The court sided with four citizens in a lawsuit alleging that the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) knowingly flooded their homes with controlled reservoir releases during Hurricane Harvey in late August 2017. However, the law that let the homeowners sue the SJRA does not entitle them to real payback, an important aspect of the code that split the court.
Since the citizens cannot seek amends, one justice argued that they lack standing to sue and that the court veered from its duty by siding with them. The majority disagreed and said the power to award damages in a particular case isn’t the deciding duty of the court.
The ruling affirms a lower court decision which found that the SJRA lacked governmental immunity, a legal doctrine that shields the state and its subdivisions from lawsuits.
The legislature can waive this immunity in certain cases and allow citizens to sue government bodies like cities, counties, or the SJRA. The Houston-area property owners that sued the SJRA pinned their hopes on a law known in the case as the Private Real Property Rights Preservation Act or simply Chapter 2007, which waives immunity and lets citizens sue government bodies that seize or somehow reduce the value of their private property.
The SJRA argued that Chapter 2007 only applies to regulatory actions, not physical takings or actions “taken out of a reasonable good faith belief” to prevent threats to life or public safety. In other words, the SJRA distinguished seizures of private property from the release of floodwaters that allegedly flooded homes.
The homeowners disagreed. Arguing that the Lake Conroe dam never reached full capacity before the SJRA opened the floodgates, the citizens claim the SJRA did not have a reasonable belief that releasing the water was necessary.
The court ultimately sided with them in agreement that “the physical invasion of their properties by the River Authority’s release of floodwaters constitutes a taking.”
“We conclude that Chapter 2007 does not expressly limit its application to regulatory takings nor does it expressly exclude all physical takings from its terms,” the majority opinion reads.
“The statutory takings claim may include a physical taking, such as the flooding alleged by the property owners, and is not limited solely to regulatory takings.”
However, Chapter 2007 does not oblige the government defendants — in this case, the SJRA — to pay damages when they lose lawsuits. Since the law does not force the SJRA to remedy the alleged harm, the court lacks the power to address the case beyond little more than an advisory statement in the citizen’s favor. The plaintiffs are entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees and an invalidation of the SJRA’s choice to open the floodgates, but not a payment to make them whole after the loss of their homes.
Justice Jimmy Blacklock thus dissented and said that while the homeowners may prevail on other grounds, they lack standing to sue under Chapter 2007 since the court cannot provide remedy for the injury they suffered.
“The alleged injury is the flooding of the plaintiff’s homes during Hurricane Harvey as a result of the San Jacinto River Authority’s decision to release water from Lake Conroe. Years after the fact, that injury can only be redressed by monetary damages, and the plaintiffs have a claim pending in another lawsuit seeking takings damages through the normal channels,” Blacklock wrote.
“Chapter 2007, however, creates a unique statutory cause of action under which the courts have no authority to award damages… To comply with the legislature’s direction, a court would have to order the SJRA, on pain of contempt, to ‘rescind’ its 2017 release of floodwaters from Lake Conroe, millions of gallons of which flowed into the San Jacinto River 11 years ago. Such a nonsensical judgment, with which the SJRA cannot comply, would have no practical effect on either party and would not redress the plaintiffs’ injuries.”
By siding with the homeowners without the power to reverse the harm, Blacklock said the court overstepped its legal bounds.
“No matter how sympathetic these property owners’ predicament may be, the ‘doctrine of standing is a crucial and inseparable element’ of the ‘separation of powers . . . . , whose disregard will inevitably produce . . . an overjudicialization of the processes of self-governance,’” Blacklock wrote, quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“Their statutory takings claims should be dismissed while their constitutional takings claims move forward in county court.”
In the majority opinion, the rest of the court responded to Blacklock’s concerns, saying the citizens’ claims still held legal validity even without the chance of relief from the Supreme Court of Texas.
“Because the Dissent views the government’s election to pay damages as unlikely and the rescission of prior governmental action as inconsequential, it concludes that any judgment the court might render would be ‘merely advisory’ and intrude on the other branches of government,” the majority opinion reads.
“But it is the Legislature that has waived immunity from suit and liability for statutory takings and provided for these alternative remedies. That the government might decline to pay damages is no reason to dismiss the pending suits on jurisdictional grounds.”
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