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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Business

After the Fatal Winter Storm, This Law Firm Wants to Hold the Utilities Accountable

| 4 weeks ago

“Dying of hypothermia in Houston” should be a meme illustrated by a comical photo of a guy in a shearling-lined winter coat shivering in an overly air-conditioned office building in the middle of August. Instead, during the statewide rolling blackouts caused by February’s crippling ice storm, it became a tragic reality as temperatures dropped to 2 degrees in Dallas (11 degrees in Houston) and outages stretched for days.

Pipes froze and people died. But a question has lingered: can anyone be held responsible? Historically, it has been near impossible to successfully sue an electric utility for damages due to blackouts. For starters, there’s the fine print. Most contracts for electrical service, called tariffs, include waivers of liability for disruptions caused by an “act of God.” The legal term is force majeure, a French phrase that literally means “greater force.” The Texas Public Utility Regulatory Act defines it to include such things as hurricanes, ice storms, natural disasters, acts of war, terrorism, or civil disturbance beyond the control of an electric utility. The theory is that you can’t predict nuclear war or extreme weather, and, even if you could, the cost of protecting against such unlikely events would make it too expensive to turn on the lights.

But what if you do have notice that it’s going to, say, get really cold? And what if you know, based on the last time it got really cold, that there are some relatively simple and inexpensive fixes, like having a space heater on hand for when a control panel starts to freeze up?

Bryan Fears, who co-founded the Dallas-based Fears Nachawati Law Firm, believes in that case, the electric utility has committed gross negligence and all bets are off. Days after the rolling blackouts finally ended, his firm filed its first lawsuit against the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and CenterPoint Energy in Harris County. The suit was brought by the daughter of Doyle Austin, a 95-year-old grandfather who died of hypothermia in his Houston home after days without power.

A few weeks later, the firm added a claim on behalf of the families of three adults from Nacogdoches who died of carbon monoxide poisoning after a generator on their front porch vibrated its way over to the wall, where it proceeded to burn a hole and slowly fill the home with noxious gas, unbeknownst to the residents trying to keep warm inside. In March, the firm filed its first suit against Oncor in Dallas County on behalf of the family of Elzie Ford. Ford’s power went out on February 15, a Monday, and it was still out that Friday when his son was finally able to navigate the icy roads. He found his father on the floor, severely frostbitten, hypothermic, and suffering “catastrophic brain damage.” Ford died the following day after being airlifted to a hospital in Waco.

The stories are heartbreaking. But I was curious about the legal reasoning behind the lawsuits. So I got on a call with Fears and Patrick Luff, an attorney at his firm involved in the suits, to find out why they think they can win and what they hope to accomplish.

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Healthcare

Say Hello to ROSA, Methodist McKinney’s Newest Robotic System

| 2 months ago

Cynthia Anderson was tired of the constant struggle. Nagging knee pain, which grew worse and worse over the course of two years, hampered the retired junior high and high school teacher’s every movement and often kept her up at night. It was on a family hiking trip that the Allen resident realized she needed to do something to alleviate her suffering.

“I was always the one at the head of the group,” the outdoor-loving Anderson says. “But a few years ago, when we were at Yosemite, just the fact that I wasn’t able to keep up with everyone else—and a couple of times I had to actually sit down and let them go on farther—that was what made me decide I didn’t want to be like that anymore.”

Anderson’s frustration with no longer being able to lead the active life she wanted led her to undergo two total knee replacement surgeries, in April and July 2020, at Methodist McKinney Hospital. But she didn’t just put her trust in the doctors’ hands. They had the help of ROSA.

Zimmer Biomet’s Robotic Surgical Assistant knee replacement system, or ROSA, helps doctors create a surgery plan that optimizes implant placement and incision points. It also provides surgeons with instant feedback on the alignment and ligament balancing of the implant throughout the surgery.

While it may seem like something out of science fiction, ROSA is real and is readily available to patients in Collin County. Methodist McKinney Hospital began using ROSA in January 2020, and its implementation has been a great benefit to patients there. “It was like switching from a flip phone to an iPhone,” says Joe Minissale, president of Methodist McKinney. “It was quite an advancement.”

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News

At Collin College, a Collision Over Free Speech

| 2 months ago

In an email sent to faculty March 15, Collin College President Neil Matkin reflected on what he called a “difficult, challenging year.” The pandemic forced the community college to move all classes online about a year ago. But during the summer, with COVID-19 case numbers at then record highs, Matkin announced his decision to resume holding most classes in person that fall.

The effects of the pandemic had been “utterly blown out of proportion,” he said at the time. Some professors opposed aspects of the reopening, asking that more classes be kept online to protect students and staff. They made their case in a resolution. Matkin disagreed with much of it, pointing toward the health protocols the college was enforcing, including requiring masks and social distancing. The 10 campuses, which have a total enrollment of nearly 60,000 students, effectively reopened.

Then in November, Iris Meda, a 70-year-old nursing teacher at Collin College, died after contracting COVID-19. Her family has said they believe she was infected at work. Her death, along with Matkin’s response—he told faculty members one of their colleagues had died of a contagious virus nearly two-dozen paragraphs into an email with a subject line of “College Update & Happy Thanksgiving!”—led to renewed criticism of the college’s handling of COVID-19.

It also deepened the tension brewing between some faculty members and the college’s president. The first signs of trouble go back years, but a new front was opened in the last several months, when the college moved to dismiss three professors who had criticized the college’s reopening. All women, two of them were members of the local chapter of a non-bargaining union. One had been reprimanded in 2017 for signing her name and college affiliation to a letter asking for the removal of Confederate monuments in Dallas. Another had scrapped with Matkin in the fall over a tweet in which she said then Vice President Mike Pence should shut “his little demon mouth up.”

Elected Republicans, including Collin County Judge Chris Hill and state Rep. Jeff Leach, have publicly supported the college’s administration. Internet pundits have perceived some irony in what appears to be a case of liberal college professors fearing retribution from what they understand to be a conservative administration. (At other higher learning institutions, debate more often revolves around whether professors are progressive enough.)

For months now, the college has been at the center of a battle over free speech, labor rights, and the politicization of a public health crisis. A neat resolution seems unlikely. Last week, a fourth professor said she was unfairly being pushed from her position. Matkin, the final word on faculty contract renewals, approved her non-renewal as he had with the other three professors. And the faculty members and advocates demanding that the professors be reinstated have grown more outspoken as the fight drags on. At a board of trustees meeting last week, one speaker called Matkin a “disease destroying the college.”

History professor Michael Phillips, one of Matkin’s fiercest critics, portrays what’s been happening at Collin College as a social and political struggle. He describes it as a “purge,” calling it part of an administrative effort to prevent Collin County students from embracing progressive ideals.

“The students aren’t at all invested in the political status quo because it may not benefit all the students,” Phillips says. “So you might get some young radicals when they go to college and learn about labor history, or they learn about lynching. … These ideals might radicalize them. I think the political establishment at the college wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

And it all comes back, again and again, to Neil Matkin.

“The college has entered into a very grim and ominous phase in terms of the administration,” Phillips says. “Since the current president took office, in 2015, there’s been a creeping authoritarianism that has become a galloping authoritarianism.”

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Coronavirus

One Year Later: How Dallas Hospitality Staff Worked Amid a Pandemic

| 3 months ago

This month marks the one-year anniversary of COVID flipping restaurants inside out. Dining rooms and bars closed. When Texas felt like reopening businesses again, food sector employees strapped themselves into a rollercoaster of protocols that seemed to rotate like daily menu specials. Last spring we checked with workers on Dallas’ food front line and found nervous workers pushed into a corner: going into work meant accepting risk of exposing themselves and their families to a highly contagious virus.

The hospitality industry still bobbed and weaved with every unpredictable punch. As we know, some restaurants were knocked out indefinitely or permanently.

After a very long year of this, we’ve reached out to workers in the food and drink sector again. Everyone who was interviewed for this story has been put through the wringer this year, but most maintain a hopeful outlook. (Only one requested full anonymity, which was a change from the last time we did this project: few felt comfortable speaking out.) Many have grappled with their mental health. Others have recovered from COVID themselves. Some even fell in love—amid the loneliest of times. These are their stories, edited for length and clarity. 

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Real Estate

Why Is It So Hard For Dallas to Address Affordable Housing?

| 4 months ago

When he was in college, Michael Geblein wrote “Rent” on a piece of tape and stuck it on a jar where he put his loose change. It was a joke until it wasn’t. Early last year, he had to dip into it.

Geblein, 26, earns a salary of $48,000 at his marketing gig in Dallas. Rent for his Uptown apartment is more than $1,800, over half his monthly income after taxes. Before the pandemic, he drove Uber to make extra cash, but he stopped in March. By May, he cashed in his change to pay rent. Shortly after, he created an account with DoorDash.

“I had to do something,” he says, “and delivering food seems safer than driving strangers.”

Geblein is planning to move north of Dallas, knowing it will extend his commute. He says he’s struggled to find other housing options he can afford in the city. He is hardly alone. The Nelson family has already moved. Mark, a 32-year-old EMT, and Sarah, a 31-year-old social worker, work in Dallas and commute about 45 miles from their home in Farmersville, where they live with their two children.

“We just couldn’t find a big enough home in our price range,” Mark says. “The drive can be tough, but it’s what we have to do.”

Stories like these are part and parcel to Dallas’ ongoing struggle with affordable housing. Since acknowledging a shortage of 20,000 units in 2018, the city’s varied efforts to address that deficit haven’t worked. Plans to deliver as many as 6,000 units per year over the last three years were stymied in part by audits, corruption, controversy, and market forces the city has struggled to control.

Dallas is low on land, and affordable options for middle-income residents are becoming harder to find. The future looks bleak for the Gebleins and Nelsons of Dallas: people who earn a decent living yet can’t afford housing in the city where they work.

“People on council and people I talk to in my district are realizing that the middle group is the one we need to be focusing on,” says Chad West, the North Oak Cliff representative who was until recently the chair of the Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee. “They’ve seen the numbers, and quite frankly, they’ve seen how scary the future looks. They know we need a change.”

Several developers and city employees interviewed for this story say there are steps Dallas can take to incentivize development for the middle class. But doing so requires willpower, creativity, the reining in of city council influence, and bringing in lots and lots of money.

“Our housing department has a $20 million budget,” says David Noguera, the city’s director of Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. “$20 million doesn’t get you very far.”

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