Justice Behind the Pine Curtain, The Lawnmower Man
Let’s start with the worst moment of the case, August 2, 2018… While the Courts, District, Texas Appellate and US Federal, may view it as a voluntary filing, the Bankruptcy that was entered that day by Jerry Laza was anything but that.
At this point in the proceedings Laza was representing himself. Both Attorneys he had hired for the Civil Case filed against him in the 349th State District Court by the City of Palestine had removed themselves. Attorneys Robert Hindman of Tyler, TX, and James Mosser of Dallas, TX, both stated that Laza was wasting his money paying them to represent him in a case where they were repeatedly dismissed and overruled even when the law was in their favor. So, at this point Laza had managed to request a new trial, which was denied. Then file and prefect his Appeal filed June 4th 2018 without the assistance of an Attorney.
As his foe in the Civil Case was the City of Palestine, he had requested that they resend the need for a cash bond in the amount of his fine, $164,000, to hold off further movement of the City to enforce the Injunction and collect the fine while the case was being heard by the Appeals Court. What would it have hurt the City to wave off collections? The City operates on a budget of approximately $39 million a year. After all, once the fine was assessed, Stutes had immediately filed a lien against Laza’s property. Again, Attorney Ron Stutes was going to show absolutely no mercy. He had no restraints and he was out for BLOOD.
The post judgement motion to be heard before Judge Phifer on August 2, 2018 was a motion to have Laza incarcerated for 7 days for violation of the Injunction, buildings at 1101 W. Oak locked by the court, and while incarcerated his property at 1101 W. Oak to be seized and placed in storage until the determination of the Appeal (as of Aug 2022 the Appeal still has not been decided). Keeping in perspective this would include an acre of lawn equipment and 5,000 sq. ft. building full of machinery, tools and parts used to run his daily business. Advised by his Attorneys and Accountants, his only move to stop Stutes’ one-man attack was to file Bankruptcy. On August 2, 2018, the Bankruptcy filing put Stutes’ blundering on hold…
So, on that day, Laza’s life changed in a way he never imagined. It also became one of the strangest and most drawn-out Bankruptcy cases in the history of the Tyler Federal Bankruptcy Court. Who could have foreseen the twists and turns that the case would take? That included his Court appointed Bankruptcy Trustee passing away and the Case being tied up in the settlement of his Estate. The Courts have even referred to the case as being “snake bit”. That is a story for another time.
For now, what would be Stutes next move? He put in a motion to the 12th Appellate Court to have the Injunction separated from the Appeal so he could move forward with enforcement. As soon as he was able to file again, he did. That puts Jerry Laza again in Phifer’s Court 5 days before Christmas 2019. This time Laza has representation by his Bankruptcy Attorney, William Lively. Judge Phifer takes the parties to his chambers to consult.
Upon returning to the courtroom so that Judge Phifer could officially render his decision, Attorney Ron Stutes takes this opportunity to obtrusively say to Laza “Merry Christmas”, as they are filing back into session. The local paper even picked up that story. Ron Stutes received a tongue lashing at the next City Council meeting. In discussion between the parties, Lively, Phifer and Stutes, the Court decides that since Laza had been to Municipal Court over the same infractions and found not guilty, that there was enough cause to consider double jeopardy on the criminal penalties. Proceeding with criminal prosecution of the Injunction could essential violate Laza’s rights. Phifer states he is not ruling on the motions before him due to these uncertainties.
After proceeding this far in the Texas Court system representing yourself, how would you feel if you could not find a local Attorney that would take the case and you have been told that no matter the law no “outside” Attorney would avail? Speaking with many that practice law in areas outside of East Texas they refer to it as justice behind the “Pine Curtain”. It is rather disheartening to think that the laws, rules and regulations don’t just stand alone on their merit as it pertains to case law precedence. In appearance with ruling by the District Court in the City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza, Lawnmower Man, this statement is backed up.
Early on in the case Judge Dwight Phifer admitted that he was unfamiliar with Civil Court proceedings and totally null of Municipal Law. He told both councils that they would have to help guide him. Standing before him were two adversaries that had met each other in the Court room before. Attorneys Ron Stutes and James Mosser had been on opposing sides of the ongoing car towing scandal in the City of Dallas. Mosser had won several rulings and cases against the City of Dallas while Stutes was Assistant City Attorney in the mid 1990’s. Both extremely familiar with Municipal Law it was even more confusing that Phifer only took direction, advice or clarity from one side, and that side was not Laza’s.
From the outside, watching the case it was like the outcome had already been predetermined. Unfortunately, it seemed the Court thought Laza must be doing something extremely wrong in the eyes of the law for a City to decide to take him to court. Something so terribly wrong that the law is never on his side even when it is clearly in his favor. At one-point Mosser took Texas Local Government Code to Judge Phifer on the bench to show him the law as it is written in black and white. Phifer said “I’m not reading that”.
So, what exactly did Laza do? Not sell his property to the City at ½ its value? Did he not trade the City for property filled with poison and trash? Did his refusal deserve where he is now? Where is he now?
Well, according to public records Laza leveraged all he had worked 25 years to build. When Laza filed that Bankruptcy to keep from incurring losses he would not be able to pay and also jail time, his property and equipment, including his work truck and trailers, were foreclosed. It is by grace of his supporters that allow him to still work and maintain his business in the hopes of getting a fair break in the Appeals and Federal Court. Following the cases and rulings on those cases by multiple East Texas Courts it doesn’t seem like he can get out from behind the “Pine Curtain” justice. And while City of Palestine (Ron Stutes) vs. Jerry Laza is very much still is a part of the City of Palestine dirty deeds it has been taken over by the Texas Municipal League. It can only be imagined that a ruling in Jerry Laza’s favor would not be in their best interest.
Texas Municipal League is home to almost every City Attorney in the State of Texas. The Current City Attorney for the City of Palestine was a board member of TML. Strategic Government Resources is also an affiliate of TML and has been used to fill several vacant potions including the Police Chief/City Manager, Mike Alexander, that started the case against Jerry Laza along with Ron Stutes in 2016. What happened to Alexander you ask? While his affidavit was used as evidence, Mike Alexander, was paid by the City of Palestine $100,000 to leave town. Judge Phifer postponed the original case for 30 days while Alexander was allowed to leave town and never took the stand in a case that he claimed ownership. Why? Although he was on contract for another year Oct 2017 – Oct 2018, Judge Phifer ruled he no-longer worked for the City of Palestine. But, Attorney Ron Stutes a contract employee as well, was ruled to have full authority to file a lawsuit. The Palestine City Charter states clearly that power is only granted by an ordinance or resolution by the City Council. That is the law.
The Federal Civil Rights violation case, Laza vs. City of Palestine (Laza’s Suit against the City) is on a stay while a ruling is expected from the 6th Court of Appeals. Due to case overload Laza’s Appeal was moved from the Tyler Court of Appeals (12th) to the Texarkana Court of Appeals (6th). Unfortunately, still behind that “Pine Curtain”. Here is what should be taken into consideration, while Ron Stutes admitted that he did not have permission by the Palestine City Council, ruling from both the State District Court and the Federal Court imply that he didn’t need any. Repeat, He didn’t need any. In the Appellate Brief Laza’s Attorney quoted 10 cases with Supreme Court rulings (Case Law) that say he did. That all actions committed outside the unanimous vote of the governing body (City Council) are null and void. NULL and VOID. Why? Because the law says he does.
If this stands, the take away may be that any Texas City Attorney in any capacity could just randomly file suit against anyone they choose. The reason that there is structure and procedures within City Governments is to allow for checks and balances of power. In no capacity anywhere else in any corporate business structure does any member or employee have the sole authority to file suit against anyone. Just imagine for a minute that you are a contract employee working within a $120,000 budget. Let’s just say that job is mowing all the City property. Then you need a little extra spending cash, so you start mowing adjacent private properties and billing the City over and above. The City just pays the extra billing in the amount of an extra $400,000. It can happen, because that is exactly what Ron Stutes did.
The City should be blamed just as much as Mr. Stutes because once the additional billing outside his contracted pay started to come in, it should have been rejected, stopped and halted. The only person that has ever benefited from the filing of City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza has been Attorney Ron Stutes law firm Potter Minton. Public records showed a minimum as of December of 2019 in additional billing over the City’s set budget was $380,000.
The looming question that most would have at this point, especially if not familiar with the case is: Exactly what did Laza do or why exactly did Attorney Ron Stutes go after him? Officially the original filing in District Court by Stutes was violation of City Zoning, violation of City Ordinances and keeping livestock withing the City limits, pollution, and mosquito and rat harborage.
Normally these are issues that go to the Court that has exclusive jurisdiction, City Municipal Court. But Stutes couldn’t take the violations to Municipal Court because he had already been there with Laza on zoning, ordinances and livestock. A jury of Laza’s peers, tax paying Palestine city residents, found that Laza was operating a Lawn Mower shop, had a permit issued by the City of Palestine for outside storage and was within the 2006 charter compliance for livestock. The only new violation brought with the District Civil Case were pollution and the mosquito and rat harborage. The City’s paid EPA testing company found no pollution on Laza property in 2017 and additionally two separate inspections by licensed exterminators found no proof of any mosquitos or rodents on Laza’s property.
So, now you may be wondering why the Jury in the 2018, City of Palestine vs Jerry Laza, found Laza to be liable for all the alleged violations above and fined him approximately $164,000 in fines with the highest of those fines being $31,025 for maintaining a junk yard and as low as $365.00 for storing lawn mowers 10 feet of the property line. This was due to the fact that Judge Phifer would not allow anything that occurred before May of 2016 to be discussed or allowed as evidence. He also did not properly give the Jury instructions that they could find Laza not guilty of anything and assess a charge of zero.
The Jury did not hear how Laza came to the property in question. They did not hear how in 1989 the City of Palestine tried to take another piece of property belonging to him by condemnation. When Laza refused to cooperate with an on-going assault by City Officials to bring a 1900 building up to 1989 building codes, the City cut off his water and electricity. He operated his business with a generator and a hand dug water well for two years. Only after threatening to open a homeless shelter on the property located in the historical downtown did City Officials make the deal for Laza to move to the property located at 1101 W. Oak.
Part of the answer may be found in that “historical/main street” district designations. In 2015 the district was extended to within one block of Laza’s current location. That still leaves so many unanswered questions as to who was really behind the filing of the Lawsuit? Why was it so important to keep going after Laza, 2006 & 2016? What were they hoping to gain? How did the Court miss so many opportunities to do the right thing but was uninterested? How did the Palestine City Council continue to support rogue actions of the contracted City Attorney, Ron Stutes? Who was Ron Stutes talking to and who was advising him? That is where the real answers can be found.
Texas Public Corruption believes that there are answers to these questions and someday someone will clear them up. Until then we believe that Jerry Laza deserves a day in court where the Court actually follows the Rule of Law. A day where they can see the case for what it really is, a land grab by a bully. A day where they put things right and make it less inviting for the abuse of tax payer funds against an honest business man who was willing to make a deal with the City until Attorney Ron Stutes made sure that all communications and efforts to resolve a simple issue had to go through HIM. It is estimated that the City of Palestine has spent over a million dollars to continue to prosecute this case, almost half of that amount went to Attorney Ron Stutes. We have reviewed the Palestine City Charter and there were other avenues and procedural due process that would have resolved any and all issues for little to no cost by either party, as it should be and as things should work. But still yet, Laza sits with only the rights he can afford to defend in Court, but any Court has yet to recognize. Hmmm…
Expecting a decision from the Court of Appeals at anytime now. Stay tuned.