Harris Cnty. Appraisal Dist. v. Integrity Title Co., LLC, 483 S.W.3d 62 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2015, pet. filed)
Integrity Title and Marian Cones (collectively, “Integrity”) submitted a Public Information Act (“PIA”) request to the Harris County Appraisal District (“HCAD”), seeking an electronic list of deed transaction dates and Harris County clerk’s deed document numbers for every HCAD account. The deed information, while publicly available, is information which HCAD obtains through a contract with PropertyInfo. HCAD sought an attorney general opinion and argued that the information requested was protected from disclosure under Texas Government Code § 552.149, known as the MLS exception, and § 552.110, known as the trade secret exception. The attorney general ruled the information was excepted from disclosure. Integrity sued HCAD under Government Code § 552.321 for a writ of mandamus to compel disclosure of the information. HCAD filed a plea to the jurisdiction on the basis that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the matter since the Attorney General had ruled on the issue, and the trial court denied HCAD’s plea. Noting the limited information provided to the Attorney General by HCAD, the trial court also ruled after a bench trial that HCAD had to disclose the information to Integrity.
On appeal, HCAD argued that the denial of its plea to the jurisdiction was in error. Under the Government Code, a requesting party may file a writ of mandamus (1) when a governmental body withholds information without requesting an attorney general opinion or (2) when a governmental body receives an adverse attorney general opinion directing disclosure of information and the body still withholds the information. However, in HCAD’s view of the Government Code and interpretive case law, a requesting party cannot file a writ of mandamus where, as in the present case, a governmental body withholds information pursuant to an attorney general opinion. Relying on Kallinen v. City of Houston, 462 S.W.3d 25 (Tex. 2015), a recent Texas Supreme Court decision, the court of appeals rejected HCAD’s argument because it would render the attorney general’s ruling unreviewable. The court of appeals concluded that the trial court had jurisdiction to hear Integrity’s writ of mandamus.
The court of appeals next turned to the issue of whether the information sought by Integrity was protected from disclosure under the Government Code. The court of appeals noted that HCAD had not disclosed to the Attorney General that the information requested was public information obtained by PropertyInfo from the Harris County Clerk, that HCAD makes some of the information available on its website, and that HCAD obtains much of the deed information requested from sources other than PropertyInfo. The court of appeals stated that the exceptions to disclosure in the Government Code must be construed narrowly to encourage maximum disclosure by governmental bodies. The court of appeals concluded that the requested information did not fall within the MLS exception, §552.149, because that exception seeks to protect privately-generated information and Integrity sought publicly available information collected by a private entity. The court of appeals likewise rejected HCAD’s argument that the trade secret exception, §552.110, protected disclosure because HCAD had not offered evidence going to the six-factor test for trade secrets. Having overruled HCAD’s points of error, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.