heinrich. 306 S.W.3d 256 (Tex. 2010); 284 S.W.3d 366 (Tex. 2009), the plaintiff requested prospective injunctive relief regarding her claims as a widow over pension benefit payments. Id. at 369.

The widow had been receiving monthly payments, but the pension fund reduced her payments by one-third when her son turned 23. Id.

The widow brought ultra vires claims against the board members in their official capacities and sought declaratory and injunctive relief reinstating full pension benefit payments. Id. at 369--70.

The monthly pension benefit payments were future recurring benefits, and the widow only sought to have them increased to their original amount. Id. at 377.

In that case, the plaintiff sought declaratory and injunctive relief under the act with respect to the denial of certain pension benefits to which she claimed entitlement under the statute governing the pension fund. Id. at 369.

The supreme court held that even in an official capacity suit solely against governmental actors who violate statutory provisions, only claims for prospective declaratory and injunctive relief could proceed. Id. at 380. Governmental immunity is retained with respect to the governmental entity itself and those declaratory and injunctive claims against the governmental actors in their official capacity with respect to past statutory violations and retrospective relief. Id. at 376.

The supreme court reasoned that the legislature is in the best position to waive governmental immunity from suit and it can authorize retrospective relief if appropriate. Id. at 377.

In City of El Paso v. Heinrich, a police officer's widow brought a declaratory judgment action against several governmental entities and officials after her pension benefits were reduced. Id. at 369.

The defendants filed pleas to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied. Id. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's order. Id.

The supreme court affirmed in part and reversed in part, concluding that "while governmental immunity generally bars suits for retrospective money relief, it does not preclude prospective injunctive remedies in official-capacity suits against government actors who violate statutory or constitutional provisions." Id. at 368-69.

As to suits against governmental entities, however, the court concluded, "nevertheless, as a technical matter, the governmental entities themselves -- as opposed to their officers in their official capacity -- remain immune from suit," unless the claim challenges the validity of an ordinance or statute. Id. at 372-73.

The court explained, "for claims challenging the validity of ordinances or statutes, . . . the Declaratory Judgment Act requires that the relevant governmental entities be made parties, and thereby waives immunity." Id. at 373 n.6.

If the claim challenges actions taken under an ordinance or statute rather than the validity of the ordinance or statute itself, the governmental entity is immune from suit on the claim. Id.

The requested prospective declaratory and injunctive relief involved a widow's claims over pension benefit payments. Id. at 369.

The widow in that case had been receiving monthly pension benefit payments, but the pension fund reduced her payments by one-third when her son turned 23. Id.

The widow brought ultra vires claims against the board members in their official capacities, and sought declaratory and injunctive relief reinstating full pension benefit payments. Id. at 369-70.

The monthly pension benefit payments were recurring and certain, and the widow only sought to have them increased to their original amount. The prospective injunctive relief sought in Heinrich was not based on events that were speculative or contingent.

Accordingly, although it was not directly addressed by the Heinrich court, the relief sought in that case would not have been barred by a lack of ripeness.

The Court expounded upon what qualifies as an ultra vires suit.

In that case, Reconveyance filed a declaratory-judgment action asserting that the Department of Insurance (the "Department") "acted beyond its statutory authority in attempting to prevent Reconveyance from offering its services through title agencies." 306 S.W.3d at 258.

In determining whether the case should be dismissed, the court concluded that although Reconveyance did not specifically state that the Department acted ultra vires, the requested declarations were "in substance ultra vires claims." Id. at 258-59.

Moreover, because Reconveyance only sued the Department and did not sue "Department officials acting in their official capacities," the court determined that the Department retained "its sovereign immunity" and dismissed the suit for want of jurisdiction. Id. at 259.

The Court confirmed that "suits to require state officials to comply with statutory or constitutional provisions are not prohibited by sovereign immunity, even if a declaration to that effect compels the payment of money." Heinrich, 284 S.W.3d at 372.

However, "to fall within this ultra vires exception, a suit must not complain of a government officer's exercise of discretion, but rather must allege, and ultimately prove, that the officer acted without legal authority or failed to perform a purely ministerial act." Id.

The Court held that "as a technical matter, the governmental entities themselves -- as opposed to their officers in their official capacity -- remain immune from suit" on such claims. Id. at 372-73.

This rule "derives from the premise that the 'acts of officials which are not lawfully authorized are not acts of the State.'" Id. at 373.

The Court concluded that suits complaining of ultra vires action may not be brought against a governmental unit possessed of sovereign immunity, but must be brought against the allegedly responsible government actor in his official capacity. Id.

The widow of a slain police officer filed a declaratory-judgment action against the City of El Paso seeking declaratory relief as well as the issuance of an injunction. 284 S.W.3d at 369.

When considering whether the widow's claims were barred by governmental immunity, the supreme court determined that "while governmental immunity generally bars suits for retrospective monetary relief, it does not preclude prospective injunctive remedies in official-capacity suits against government actors who violate statutory or constitutional provisions." Id. at 368-69.