Texas Supreme Court Orders and Opinions (1/29/16)

Posted by Rich PhillipsOn Friday, January 29, 2016, the Supreme Court of Texas issued opinions in four cases:No. 14-0453, Matthews v. Kountze ISD — The sole issue in this interlocutory appeal is whether the defendant school district’s voluntary cessation of the challenged conduct mooted the plaintiffs’ claims. The case arose after the school district prohibited its middle- and high-school cheerleaders from displaying religious messages at school-sponsored events. In response to a lawsuit for declaratory and injunctive relief brought by the cheerleaders’ parents, the district adopted a new policy stating that it would no longer prohibit messages at school-sponsored events solely because the source or origin of the message was religious in nature. But the district insisted that it had the right to prohibit such messages. Justice Devine delivered the opinion of the Court, holding that the school district’s remedial actions did not moot the claims, because the challenged ban on religious signs might reasonably be expected to recur. Justice Willett filed a concurring opinion, citing to the wisdom of Mufasa from The Lion King to illustrate the uncertainty surrounding whether the trial court’s final order characterizes the banners as the school’s speech, or as the cheerleaders’ private speech. Justice Guzman also filed a concurring opinion, emphasizing the respect due to the cheerleaders’ right to free religious expression.No. 14-0534, Railroad Commission v. Gulf Energy Exploration Corp — After obtaining legislative permission, an oil-and-gas lessee sued the Railroad Commission of Texas after the Commission mistakenly plugged one of the lessee’s abandoned offshore wells. The trial court refused to submit jury issues on the State’s defense that was immune because it acted in good faith and on whether there was a binding contract between the State and the lessee before the well was plugged. Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion of the Court, ruling (i) that the State was entitled to a jury question on its good-faith immunity defense even though the legislature had already given the lessee permission to sue; and (ii) that a fact question exists on the contract formation issue.No. 14-0591, The Staley Family Partnership Ltd. v. Stiles — In this case involving the petitioner’s landlocked tract of land and the respondent’s adjacent tract, the petitioner seeks a declaration that it has an implied roadway easement by necessity over the respondent’s property. The central issue in this case was whether a party seeking to establish an easement by necessity must show that the easement would have resulted in access to a roadway at the time the two tracts of land were severed. Justice Johnson delivered the opinion of the Court, affirming the court of appeals’ opinion that the petitioner was required to make such a showing and that it failed to do so because it did not establish prove that the proposed easement would have provided access public road existed in 1866 when the tracts were divided.No. 14-0984, Hysaw v. Dawkins — This dispute, arising out of three 1947 testamentary grants of land employing double fractional royalties, examines whether “1/3 of 1/8” royalty is a “fixed” 1/24 royalty on all production from that land, or whether it is a “floating” royalty that entitles each grantee to 1/3 of any royalty from a current or future lease on that land. Essentially, the issue was whether the testatrix intended each of her children to share in the royalties from all of their bequeathed land, or whether she intended to fix the devised royalty of each of her children at 1/24, allowing the fee owner the exclusive benefit of any royalty exceeding 1/8. In an opinion written by Justice Guzman, the Court “reject[ed] bright-line rules of interpretation that are arbitrary,” “consider[ed] the testatrix’s will in its entirety,” and held that she intended to devise a floating 1/3 royalty that would result in her three children equally sharing future royalties across all three tracts of land. The Court construed the will and concluded that the reference to the “1/8 royalty” was intended as a synonym for the landowner’s royalty, and not a specific royalty percentage.Access the complete order list here.