Hall v. McRaven

Supreme Court of Texas, No. 16‐0773 (January 27, 2017) 

Justice Devine (Opinion linked here); Justice Willett (Concurring); Justice Guzman (Concurring); Justice Lehrmann (Concurring); Justice Brown (Concurring)

In the context of a squabble within the University of Texas administration, the Supreme Court of Texas sought to clarify the ultra vires exception to sovereign immunity. The Court first explained how to determine whether a subordinate or higher official should be named as a defendant. The Court also held an official’s misinterpretation of a particular law is not ultra vires if the official has unconstrained discretion to interpret that law.

An independent investigation revealed underqualified students had been admitted to UT Austin after influential individuals intervened on their behalf. Hall, a regent of the University of Texas System, asked McRaven, the UT System’s chancellor, for the documents underlying the investigation. This raised concerns under FERPA, a federal privacy law that protects certain student information but contains an exception for an official with a “legitimate educational interest.” UT’s Board of Regents adopted a two-step process. First, McRaven would provide Hall the documents, redacting information McRaven determined to be FERPA-protected. Then, Hall could provide reasons he was entitled to specific information, and the Chairman of the Board of Regents would determine whether the FERPA exception applied.

Hall sued McRaven, but not Hall’s fellow Regents, asserting an unfettered right to the unredacted records. He argued McRaven’s refusal to provide the records was ultra vires. An exception to sovereign immunity, an ultra vires claim requires a plaintiff to allege a state official acted without legal authority or failed to perform a purely ministerial act. If a law gives an official some discretion to interpret or apply it, an official may nonetheless act ultra vires if he exceeds the authority given to him or acts in conflict with the law. The courts below held McRaven was immune from suit and the ultra vires exception did not apply.

The Supreme Court first addressed whether McRaven was the proper party for Hall’s ultra vires suit. If a higher official deprives a subordinate official of all discretion regarding a particular act, an ultra vires suit cannot lie against the subordinate for performing that act. The Court held Hall’s ultra vires suit was properly brought against McRaven in only one narrow respect: the first step of the procedure gave McRaven discretion to interpret FERPA. But Hall’s broader indictments—that he had an unfettered right to access the information and that FERPA was categorically inapplicable to his requests—were complaints about limits imposed by the Board of Regents. If Hall wished to challenge these limits, he needed to bring an ultra vires suit against the Regents, not McRaven.

The Court then held McRaven’s alleged misinterpretation of FERPA was not ultra vires. In prior ultra vires cases, the Court had stated an official generally lacks discretion to misinterpret the law. The Court found these cases distinguishable for two reasons. First, the prior cases addressed an interpretation of the law that enabled the official to act; here, McRaven was empowered to interpret FERPA, a collateral law. Second, in at least one prior case, the official’s exercise of discretion was subject to explicit constraints; here, McRaven was simply tasked with interpreting FERPA without any express limitations on his authority. The Court concluded McRaven had “absolute” authority to interpret FERPA. Accordingly, McRaven’s alleged misinterpretation was not ultra vires, and McRaven was entitled to have the case against him dismissed on immunity grounds.

The Court was unanimous in its analysis of the ultra vires issue. Four justices wrote separate concurrences, however, to address the merits of the dispute over Hall’s ability to access the records, even though his claims against McRaven were barred at the threshold.