SAN ANGELO, TX — Charles Hughes, whose lawsuit against Tom Green County was allowed by the Texas Supreme Court this week to move forward, said his aim is to get his family’s money back.
Hughes sued the county for reneging on its agreement with the heirs of his uncle, Duwain E. Hughes, Jr.
Duwain, Jr’s father founded a ranch on Spring Creek in Irion County and a large spread in Reagan County. Over the years, the family grew their fortune in banking, ranching, and oil and gas.
Duwain, Jr. suffered from diabetes since childhood but became an accomplished educator after earning undergrad and graduate degrees from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He taught English at San Angelo Central High School for many years. He was also an accomplished organist and supporter of the County library system.
He died in 1965.
His will left money to SMU to endow the “Duwain E. Hughes, Jr. Distinguished Chair for English.” By 1991, the endowment had the maximum amount of money permitted at the time. This prompted SMU to sue in Tom Green County to lift the restrictions Duwain, Jr’s will placed on SMU’s bequest.
Tom Green County, also a beneficiary of Duwain, Jr’s will, intervened in the lawsuit.
“My uncle's will left his brand new home, and many other valuable items, to the Tom Green County Library with the hopes it would be used as a branch library named the ‘Duwain E. Hughes, Jr. Branch Library.’ The same provision granted the County authority to outright sell the home and use the proceeds to benefit the Tom Green County Library. The residuary clause of the will provided funding for the upkeep and maintenance of Duwain's home / branch library and to fill it with books, all funded with future royalty payments after the SMU bequest had been fulfilled. However, the County chose to sell my uncle's home shortly after they acquired title back in 1965,” explained nephew Charles Hughes, who is spearheading the lawsuit against the County today.
SMU’s lawsuit to break Duwain, Jr.’s will was settled out of court in 1994. In that settlement, where Charles Hughes participated in the mediation as an attorney representing his family’s interests, the county agreed to receive half of he settlement proceeds, amounting to $500,000. The Hughes family received the other half in the same amount.
That settlement included naming rights to a new library, said Charles Hughes.
“The Tom Green County Commissioners reviewed all the available settlement documents, including the mutual partial assignment that contained the naming rights, and voted their approval in July 1994,” said Charles Hughes.
The money couldn’t come soon enough. In early 1995, a newly elected county judge and commissioners’ court discovered the elected county treasurer invested a substantial amount of the county’s general funds in “worthless inverse derivatives.” The Hughes bequest originally intended to establish a library was diverted to bail the county out.
Charles Hughes said in the mid-1990s, the real estate market and cost of construction was easier than it was 10 years later when funding for the Stephens Library was raised.
Today’s Stephens Central Library is housed in the historic Hemphill-Wells Department Store building at the corner of W. Beauregard Ave. and S. Irving St. in downtown San Angelo.
“[T]he Hemphill-Wells building had sat vacant and deteriorating for years. Back in 1994, according to the commissioners at the time, a half-million dollars would have paid for purchasing and renovating the Hemphill-Wells building (if the Commissioners decided on that option) as well as cover the cost of moving all the books and ancillary items,” wrote Charles Hughes.
The county agreed to name a library after Duwain Hughes in the 1994 negotiated settlement. The county was given the funds agreed upon, claimed Hughes. The county failed to build the library in the 1990s and by the 2000s the scope and cost of a new library project exceeded the amount of money originally given the county in return for naming rights, Hughes said.
The new library was named after Steve Stephens who raised $16.5 million, some of it his own money, to build the library we have today. According to reports from 2005, Stephens’ effort obtained 133 contributions totaling $10,000 or more from all over the region. An additional $2 million was raised to establish an endowment.
Charles Hughes recognized the scope of the new library and isn’t interested in changing its name. He said he hopes to accomplish just one thing with his lawsuit against the county.
“I want our money back,” he wrote us.
“The same way you would want your money back if you purchased something, paid for it, and the item was never delivered. That seems fair to me under the circumstances. Besides, it is not prudent to allow our government to cheat us without redress,” he said.
Charles Hughes explained more.
“The action behind my suit against the County has nothing at all to do with the current library nor its name. My suit is a simple breach of a settlement agreement suit (sort of like a breach of contract suit). I made a deal with Tom Green County to split proceeds in return for naming the main library the ‘Duwain E. Hughes, Jr. Library.’”
“Back in 1994 I had two aunts (Duwain, Jr.'s sister-in-law and his sister) who never liked the treatment of Duwain's original bequests to the County back in 1965. So they were both pleased with the settlement since it meant Duwain would finally get the recognition he wanted. Unfortunately, they both went to their graves feeling Duwain, Jr. had again been slighted by the County.
“Tom Green County headed to the May 1994 mediation thinking they would be lucky if they received $20,000 from their intervention. When the County was presented with my proposal for a settlement agreement and later an offer of half a million dollars, the County was thrilled,” he wrote us. Hughes stressed that $500,000 was quite a large sum when considering it was in 1994 dollars.
“Finally, SMU got to keep all but a million dollars of the excess the minerals had earned over the fully endowed chair and, of course, title to the minerals and the removal of any restrictions to the use of the royalties.
“So, back in 1994 everyone involved was happy,” wrote Charles Hughes.
“[T]his current suit (soon to be tried hopefully in Tom Green County) is really nothing more than my claim our agreement was breached and my request to be made whole, where I was but for the County's breach,” he said.
The action this week by the Texas Supreme Court means Charles Hughes is allowed to sue the county.
Texas Statutes shield government entities like counties and municipalities from lawsuits. For example, an individual cannot sue the City of San Angelo because the fire department didn’t show up in time to prevent his or her house from burning down.
The law is called sovereign immunity oftentimes expressed also as governmental immunity. This statute doesn’t exempt government entities from being sued at all. Instead, it requires the plaintiff to first “pierce the veil of sovereign immunity” by getting a court to agree to allow the lawsuit to be heard.
This week’s decision allows Charles Hughes lawsuit to move forward in a district court here.
“Today’s Texas Supreme Court ruling is simply that I’m allowed to have my day in court,” Charles Hughes said.
According to court documents, the County may argue that the amount of money it received was not substantial enough to include naming rights to the new library, and the 1994 agreement has a provision in it stating just that.