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Stonecipher v. Parish

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

April 7, 2017

ELLIOTT B. STONECIPHER Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
CADDO PARISH, LOUISIANA, THE CADDO PARISH COMMISSION, CADDO PARISH COMMISSIONERS, DOUGLAS DOMINICK, LYNDON B. JOHNSON, MICHAEL WILLIAMS, MATTHEW LINN, JERALD BOWMAN, LINDORA BAKER, STORMY GAGE-WATTS, JOHN ESCUDE, MICHAELTHIBODEAUX, DAVID COX, JIM SMITH, KENNETH EPPERSON, SR., CADDO PARISH ADMINISTRATOR WOODROW WILSON, JR., AND CADDO PARISH DIRECTOR OF FINANCE AND HUMAN RESOURCES ERICA BRYANT Defendants-Appellees

         Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana Lower Court Case No. 583, 388 Honorable Ramon Lafitte, Judge

          THE PESNELL LAW FIRM By: Billy R. Pesnell J. Whitney Pesnell Counsel for Appellant, Elliott B. Stonecipher

          KEAN MILLER, LLP By: Michael D. Lowe Scott L. Zimmer Counsel for Appellees Douglas Dominick, Lyndon B. Johnson, Michael Williams, Matthew Linn, Jerald Bowman, Lindora Baker, Stormy Gage- Watts, John Escude, Michael Thibodeaux, David Cox, Jim Smith, Kenneth Epperson, Sr.; Woodrow Wilson, Jr., and Erica Bryant

          BLANCHARD, WALKER, O'QUIN & ROBERTS By: M. Thomas Arceneaux Jerry Edwards Counsel for Appellees Caddo Parish, Louisiana, and the Caddo Parish Commission, Caddo Parish

          Before WILLIAMS, DREW, and MOORE, JJ.

          DREW, J.

         Elliot B. Stonecipher filed a petition for declaratory and injunctive relief against Caddo Parish ("Parish"), the Caddo Parish Commission ("Commission"), individual Caddo Parish Commissioners ("Commissioners"), Caddo Parish Administrator Woodrow Wilson, and Caddo Parish Director of Finance and Human Resources Erica Bryant.

         In his petition, Stonecipher challenged the legality of Parish ordinances relating to participation by the Commissioners in the Caddo Parish Public Employees Retirement System ("CPERS"), their participation in the Parish's group medical benefits and life insurance plans, salary increases to the Commissioners that were tied to cost-of-living increases to Parish employees, mileage reimbursements to the Commissioners, and the policy of providing each Commissioner with an annual travel allowance of $15, 000.

         After considering various exceptions raised by the defendants, the trial court maintained Stonecipher's claim for declaratory relief against the Parish, but dismissed his claim for injunctive relief against the Parish as well as all his claims against the Commission, the Commissioners, Wilson, and Bryant.

         Stonecipher has appealed. We reverse the judgment in part, affirm it in part, and remand.

         FACTS

         Stonecipher alleged in his petition that he is a citizen, property owner, taxpayer, and registered voter of Shreveport and Caddo Parish and is therefore directly affected by the operations, activities, and conduct of the defendants. He contended that the Commission violated the Louisiana Constitution, state law, and the Caddo Parish Home Rule Charter when it passed ordinances in 2000 and 2005 that created CPERS and declared that the Commissioners were unclassified parish employees who were eligible to participate in CPERS. More specifically, he argued that the Commissioners were ineligible to receive these benefits because they were part-time public servants.

         Stonecipher also alleged that Section 3-05(D) of the Home Rule Charter, which prohibits a Commissioner from receiving any additional compensation, benefit, or privilege because of his office, was violated by ordinances passed in 2012 and 2013 which made the commissioners and their dependents eligible to participate in the group medical benefits and life insurance plans offered by the Parish to its classified and appointed employees. According to Stonecipher, Section 3-05(D) was also allegedly violated by the Parish's policy of providing each Commissioner with a yearly travel allowance of up to $15, 000.

         Stonecipher further alleged in his petition that a 1993 ordinance providing automatic increases to each Commissioner's salary based on cost-of-living increases granted to Parish employees on an annual basis violated not only Part (D) of Section 3-05, but also Part (B), which governed how the Commission can change its compensation. Finally, Stonecipher contended that a 1985 ordinance allowing mileage reimbursement for Commissioners was prohibited by Section 3-05(D), as well as by 3-05(C), which prohibits the payment of compensation for mileage for road inspection or travel to and from the courthouse or any similar purpose.

         Stonecipher sought a judgment:

• Declaring that the Commissioners have always been part-time employees of the Parish and ineligible to participate in or receive any pension or retirement benefits from CPERS;
• Declaring that the Commissioners were not entitled to receive any compensation, remuneration, or benefits other than their salary proper, and, accordingly, not entitled to receive life and health insurance coverage from the Parish, a travel allowance of $15, 000 per year from the Parish, the same cost-of-living increases in their compensation or salaries which are granted to other employees of the Parish on an annual basis, and the mileage reimbursement in question;
• Enjoining Wilson and Bryant from approving the payment of any additional pension or retirement benefits through CPERS or the Parish to any of the Commissioners;
• Enjoining Wilson and Bryant from approving or allowing the transfer, payment, or provision of any further or additional life and health insurance coverage, subsidies, or benefits, travel allowances, cost-of-living increases in wages or salaries, and mileage reimbursements to any of the Commissioners;
• Enjoining CPERS and the Parish from paying any additional pension or retirement benefits or credits to any of the Commissioners;
• Enjoining the Parish from transferring, paying, or providing any further or additional life and health insurance, subsidies, or benefits, travel allowances, cost-of-living increases in wages or salaries, and mileage reimbursements to any of the Commissioners;
• Enjoining the Commissioners from accepting, acquiring, or receiving any further or additional pension or retirement benefits or credits from CPERS or the Parish;
• Enjoining the Commissioners from accepting, acquiring, or receiving any further or additional life and health insurance coverage, subsidies, or benefits, travel allowances, cost-of-living increases in wages or salaries, and mileage reimbursements by, from, or through the Parish;
• Directing the Commissioners, Wilson, and Bryant to pay all of the pension and retirement benefits which each Commissioner has received through CPERS or the Parish; and
• Directing the Commissioners to return all of the compensation, remuneration, and benefits which each Commissioner has received over and above their salaries from life and health insurance benefits from the Parish, travel allowances from the Parish, cost-of-living increases in their compensation or salaries equal to the cost-of-living increases granted to other Parish employees on an annual basis, and the mileage reimbursements in question.

         The Commission filed the exception of lack of procedural capacity, and the Commission and the Parish filed the exception of no right of action. They conceded Stonecipher had standing to seek declaratory relief against the Parish only to test the validity of the ordinances, but argued that the court should dismiss all claims against the Commission and the claims for injunctive relief against the Parish. The Commissioners, along with Bryant and Wilson, filed the exceptions of no cause of action and no right of action.

         The trial court granted the Commission's exception of lack of procedural capacity. The court concluded that while the Commission is the legislative branch and governing authority of the Parish under Section 2.02 of the Home Rule Charter, it is not sui juris or juridically independent of the Parish. The court added that the Commission is neither an entity to which the law attributes personality nor a juridical person with the procedural capacity to sue or be sued.

         The Commission and Parish's exception of no right of action was sustained because the court regarded Stonecipher's interest in the lawsuit as insufficient to seek injunctive relief. The court concluded that the allegations in Stonecipher's petition did not sufficiently prove that the actions of these two defendants have or would with certainty increase his tax burden or otherwise unjustly affect him or his property. Although the court recognized that proof of an increased tax burden is not the only way for a taxpaying citizen to have standing to restrain a public body from allegedly illegal action, Stonecipher did not allege a personal stake in the legality of the ordinances at issue.

         The court also sustained the exception of no right of action filed by the Parish and the Commission regarding the demand to collect sums that may be owed to the Parish. The court noted that under Section 6-06 of the Home Rule Charter, the right to seek repayment belongs to the Parish. For the same reason, the court sustained the exception of no right of action filed by Bryant, Wilson, and the Commissioners.

         Finally, the court sustained the exception of no cause of action filed by the Commissioners on the ground that they took all these contested actions in their official capacities and as the result of ordinances passed by the Commission, even if the ordinances and polices are subsequently declared unconstitutional. The court sustained Bryant and Wilson's exception of no cause of action because Stonecipher conceded that he ...


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