Losing Sovereign Immunity

By Johnnie Belle Reagan

More from the East Texas community of Palestine about the Jerry Laza case, Lawnmower Man.  Every time I read something about this case it makes me cringe.  Another crappy article from the Palestine Herald Press on April 1st made me think that it was an April Fool’s joke, but, no. People, this needs serious attention.

I hope all the City Officials, while they are getting legal advice from the worst set of lawyers I have ever encountered, are being told that if they knowingly violate and individuals Constitutional Rights, they lose their “Sovereign Immunity”.  Palestine City Council you are not untouchable.  The Civil Rights violation case for Laza is pending in Federal Court.

Information has come to me that City Council members had been offered a deal by an Attorney close to the Case to get all of their money back from Potter Minton for the cost of filing fees.  So, given that I can only view the last move they made at the special meeting April 1st to hire a bankruptcy lawyer to continue go after Laza as an effort once again to protect Attorney Ron Stutes.  Why?

Why are they so hyper focused on ruining one man?  Let us just go over a few facts that are readily available and makes the City Council move more confusing. 

  1. Municipal Government rules and powers comes from the City Charter.
  2. Palestine’s City Charter has not been updated since the mid 80’s.
  3. Municipal Court has exclusive jurisdiction over ordinance violation that are enforced by fines.
  4. City of Palestine has not adopted the power to file Civil Suits under TLGC 54.012.
  5. The City Attorney Job description does not give him the authority to file a Civil Suit in his own capacity.
  6. The City Manager job description does not give him the authority to file a Civil Suit in his own capacity nor the authority to instruct the City Attorney to do so.
  7. Nothing can be found that gave either City Attorney or City Manager authority to file a lawsuit.
  8. An Ordinance is a law.
  9. Jerry Laza has his own ordinance for outside storage for his business property.
  10. Ron Stutes had approached several City Officials about going after Jerry Laza including former Mayor Bob Herrington and former City Manager Wendy Ellis, both declined.
  11. Attorney Ron Stutes admitted under oath on June 8th 2018 that he had never gotten approval from the City Council to file the Civil Suit.  
  12. The State of Texas does not give Municipal Government ruled by a City Charter the power to act on any Texas Local Government Code that has not been adopted into the Charter.

I can go on and on.  Obviously, the above facts only touch the surface of all the “facts”.  I just find it extremely hard to believe knowing that the Case has been accepted in the 6th Court of Appeals in Texas that the City Council Continues on the crusade.  Months ago, I would have believed that they were just misguided, but it is appearing to be vindictive and evil. 

Let’s be clear about what is really going on.  If the City Government or any other Government entity can financially break you, you can’t fight them.  A reasonable person can assume that Laza has found himself in the current situation is because he did not have the cash or equity in assets to put up a Supersedes Bond. The amount of the Bond is equal to the amount awarded, in Laza’s case $165,000.  A bond of this type is required when a defendant loses a Civil Suit and it is a guarantee the Court requires so that the Plaintiff receives no farther harm and the award is protected.  In cases such as this when it is not little Suzy that has been run over on her bike, the City suffers no real harm from Laza.  They could have easily waved the Bond. 

Laza was forced to file Bankruptcy on August 2, 2018 as his only protection from the Contempt of Court hearing on August 3, 2018.  On that Friday Ron Stutes was asking the Court to award him a Receivership to take all of Laza’s assets into custody and storage, lock Laza out of his place of business and jail him for 7 days.  If that wasn’t enough Stutes was also asking for an additional $80,000 in fines.  From several Lawyers I have contact with confirming that Bankruptcy was his only option if he was unable to secure the bond.

Instead of having any confidence in the case Attorney Ron Stutes presented, they continue to take strike after strike at a tax paying, business owning citizens.  Clearly by his own admission Stutes was not following any form of process or procedure set by Texas State Statue or Case Law.  If he had followed the process that was born from the City of Dallas vs. Stewart it would have at least afforded Laza a semblance of Due Process.  Unfortunately, Stutes didn’t care about the Law and apparently neither does the Palestine City Council.

This case is in APPEALS.  It was accepted in the Texas Appeals Court in June 2018. If Laza succeeds in overturning the District Court decision there is no fine. Taking into consideration the stated facts from above and the City Council action to hire a Bankruptcy Lawyer, you have to ask what is really going on?  Why do they keep protecting Attorney Ron Stutes?  Why are they after Laza?  Why won’t they accept free representation that would be in the best interest of the Citizens?  They already fired Stutes over mishandling of another case, Lone Star vs. City of Palestine.  Palestine lost and the Jury awarded Lone Star over $500,000.

Clearly understand that if this case remains as it is the door for any Municipal Attorney to file a lawsuit without presenting it to the City Council for approval is wide open.  The City Council is in place to be the voice of the citizens and be part of the checks and balances distributing power.  In all actuality Jerry Laza is fighting for the rights of property owner within the City limits of every town in the State of Texas. 

To add insult to injury Attorney Ron Stutes is already teaching this right violating process to other municipal Attorneys through the Texas City Attorney Association using the Laza case as an example.  I’m not kidding. More on that next week.

Why are the taxpayers of the City of Palestine not outraged? 

Sovereign Immunity is not a defense for contracts involving proprietary functions. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in a similar case in Jacksonville several years ago.

“In sum, the Court held that sovereign immunity is not a defense when (1) the city performs proprietary functions,” (2) such functions result in the commission of a tort or breach of contract, and (3) “the city acts of its own volition for its own benefit and not as a branch of the state.”