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Official Capacity Not the Same as Governmental Agency in Texas Civil Suit

by Matt Clarke

On June 24, 2010, a Texas Court of Appeals held that suing employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in both their official and individual capacities was not the same as suing both the governmental entity and the employees, and thus the employees did not have to be dismissed from the lawsuit.

Robert Hampton, a Texas state prisoner, filed suit in state district court under the Texas Theft Liability Act, common law conversion, and state and federal constitutional provisions against unlawful taking and denial of due process after TDCJ employees removed $710 from his prison trust account.

Hampton had been found guilty of the disciplinary offense of “trafficking and trading.” From the beginning of the investigation into Hampton’s activities, prison officials froze $710 in Hampton’s trust account so that those funds were unavailable for his use. Many months later, when Hampton filed a grievance over the unavailability of the funds, prison officials replied that he had forfeited the money due to his trafficking and trading offense.

Prison officials apparently believed that because a relative of another prisoner had placed the $710 into his trust account, the money was in payment for goods that Hampton made in the prison craft shop. Hampton filed suit because forfeiture of funds is not a permissible disciplinary sanction.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the TDCJ employees in their individual capacities because § 101.106(e), Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code, mandates dismissal of employees from a lawsuit when both the employees and the governmental unit are sued. The defendants claimed that a suit against the employees in their official capacities was the same as a suit against the governmental unit. The district court denied the motion and the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals held that “under the plain meaning of the statute, a governmental ‘employee’ is different from a ‘governmental unit.’” The statute’s definition of “governmental unit” does not include government employees sued in their official capacities. Further, another subsection of the statute provides a procedural mechanism to dismiss employees from a lawsuit if the employees’ conduct was within the scope of employment and the plaintiff does not amend the suit to name the governmental unit in place of the employees.

The Court of Appeals noted that the cases cited by the defendants in support of their position were not on point, as they dealt with governmental immunity. “While we recognize that a suit against employees in their official capacity is the same as a suit against a governmental unit for purposes of immunity, that authority cannot be used to expand the express definition of ‘governmental unit’ as it applies to Section 101.106(e),” the appellate court wrote.

Having found nothing to support the contention that suing government employees in their official capacity automatically names the governmental entity that employs them as a party to the suit, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to dismiss and taxed costs against the defendants.

The appellate court issued a revised ruling on August 26, 2010 upon denying a motion for rehearing, but the outcome was the same. See: Quarterman v. Hampton, 21 S.W.3d 864 (Tex.App.-Houston, 1st Dist. 2010).

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Related legal case

Quarterman v. Hampton