IS THE GOVERNMENT SELLING LAWNMOWER MAN’S CIVIL RIGHTS BACK TO THE GOVERNMENT?
by JOHNNIE BELLE REAGAN
Cleaning my ears, just to re-listen to make sure I was hearing it correctly. The City of Palestine is being allowed by the Bankruptcy Trustee to present a deal to “buy” their way of the District Court’s Judgment being Appealed and the Civil Rights Violation Case being heard. The bigger question; how does one entity of the government “sell” your constitutional rights to another entity that violated them? If I had to be a bet, the price is very low…
Much to the surprise of all parties involved, including Laza’s Bankruptcy Attorney, reported during the Palestine City Council Meeting on March 23, 2020 the City Attorney announced that they had come to a Compromised Settlement Agreement with the Trustee of Jerry Laza’s Bankruptcy. During his statement Gary Landers, Palestine’s new City Attorney, mentions this agreement will allow the City to bring settlement of both outstanding cases, the Appeal and Federal Civil Rights Suit.
I have been following this case and have yet not to be astonished at the outcomes. From the very beginning the laws have been on Jerry Laza’s side. When I was told that the Courts don’t follow the laws, I was naive and thought that can’t be true. Then when the verdict of City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza seemed completely wrong, I was told by legal advisers what is why we have the Court of Appeals.
It was a miracle that Jerry Laza, Lawnmower Man, was able to make it to the Appeals Court. When it came time for the Appeal, Laza was representing himself and the deadlines to file are strictly observed and easily missed by a layman. Second, the cost is astronomical. Court records and transcripts from the Court Reporter alone can be a back breaker. Laza’s documents are said to have cost in excess of $16,000. Laza beat the odds; he filed the Appeal on time and was able to scrape together the funds. He also pre-paid for the Brief to be written. This making the Appeal paid in full. The odds were not in his favor, but that wasn’t the first time he had been under estimated. The major cost that kills most Appeals is the need for a cash bond. Laza’s bond would be $164,000 and prove to be the biggest obstacle.
Let’s answer the easy questions. Should the Case have ever been filed against Laza? Simply, NO. One, the process laid out in the Palestine City Charter did not allow the actions that took place. It didn’t allow for a lawsuit to be filed by the City Manager or City Attorney without permission from the City Council by ordinance or resolution. There is none. But that pesky rule didn’t stop the City Attorney Ron Stutes. On June 9th 2016 the City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza was filed in the 349th District Court. While Stutes filed without the permission of City the Council he would later, on the stand under oath in post-trial hearings, say, “They didn’t tell me to stop”. This is where our representatives the Palestine City Council, Laza’s representative, should have stopped the law suit. They did not. Fact is they are being charged with violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act in the Civil Rights Case. It is the presumption that in the closed session on Monday June 27, 2016 their non-actions implied Ron Stutes to proceed or they agreed because an amount of cost was discussed.
Did the City have grounds to file the Civil Suit? Simply, NO. The ability to file a Civil Law Suit under Texas Local Government Code had never been adopted into the Palestine City Charter. Home-rule Municipality powers come from the State Codes that have been incorporated into the City Charter. TLG Code 54.012 has not been adopted into the Palestine City Charter. This code allows a City to abate public health and safety hazards. An example where this code has been adopted and used effectively by City’s like Dallas and Fort Worth is citing and prosecuting slum lords. There has been no proof presented that Laza’s business was either a health or safety hazard and frankly doesn’t fit the examples. Statement within that particular Code about zoning might be stretched, but I would have to say a desperately long reach… Palestine City Charter already has a process which due process and checks and balances that were not used.
Was District Court the proper place for the suit? Another, NO. According to the Texas Judicial System, Municipal Courts have exclusive jurisdiction over ordinance violations subject to criminal misdemeanor charges and fines. The City of Palestine had already taken this case to Municipal Court where Laza requested a Jury trial and the outcome was in his favor. Municipal Court was no longer available to the City as in Criminal Court we have those pesky double jeopardy rules. Most all of Palestine’s Ordinances are covered by this enforcement, some ordinances don’t even have enforcement clauses rendering them ineffective.
So, now you should be wondering how the City of Palestine obtained a Judgment against a small business and private property owner without authority to file, without the law (code) and where the case had already been tried in the Court that had exclusive jurisdiction, the Municipal Court of Law. We have to go back to the beginning where I stated the Courts don’t follow the Law, which is why you can Appeal. Early on it was reported that the original City of Palestine, Attorney Ron Stutes, billed the City for 8 hours researching how to keep the original District Judge Fletcher, when she was asked to recuse herself due to valid conflicts. Then retired Judge Phifer was handpicked to oversee the case. Should who hears the case in a supposedly non-prejudicial court really matter? I guess it does if the Judge’s rulings don’t follow the law…
So, you can only imagine how District Court proceedings went, most all the Court ruling going in favor of the City. Judge Phifer admittedly remarked early on that his back ground was mostly criminal and he knew nothing about Municipal Law. From the start where Laza was warned that bringing in his “outside” Attorney was going to make “everyone” mad & “it was a bad idea” to pre-trial court rulings that blocked Laza’s defenses. He was barred from being able to advise the Jury that he had already been to Court with a favorable outcome, that he had approached the City with an offer before the Case was filed. He was blocked from letting the Jury hear how the Case was filed without permission from the tax payer’s representative, the City Council, and filed outside the scope of authority. The “Motion in Limine” granted to the City barring Laza’s defenses and mentioning anything that happened prior to May 2016, infringed on the vested property rights solidified in the original Municipal Court proceeding. But again, that is why we can Appeal.
Ironically Laza’s Attorney James Mosser and Palestine’s City Attorney Ron Stutes had meet back in Stutes days as Assistant City Attorney for Dallas. They were both versed well in Municipal Law. It seemed to me watching Mosser he was versed in law and Stutes was versed in re-interpreting the law to fit his narrative. Mosser put up good fight for what was right but was overruled many times. He would just walk away shaking his head… The days I sat in on the case were comical and sad at the same time. I had been told an out of town Attorney wouldn’t win in Anderson County. I was also told outcomes were decided at the watering hole. Based on the outcome, I believe it. It gave a whole new meaning to East Texas Kangaroo Court. I was looking forward to the Appeal.
Even before the District Court Trial began Laza’s Attorney, James Mosser, filed a Writ of Mandamus asking for the Appeals Court to review the pre-trial ruling on Motion 12, failure to show Authority. The Appeal Court issued a “Stay” on September 18, 2017. The District Court ignored the “stay” from the Appellate level and proceeded with the trial. On January 2, 2018 the 12th Appellate Court of Texas issued a ruling on the Writ of Mandamus. The answer stated clearly in black and white that neither the 349th District Court nor the 12 Appellate Court had Jurisdiction over the City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza as the Case in its entirety had been moved to the Federal Civil Court in Tyler Texas on September 18, 2018 by the City of Palestine. At this point you are probably asking yourself what every Attorney I have showed this to asks, “How is there a ruling and Judgment in a Case that the Court no longer retained Jurisdiction?” Well, again that is why our system allows us to Appeal.
Even though a successful Appeal had been filed, Laza had been unable to secure a cash Supersedes Bond in the amount of the fine, $164,000. Laza, representing himself, made a request to the City Attorney to wave the need for the bond. The Attorneys, Jim Hankins and Ron Stutes, advised that it wasn’t in their client’s best interest, so they would not ask the City Council. A motion was then filed by the City Attorney’s to execute the Judgment and further fine along with taking all of Laza’s assets in receivership and lock him out of buildings, the place he operates his businesses. That case being heard on August 3, 2018, forced Laza to use the only legal action to stop the City and that was file Bankruptcy.
The property was what the City of Palestine wanted. From the very first time we hear about City Attorney Ron Stutes approaching City Manager Wendy Ellis in 2014 about suing Laza and then again approaching 2015 Mayor Bob Herrington to take the land by emanate domain with a suggestion of placing a Police Substation at the location. It has always been about the property at 1101 West Oak. When Attorney Ron Stutes couldn’t get agreement, he just finally filed it himself in 2016. The question has to be asked if this law suit wasn’t a ploy to keep Ron Stutes/Potter Minton as the City had been in search of new Council. Stutes remained for two more years pocketing an estimated $400,000 on this law suit alone.
During Laza deposition in 2017, Attorney Ron Stutes asked Laza why his property wasn’t listed on his financials as an asset. See, Jerry Laza had a Deed of Trust and Promissory Note on the Property. It had a lien holder. The City has known this from early on in the process, way before the Trial. During Civil Case discovery early in 2017 was made aware and then later presented with a copy of that Deed of Trust. Before you went through all of this, if you had any value in property, wouldn’t you use that property to secure a bond before you filed Bankruptcy? Just think…
Witnessing the ongoing injustice a concerned supporters sent Laza a life line. Knowing he could not keep up his loan payments on the property the offer was made that after a conveyance, which didn’t devalue the original Deed of Trust, his payments would be made for him until the Court process was completed. Unfortunately due to the Bankruptcy filing that transaction was unable to be completed and the original lien holder was forced to rightfully foreclose on the property February 5, 2019. The property was never included in the Bankruptcy due to the fact Laza did not and never owned the property. The City of Palestine was well aware but still pursued the property through the bankruptcy proceedings. The State of Texas does not require Deed of Trust to be filed at the County Court House. Since the beginning of the Bankruptcy the City representatives have tried to discredit the Deed. Again with efforts to take something that rightfully belongs to another without paying. I mean, paying everyone but the rightful owner.
After exhausting all legal avenues and unable to secure the cash bond, Laza filed for Bankruptcy on the eve of the August 3, 2018 Court hearing. City Attorney Ron Stutes’ motion before the court was charging additional fines, appointing receivership and asking for 7 days in jail. If Stutes had been able to get a favorable Court ruling on the Receivership, and why not most other rulings went his way, Laza’s property would have been seized and held in storage. By chance, if Laza lost the Appeal he would have been responsible for those storage charges. The process isn’t meant to be fair, it is meant to break you. It hints to me that Stutes was pouring salt into an open wound to force Laza into a corner. If he could provoke Laza into a criminal charge, it would change the whole course of the proceedings.
According to Laza after consulting with several legal advisors and subject matter experts that all advised the only legal option to stop Ron Stutes crusade was to file Bankruptcy. He states that he knew so little about what it meant to file bankruptcy and what a Chapter 7 included, he woke up the Monday after the hearing and paid his credit card payment. He not only continued to make those payments but he also paid on his bank loan. It wasn’t until a week later that he even met with his Bankruptcy Attorney. Jerry Laza commented that his intent was to not pay his valid creditors but just to stop the on-going assault of the City Attorney Ron Stutes and Jim Hankins until the Appeal could be heard.
So Jerry Laza now finds himself almost 4 years into an unlawful lawsuit battle that has resulted in a Bankruptcy that has lasted 1 year and 8 months. The threat of Bankruptcy Fraud has loomed with our legal advisors saying it is a scare tactic unfounded in any law. Scary none the less, but on up note it would be a criminal charge with representation provided at no cost. That Attorney might do more for him than all the ones he has paid.
All that has happened might be a symptom of the fact that the City of Palestine allowed Attorney Ron Stutes to represent them while he was not a Bankruptcy Attorney. The result of Stutes representation allowed the $164,000 fine to be discharged because Stutes failed to give an objection. In a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy the Trustee can take all your assets, liquidate them and distribute the funds amount the creditors. Is the City of Palestine actually still a creditor since the fine was discharged and the Judgement is being appealed?
Most all of the Palestine City Employees that were involved in the start of the case are gone. Ron Stutes was fired as Palestine City Attorney in March of 2019 in relations to another law suit that the City knew nothing about, alluding to a repeated issue. He is also no longer with the Law Firm Potter Minton as of this last year. Hmmm…
If I didn’t know it was happening I would have to say it was a lie. Here in a nutshell, the Bankruptcy Trustee is allowing the City to make an offer to buy their way out of a gross abuse of and individual Civil Rights. Summing up the facts is Jerry Laza a tax paying citizen and you, a tax paying citizen, have helped fund the City of Palestine’s (Government) pursuit to grossly violate his rights to due process, an unreasonable search and seizure, to speedy trial, confront an accuser (the City paid a witness to leave town and not testify), double jeopardy or res adjudicata (no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law), excessive fines (they used the State Code, City structure does not allow the fine structure used) and individual private property rights.
Is Jerry Laza special? Believing his case is the only one like this in the State of Texas is hard. I’m almost certain that this has happened to other property owners and business owners. You might consider this case special since it is probably the only one that has made it this far and it was well on the way to making Case Law. Now it seems like one of the biggest lobbying groups can’t and won’t let that happen. And unbeknownst to any municipal property tax paying resident they are doing it with your funding. See, the City of Palestine’s new Attorney Gary Landers was on the board of the Texas Municipal League. This is the same entity that lobbied the 2019 Texas legislation against passing the bill that allowed property owners to vote on annexation. Most Cities in Texas pay with tax funds to members of TML. Those tax fund support TML’s existence and then they use your money to lobby against you and private property rights. What will forever be known as the Lawnmower Man Case was well on its way to make Case Law and put some of that power back in the hands of the property owner.
Something truly disturbing is going on here and if the common tax paying resident, property owner, small business operator and voter doesn’t stand-up and take notice your right to live in peace and harmony in your own communities will be gone. Not only will your rights be gone to control your private property, you will be paying a premium just to have other dictate without oversight. Because who are you going to complain? The chain of command hasn’t heard Jerry Laza’s cries for help. Not the County DA, she just didn’t feel interested. Nor the Texas Rangers or FBI who have divisions to investigate public officials, they don’t think it sounds right but, they would have to wait for that call from the County District Attorney… It is a vicious circle where the Municipal Government answers to no-one.
Ask yourself how can one entity of the government sell your Constitutional Rights to another entity of the government vacating an Appeal that is paid in full and a Civil Rights Violation Case filed in Federal Court, but leave an unconstitutional (being appealed) injunction intact? Does the City even have a claim on a discharged fine and an appealed Judgement? The Palestine City Council, the tax payer representative, should have stopped this the minute they found out it was filed without an ordinance or resolution and frankly I don’t think they should be able to buy their way out…
This Case is on the Palestine City Council Agenda April 13, 2020. You can send in a comment to be read:
Email the Palestine City Council:
firstname.lastname@example.org Steve Presley (until the recently he used his personal email)
email@example.com Larrisa Loveless
firstname.lastname@example.org Mitchell Jordan
email@example.com Vickey Chivers
firstname.lastname@example.org Joe Baxter
email@example.com Dana Goolsby
firstname.lastname@example.org Ann Conner
STOP THE INJUSTICE!