The Bandera County Central Appraisal District has denied the allegations made by three former appraisal district employees in a state lawsuit alleging violations of the Texas Whistleblower Act and seeking damages that could amount to as much as $1 million.
Appraisal district lawyers in filings earlier this year also filed documents transferring the lawsuit from state court to U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, claiming that the suit sprang from alleged violations of the plaintiffs’ rights under the U.S. Constitution and that it was a civil matter in which federal court had original jurisdiction.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Melissa Checkovage, Jana Herrera and Nelia McNeal, have objected to the motion remanding the case to U.S. District Court, disputing the claim that federal court had original jurisdiction in the matter and arguing that plaintiffs’ allegations arose under the Texas Whistleblower Act and under a state common law claim for wrongful termination.
They ask federal court to move the case back to state court where they contend it should be and that the district be ordered to pay the attorneys fees incurred by plaintiffs’ in disputing the removal.
“Because there was no objectively reasonable basis for removal, fairness would be served by holding BANCAD (the appraisal district) responsible for the financial burden of responding to its motion,” the plaintiffs’ motion to remand says.
The filings are the most recent maneuverings in a lawsuit that Checkovage, Herrera and McNeal filed against the appraisal district in March for terminating their employment in violation of the Whistleblower Act and for Herrera’s refusal to take part in what was described as an illegal campaign of retaliation against Checkovage and McNeal by the appraisal district’s former chief appraiser, Wendy Grams.
The state’s Whistleblower Act is designed to protect public employees who with good reason report suspected violations of the law by another public employee to an appropriate law enforcement agency.
Checkovage and McNeal were former field appraisers for the district who were fired in February after Grams discovered the two were providing information and appraisal district documents to state officials investigating a wide-ranging, December 2018 complaint against the former chief appraiser, the lawsuit says.
Herrera was a former deputy chief appraiser who Grams fired in January after Herrera became convinced the chief appraiser was striving to retaliate against Checkovage and McNeal for cooperating with regulators investigating the appraiser’s office and for Herrera’s decision to take her concerns to the appraisal district’s board chairman, according to the lawsuit.
The allegations became part of a wide range of complaints brought against Grams by former district employees and county taxpayers over the last several months at the district’s board of directors meetings.
Grams resigned from office in February in the face of those complaints and has been replaced as chief appraiser by Shawn Davis.
In responding to the lawsuit, the appraisal district’s lawyers denied each allegation by plaintiffs and demanded a jury trial requiring strict proof of the claims.
They contended the conduct allegedly reported by plaintiffs was not a violation of the law and that plaintiffs had failed to report the alleged violations to an appropriate law enforcement agency under the Texas Government Code.
The appraisal district also asserted governmental immunity safeguarding a governmental agency from prosecution under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The district said plaintiffs should not be awarded any damages as a result of their claims.
The district asked the court to issue a judgment awarding the defendants reimbursement for the costs incurred in defending themselves , including reasonable attorneys fees.
The lawsuit asks that the plaintiffs be reinstated in the jobs they held before they were fired and that they be awarded back pay, back benefits, actual damages and compensatory damages.
No specific amount of damages was requested, but the plaintiffs said the total was greater than $200,000 and less than $1 million.
The lawsuit rejected potential claims of governmental immunity by the appraisal district, saying plaintiffs deserved fair relief “to vindicate the employees’ rights and to protect the system from abuse of power.”
The investigation Checkovage and McNeal contributed to was initiated by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to examine complaints implicating Grams in an alleged pattern of fraud, abuse and incompetence at the appraisal district.
That investigation has not been completed, officials said.