Stiefer v. Moers, No. 14-14-00617-CV, 2015 Tex. App. LEXIS 11609 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Nov. 10, 2015, pet. denied)
After their application for open space land appraisal was denied, the Moerses sued the Harris County Appraisal District, its Chief Appraiser, Sands Stiefer, and the Harris County Appraisal Review Board, claiming constitutional violations and denial of due process and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief based on ultra vires. Mr. Stiefer filed a plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss asserting he was protected from suit by sovereign immunity, which the trial court denied.
Addressing the Moerses’ declaratory judgment claim, the court of appeals concluded that the relief sought was a change in their tax assessment, not a declaration of the unconstitutionality of controlling provisions of the tax code. As such, the Tax Code provided the Moerses’ exclusive remedies, and the court of appeals determined that the Tax Code did not authorize suit against Stiefer. The court of appeals also determined that the Moerses did not state a proper ultra vires claim against Stiefer. An ultra vires claim, which is an exception to the general rule of sovereign immunity which prohibits a direct lawsuit against a governmental official, is one alleging that the governmental official acted without legal authority or failed to perform a ministerial act. In the court’s view, the Moerses did not claim Mr. Stiefer acted without legal authority but instead simply claimed that Mr. Stiefer incorrectly exercised discretion in determining their open space application. Finally, the court of appeals ruled that there was no waiver of Stiefer’s immunity for the Moerses’ denial of due process claim which related to the Appraisal Review Board’s denial of a hearing. Because the Tax Code specifically provides for suit against the Appraisal Review Board in such instances, there was no waiver of sovereign immunity and could be no permissible suit against Mr. Stiefer. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s order and rendered judgment dismissing all claims against Chief Appraiser Stiefer.