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Vinh Huu CAO and Mai Hong Luu, Appellants v. Glenn HEGAR, in His Official Capacity as Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Appellee
This appeal arises from a dispute about a state tax lien. Vinh Huu Cao and Mai Hong Luu sued Glenn Hegar, in his official capacity as Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, seeking a declaration that the lien does not apply to their homestead. The Comptroller filed a jurisdictional plea, which the trial court granted, dismissing the suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Vinh and Mai appeal.
In their second amended petition, which is their operative pleading, Vinh and Mai allege the Comptroller has filed a tax lien in the real property records of Harris County for nonpayment of mixed beverage taxes and that this lien unconstitutionally encumbers their homestead. Under the Declaratory Judgments Act, they seek a declaration that the lien does not apply to their homestead. They also assert that the lien is a cloud on their title and request its removal. They maintain that the trial court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the suit under section 15.011 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, a mandatory-venue provision providing that suits to remove encumbrances from the title to real property or to quiet title to real property must be brought in the county in which all or part of the property is located.
The Comptroller filed a plea to the jurisdiction. In a supporting brief, the Comptroller argued that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear Vinh and Mai's suit based on section 111.0102 of the Texas Tax Code, which provides that both venue and jurisdiction for a suit that challenges or seeks to avoid a state tax lien in any manner exclusively lies in the Travis County district courts.
The trial court granted the Comptroller's jurisdictional plea on the basis that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and dismissed Vinh and Mai's suit.
Standard of Review
A plea to the jurisdiction challenges a trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction. City of Ingleside v. City of Corpus Christi, 469 S.W.3d 589, 590 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam). Because subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law, we review a trial court's ruling on a jurisdictional plea de novo. Id. When, as here, the plea challenges the pleadings, we must determine whether the party asserting jurisdiction has alleged facts that affirmatively show or negate the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction. Sw. Bell Tel. v. Emmett, 459 S.W.3d 578, 587–88 (Tex. 2015). If the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of jurisdiction, such that it is impossible to amend the pleadings to invoke the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction, the suit must be dismissed. Meyers v. JDC/Firethorne, Ltd., 548 S.W.3d 477, 486 (Tex. 2018).
To the extent a jurisdictional plea implicates questions of statutory interpretation, we review them de novo as well because they are questions of law. Chambers–Liberty Ctys. Nav. Dist. v. State, 575 S.W.3d 339, 345 (Tex. 2019).
Subject-matter jurisdiction refers to a court's power to hear a particular type of suit. TV Azteca v. Ruiz, 490 S.W.3d 29, 36 (Tex. 2016). Texas courts derive this power from the Texas Constitution and state statutes. In re Allcat Claims Serv., 356 S.W.3d 455, 459–60 (Tex. 2011). Our Constitution and statutes vest district courts with general jurisdiction, so we therefore presume district courts have subject-matter jurisdiction absent a contrary showing. Tex. Const. art. V, § 8; Tex. Gov't Code §§ 24.007–.008; Dubai Petrol. Co. v. Kazi, 12 S.W.3d 71, 75 (Tex. 2000). But the legislature may strip district courts of their jurisdiction to hear particular types of suits by vesting exclusive jurisdiction in specific courts. S.C. v. M.B., 650 S.W.3d 428, 436 (Tex. 2022); Valdez v. Hollenbeck, 465 S.W.3d 217, 223 n.8 (Tex. 2015).
Vinh and Mai contend the trial court erred in dismissing their suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction on two interrelated grounds. First, they posit that the exclusive-jurisdiction provision invoked by the Comptroller—section 111.0102 of the Texas Tax Code—does not apply to their suit because they are not trying to avoid the state tax lien at issue. Second, because their suit is not one to avoid a lien, Vinh and Mai maintain the mandatory-venue provision they invoked—section 15.011 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code—required them to bring suit here.
With respect to the first part of Vinh and Mai's argument, they assert that they are not trying to avoid the state tax lien. That is, they maintain that they do not dispute the validity of the lien or seek to have the trial court void or nullify the lien. Rather, Vinh and Mai argue, they are merely seeking a judicial determination that the lien does not apply to or cloud the title to their homestead because the underlying debt does not fall into one of the several categories of debt that may constitutionally apply to homesteads. See Tex. Const. art. 16, § 50 (protecting homesteads from forced sale to pay debt, unless debt falls into one of several categories, none of which includes mixed beverage taxes imposed under chapter 183 of Texas Tax Code).
Section 111.0102 of the Texas Tax Code states: “Venue for and jurisdiction of a suit that challenges or is for the purpose of avoiding a comptroller collection action or state tax lien in any manner is exclusively conferred on the district courts of Travis County.” This language is incompatible with Vinh and Mai's position.
If section 111.0102 provided for venue and jurisdiction solely in a suit to avoid a state tax lien, we might agree with Vinh and Mai. The term avoid is not defined in the Tax Code but has an established legal meaning: to render void. See Avoid, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (so defining term and noting that term's legal usage differs from its ordinary meaning); see also New Oxford American Dictionary 112 (3d ed. 2010) (distinguishing term's legal usage from its ordinary meaning and defining former as “repudiate, nullify, or render void”). To render something void is to deprive it of any validity or legal effect whatsoever. See Void, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (defining verb as “[t]o render of no validity or effect”). But Vinh and Mai's lawsuit does not seek to render the state tax lien of no effect. Even if they were to prevail on the merits, the lien would continue to exist and apply to any nonexempt property other than their homestead. See Tex. Tax Code § 113.001 (unpaid taxes are secured by lien on all property that is subject to execution and lien attaches to all property of person who is liable for taxes).
However, section 111.0102 is far broader than Vinh and Mai acknowledge. In addition to applying to a suit to avoid a state tax lien, the statute also confers exclusive jurisdiction of a suit that “challenges” a “state tax lien in any manner” on the Travis County district courts. Tax § 111.0102. This very broad language encompasses a suit challenging whether a state tax lien applies to particular property, like a homestead. See Transcor Astra Grp. v. Petrobras Am. Inc., 650 S.W.3d 462, 470 (Tex. 2022) (characterizing phrase “in any way” in settlement agreement as being broad); In re Houston Progressive Radiology Assocs., 474 S.W.3d 435, 447 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2015, orig. proceeding) (observing that clause providing for arbitration of disputes relating to, arising from, or connected “in any manner” to agreement was broad and embraced all disputes between parties that had significant relationship to agreement regardless of label attached to dispute).
Accordingly, Vinh and Mai's suit is subject to the exclusive-jurisdiction provision invoked by the Comptroller and must be brought in the district courts of Travis County. Tax § 111.0102. Because only those district courts have subject-matter jurisdiction as to this suit, the trial court did not err in dismissing the suit.
The second part of Vinh and Mai's argument does not alter this result. They posit that they had no choice but to bring suit in Harris County due to a mandatory-venue statute. In support of this argument, they rely on section 15.011 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which provides in relevant part that suits to “remove encumbrances from the title to real property” or “quiet title to real property shall be brought in the county in which all or a part of the property is located.”
It is settled that section 15.011 is a mandatory-venue statute. See In re Applied Chem. Magnesias Corp., 206 S.W.3d 114, 118 (Tex. 2006) (describing statute as establishing mandatory venue in suits when it applies). Thus, if section 111.0102 of the Tax Code was merely a mandatory-venue statute as well, we would have to resolve the resulting conflict between the two venue provisions. But section 111.0102 fixes both venue and jurisdiction. By providing for exclusive jurisdiction in the district courts of Travis County, section 111.0102 strips all other trial courts of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Roccaforte v. Jefferson Cty., 341 S.W.3d 919, 923 (Tex. 2011) (indicating that when statute vests exclusive jurisdiction in particular forum, statute withdraws all power from other courts under any circumstances). Section 15.011, in contrast, does not provide for jurisdiction as opposed to venue, which are conceptually distinct from one another. See, e.g., Scott v. Wichita Cty., 248 S.W.3d 324, 325–26 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2007, no pet.) (mandatory-venue statute is not jurisdictional and noncompliance with it may be waived); Scott v. Gallagher, 209 S.W.3d 262, 264–65 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.) (making same observations with respect to another mandatory-venue statute). Thus, when section 111.0102 applies, it displaces any contrary venue provision.
Finally, though we do not understand Vinh and Mai to claim otherwise, for the sake of completeness we note that the Declaratory Judgments Act, under which they bring suit, does not provide an independent basis for jurisdiction. See Tex. Parks & Wildlife Dep't v. Sawyer Tr., 354 S.W.3d 384, 388 (Tex. 2011) (reiterating that DJA does not generally enlarge trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction and instead is procedural device for deciding cases already within trial court's jurisdiction).
We affirm the trial court's order granting the Comptroller's plea to the jurisdiction and dismissing this suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Gordon Goodman, Justice
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Docket No: NO. 01-21-00444-CV
Decided: January 10, 2023
Court: Court of Appeals of Texas, Houston (1st Dist.).
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