When Even the Regulations Are Bigger in Texas: Limitations on Court Deference

06 February 2019 Manufacturing Industry Advisor Blog

Manufacturers considering operations in Texas may be surprised to discover that, despite the state’s desired reputation as a “light regulation” and “free market” environment, comprehensive regulatory statutes exist for most fields of business and commerce.  Layered on top of these laws are an often voluminous set of regulations promulgated and enforced by multiple state agencies to which the legislature has usually delegated broad regulatory authority.  When a Texas state agency overreaches with rules or statutory interpretations that stretch the boundaries of the authority delegated to them by the legislature, often the only recourse for a regulated entity is to challenge the agency’s rule or interpretation in court.  Traditionally, Texas courts have given significant deference to an agency’s application of its authority.  However, in the past decade, a series of Texas Supreme Court cases have reduced the scope of deference given to state agencies.

Court opinions citing deference to agency interpretation go back as far as the 1940s.  See Stanford v. Butler, 142 Tex. 692, 181 S.W.2d 269, 273 (1944).  The Texas Supreme Court refined its interpretation of appropriate deference standards in 1991, ruling that if there is vagueness, ambiguity, or room for policy determinations in a statute or rule, the court normally defers to the agency’s interpretation unless it is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the language” of the law or rule.  See Pub. Util. Comm’n v. Gulf States Utils. Co., 809 S.W.2d 201, 207 (Tex.1991).

In a 2011 tax assessment case, the Court rejected the agency’s interpretation of law and its own regulation regarding intellectual property assets, noting that “no deference is due where an agency’s interpretation fails to follow the clear, unambiguous language of its own regulations.” TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. v. Combs, 340 S.W.3d 432, 438–39 (Tex. 2011).

In an environmental enforcement case the same year, the Court further refined the circumstances in which it would give deference to state agencies as only occurring when statutory or rule language is ambiguous, such that a term could be subject to multiple interpretations.  R.R. Comm’n of Tex. v. Tex. Citizens for a Safe Future and Clean Water, 336 S.W.3d 619, 628 (Tex. 2011).  The Court noted that Texas had never expressly adopted the federal Chevron standard for consideration of agency interpretations of statute, and that while Texas jurisprudence on deference was similar in some respects to Chevron, it was not identical and in many cases narrower.

The Texas Supreme Court reaffirmed its narrowed circumstances for agency deference in 2016, ruling in a case regarding manufacturing tax exemptions that it had “long recognized that an agency’s construction of a statute may be taken into consideration by courts when interpreting statutes, but deferring to an agency’s construction is appropriate only when the statutory language is ambiguous.  Sw. Royalties, Inc. v. Hegar, 500 S.W.3d 400, 404-05 (Tex. 1016).  The court did not mention deference to agency interpretation when “room for policy determinations” exist, in contrast with the Court’s ruling in Gulf States twenty-five years earlier.

Unlike the federal Chevron standard, Texas does not defer to state agencies when an interpretation involves questions of “deep economic and political significance.”  Texas gives no deference to informal opinions issued by agencies, and can broadly interpret whether a statute or rule is “ambiguous” or not such that deference can fairly easily be avoided.  Texas appellate courts may be more willing to defer to agencies when an interpretation is long-standing or if it involves a matter of technical expertise within an agency to which the legislature has conferred powers in “clear and express language.”  See Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. v. Adcock, 412 S.W.3d 492 (Tex. 2013).  However, given the narrowed scope of circumstances in which the Texas Supreme Court has shown willingness to defer to agency interpretations, manufacturers unsatisfied with the application of agency regulations should strongly consider challenging the agency in court as their chances of persuading the courts to overturn agency interpretations are somewhat stronger in Texas than in other jurisdictions.

This blog is made available by Foley & Lardner LLP (“Foley” or “the Firm”) for informational purposes only. It is not meant to convey the Firm’s legal position on behalf of any client, nor is it intended to convey specific legal advice. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Foley & Lardner LLP, its partners, or its clients. Accordingly, do not act upon this information without seeking counsel from a licensed attorney. This blog is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Communicating with Foley through this website by email, blog post, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship for any legal matter. Therefore, any communication or material you transmit to Foley through this blog, whether by email, blog post or any other manner, will not be treated as confidential or proprietary. The information on this blog is published “AS IS” and is not guaranteed to be complete, accurate, and or up-to-date. Foley makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the operation or content of the site. Foley expressly disclaims all other guarantees, warranties, conditions and representations of any kind, either express or implied, whether arising under any statute, law, commercial use or otherwise, including implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Foley or any of its partners, officers, employees, agents or affiliates be liable, directly or indirectly, under any theory of law (contract, tort, negligence or otherwise), to you or anyone else, for any claims, losses or damages, direct, indirect special, incidental, punitive or consequential, resulting from or occasioned by the creation, use of or reliance on this site (including information and other content) or any third party websites or the information, resources or material accessed through any such websites. In some jurisdictions, the contents of this blog may be considered Attorney Advertising. If applicable, please note that prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Photographs are for dramatization purposes only and may include models. Likenesses do not necessarily imply current client, partnership or employee status.

Related Services