Nettles v. GTECH Corp. (consolidated with GTECH Corp. v. Steele)
Supreme Court of Texas (June 12, 2020)
Opinion by Justice Busby (linked here)
Concurrence and dissent by Chief Justice Hecht (linked here)
Concurrence and dissent by Justice Boyd (linked here)
In two cases from different appeals courts that were consolidated for argument, a splintered Supreme Court of Texas sent fraud claims against GTECH Corp., which operates the Texas Lottery under a contract with the Lottery Commission, back to trial courts in Dallas and Austin, holding GTECH was not protected from suit by “derivative sovereign immunity.”

The cases involved fraud claims by lottery participants based on misleading instructions on the tickets describing the criteria for winning the “Fun 5” scratch-off game. See Nettles v. GTECH Corp., 581 S.W.2d 234 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2017) (affirming trial court’s granting GTECH’s plea to the jurisdiction); GTECH Corp. v. Steele, 549 S.W.3d 768 (Tex. App.—Austin 2018) (affirming denial of jurisdictional plea on fraud claims, but reversing on conspiracy claims). The misleading language was apparently the result of changes requested, and ultimately approved, by the Commission. The two courts, applying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Brown & Gay Engineering, Inc. v. Olivares, 461 S.W.3d 117, 127 (Tex. 2015), agreed that GTECH would have derivative immunity “to the extent … Plaintiffs are substantively attacking actions and underlying decisions or directives of [the Commission] and not GTECH’s discretionary actions.” The Dallas Court in Nettles held the fraud claims against GTECH failed that test, but the Austin Court in Steele disagreed.

The Texas Supreme Court was sharply divided in addressing the doctrine of derivative sovereign immunity. The “opinion of the Court,” authored by Justice Busby and joined by only three other justices, noted the Court had not—in Brown & Gay or any other case—adopted the doctrine of derivative immunity, but held GTECH wouldn’t be immune to fraud claims even if the court were to adopt the “control standard” discussed in Brown & Gay. The opinion held, however, that GTECH was immune from claims of conspiracy and aiding and abetting fraud by the Lottery Commission, because such claims “are wholly derivative of an alleged underlying fraud by the Commission alone,” which is not a viable underlying tort on which conspiracy could be predicated.

Three justices, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Hecht, dissented from the rejection of GTECH’s immunity from fraud claims in these cases, but joined in extending immunity to the conspiracy claims. Justice Boyd, on the other hand, believed the court should reject the doctrine of derivative immunity altogether, and “reach the simple, logical conclusion that sovereign immunity only protects the sovereign.” He thus joined Justice Busby’s opinion in denying GTECH immunity on the fraud claims, but dissented from finding GTECH immune from the conspiracy claims. Justice Guzman did not participate in the decision.

Importantly, all the participating justices agree GTECH can assert a government-contractor defense to avoid liability for actions taken at the Lottery Commission’s direction, alleging “any fraud was solely the result of the Commission’s representations.” It is not, however, immune from suit on those claims.