Buyer’s Remorse: Challenging MSAs, Opinions, Sept. 21, 2017

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released a published opinion this morning, In re C.C.E., No. 14-16-00571-CV, on the revocability of MSAs.

Four years after mother and father divorced, the mother filed a mod seeking changes in visitation and child support. The parents attended mediation and signed a binding, irrevocable MSA which included an expanded SPO, an injunction against corporal punishment, communication through OFW, changes to the rights and duties, and designating the child’s elementary school. The MSA also included a provision which barred the mother from seeking an increase in child support for at least 13 months. The parties then signed an agreed order, stating they agreed to the order in form and substance.

Two and a half months later, and before the trial court had signed the agreed order, the mother sought to revoke her consent to the agreement. After a hearing, the trial court signed the agreed order. There was no reporter’s record from the hearing. (If you’re like me, this is the point at which you just know in your appellate guts that this is going to be affirmed)*

The trial court also issued findings of fact and conclusions of law which the mother did not challenge on appeal. These FF/CL include the MSA is valid under TFC 153.0071(d), that the mother’s claims of domestic violence predate not only her signing the proposed agreed order but the prior order, and that there was no allegation that domestic violence occurred any time pertinent to or during the suit or mediation.

In her motion for new trial, the mother argued: 1) the MSA–and thus the agreed order–was void because it restricted the parties’ right to seek changes in child support; 2) the MSA contained language making it subject to the court’s approval and thus the mother could withdraw her consent before the order was signed; and 3) the MSA was made due to undue influence caused by prior family violence and she was not able to present evidence on the family violence allegations. The MNT was overruled by operation of law and mother appealed.

On appeal, the mother alleged issues which echoed her MNT: 1) the MSA is void because the child support freeze provision is illegal and against public policy; 2) the MSA’s provision that it was subject to the trial court’s approval allowed her to revoke her consent; 3) and that the trial court may not refuse to hear evidence of alleged family violence after the parties have agreed upon an MSA.

On the first issue, the COA presumed, without deciding, that the child support freeze was illegal and violated public policy. But that does not make the entire MSA void, even though the MSA lacked a severability clause. Generally, if a provision in an agreement is illegal or violates public policy, that provision may be severed if it does not constitute the essential purpose of the agreement. The mother did not assert on appeal that the freezing provision cannot be severed and leave the rest of the agreement enforceable. As such, the mother did not brief the point and waived the argument on appeal.

Regarding mother’s argument that she could withdraw her consent to the MSA before the final order was signed because the MSA was “subject to the Court’s approval,” the COA (not surprisingly) disagreed as she could not revoke her consent to an MSA that complied with 153.0071(d).

Finally, regarding the trial court’s refusal to hear evidence on the family violence exception, the COA noted that the mother did not point to any place in the record where the trial court denied her the opportunity to present the evidence and thus the error was not preserved.

The trial court was affirmed.

*  I feel like this should be called something like the Point of No Return or the Breaking Point, because it is the inflection point at which the reason and facts gather momentum to the inescapable conclusion.

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Is It All in the Timing or the Pleading? Res Judicata & Child Support Enforcement, Opinions, Sept. 19, 2017

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released its memorandum opinion this morning in In re J.A.L., C.C.L., Jr., C.N.L. & M.R.L., No 14-16-00614-CV, concerning res judicata of enforcement suits. It is also yet another win for friend-of-the-blog, Janice Berg!

Mother and father divorced in October 2008. Father was ordered to pay $5,000/mo in child support. Mother brought her first enforcement suit on April 9, 2013, alleging father failed to make 54 monthly child support payments from November 1, 2008 through April 1, 2013 and requesting he be held in contempt for these violations. The motion also included four future monthly payments (from May through August 2013). A hearing was held on March 3, 2014 at which the trial court granted mother’s motion, finding father in contempt on all 58 violations, and signed a judgment for the arrearages. The order listed 58 unpaid months and concluded that as of August 1, 2013, father owed $168,750.00 plus interest in child support. The order also included a Mother Hubbard clause, that all relief not requested is denied.

Mother filed a second contempt proceeding on July 31, 2015, seeking relief for father’s failure to make child support payments from September 1, 2013, through March 1, 2014. Father filed a motion to dismiss the matter on the grounds of res judicata, alleging that the violations for the seven months before the March 3, 2014, hearing should have been heard  at that hearing. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss and mother appealed.

Mother made four arguments on appeal:  (1) res judicata does not apply because these claims were not litigated and could not have been litigated in the first enforcement proceeding; (2) Father did not meet his summary judgment burden; (3) notice requirements applicable to enforcement proceedings foreclosed Mother’s ability to recover in the first enforcement proceeding for the September 2013-March 2014 arrearages; and (4) recent decisions from the Supreme Court of Texas limit the use of affirmative defenses in enforcement proceedings. The Court of Appeals agreed the first won the day and thus it need not reach the others.

The elements of res judicata are:

1. There is a prior judgment on the merits by a court of competent
jurisdiction;
2. the party currently asserting a claim was also a party to the prior action
or was in privity with a party to the prior action; and
3. the current claims were raised, or could have been raised, in the prior
action.

Mother conceded father met the first two elements, but disputed the third.

Father argued the enforcement motion request for contempt based on prospective violations shows that the September-March arrearages were litigated in the first enforcement proceeding. The COA rejected this argument because: 1) the motion only named the four violations from May through August 2013; 2) the reference to prospective violations was included in the motion’s request for contempt and contempt and money judgment are separate remedies; and 3) the order specifically stated the judgment was for arrearages through August 1, 2013, not prospective violations.

The father also argued the March 2014 order’s Mother Hubbard clause established that the Spetember-March arrearages were litigated in the first enforcement proceeding. The COA rejected this argument because the Supreme Court of Texas has advised courts to exercise caution when attaching significance to Mother Hubbard clauses that are “open to interpretation.” Because the order specifically stated the judgment was for arrearages “as of August 1, 2013,” concluding that the September-March months were litigated as well was a bridge too far.

Father also argued res judicata applied because the September-March months could have been heard in March but mother effectively forever waived her rights to do so when they were not. The COA held that these arrearages were not mature when the first enforcement proceeding was filed in April 2013. (“Res judicata precludes the litigation of related claims that were mature at the time an earlier lawsuit was filed.”). Conversely, res judicata does not bar a claim that was not mature at the time the earlier proceeding was filed. The key date for maturity here is the date of filing, not the date of hearing. The COA further noted Section 157.002(e) of the Texas Family Code provides a movant “may allege repeated past violations of the order and that future violations of a similar nature may occur before the date of the hearing.” (emphasis added) The COA found this language was permissive, and that mother had the option of asserting future violations when she filed her first enforcement proceeding and she did so, but she did so for only four future months, not all months prior to hearing. The COA found that father’s argument would require a movant to assert every future occurrence before the hearing, an interpretation the COA found was contrary to the discretionary language of 157.002(e).

The COA reverse the trial court’s order granting the father’s motion to dismiss and remanded for further proceedings.

Supervised Visitation & Judgment Nunc Pro Tunc: Opinions, Sept. 12, 2017

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released a published opinion and a memorandum opinion this morning. The published opinion is on supervised visitation and the memorandum opinion is yet another installment in the Reynolds Saga, which I previously blogged about here and here and here.

In In re A.G. & A.F.G., No. 14-16-00341-CV, a father challenged the trial court’s modification order which required the father’s visitation be supervised and the denial of his motion for enforcement against the mother.

Mother and father were divorced in Austin County in 2006. Under the decree, mother had primary custody of their two children and father had an SPO. In 2014, the father filed a modification seeking primary custody of the son who had not yet aged out. After a hearing, the trial court entered TO awarding primary custody to the father. The case was then transferred to Harris County. In March 2015, the parties entered into a Rule 11 agreement under which the child returned to live with the mother as primary and father had a SPO. But in his first amended petition, the father reiterated his request for primary. In her second amended petition, the mother requested the father be denied access to the children or, alternatively, supervised because he posed a danger to the children’s physical and emotional well-being. In November 2015, the father filed a motion for contempt, alleging the mother had been preventing his visitation with the children under the Rule 11 agreement.

The case was tried in March 2016. A licensed professional counselor testified she had made a written report to CPS regarding allegations of the father beating the children. The father denied having struck the children. The mother testified to having observed bruises on the child when he returned from visitation with the father and that the children had told her that the father beat them. The children conferred with the judge in chambers. At the end of trial, the judge ruled the father’s visitation needed to be supervised and denied the father’s enforcement.

The COA noted that the record indicated findings of fact were not requested or entered and therefore the court must infer that the trial court made all findings necessary to support its judgment (reading between the lines: no dice for appellant). Because there was some evidence of the father posing a physical danger to the children which was legally and factually sufficient, the ruling was affirmed.

In his second issue, the father alleged the trial court abused its discretion by denying his motion for enforcement and granting the mother’s motion for judgment which evidently objected to the father’s motion for enforcement as not complying with the statutory requirements of an enforcement motion. At trial and before signing the judgment, the trial court had questioned whether the father’s motion met the requirements of TFC 157.002. The COA found the motion was deficient in several ways (it did not identify the provisions of the decree allegedly violated, or state the times and locations in which the order was violated). The father also filed a supplemental motion which also failed to provide the date, place, time, or manner of noncompliance for each alleged violation. The father argued that the mother waived these objections by not filing special exceptions, but the COA noted that these deficiencies were “the very subject of” the mother’s motion for judgment.

Both of father’s issues were overruled and the trial court was affirmed.

In In re Reynolds, No. 14-17-00614-CV, the COA partially granted and partially denied a petition for writ of mandamus.

The parties, Wilma and David Reynolds, were divorced in July 2008. A final decree was signed in May 2009. Wilma appealed the property division and the COA affirmed it because Wilma had waived her right to appeal by accepting the benefits of that judgment. More than eight years after the decree was signed, she filed a motion for judgment nunc pro tunc in July 2017 asking the trial court to modify certain provisions of the decree based on alleged clerical errors which, she argued, did not conform to the trial court’s pronouncement of judgment at trial. David responded, asking the trial court to deny the motion and to impose sanctions on Wilma and her attorney for prosecuting an allegedly frivolous case. After a hearing, the trial court denied Wilma’s motion and granted David’s motion, ordering Wilma’s attorney to pay a penalty and attorney’s fees in the amount of $40,000.

The COA observed that the law states that proof of a difference between the judgment rendered and the judgment entered is not enough to require correction by JNPT; there must also be a fact finding, support by evidence of the trial judge’s personal recollection, that the variance resulted from clerical error.

Wilma asserts the oral division of property differed from the written judgment as to four different categories of property. After examining each category, the oral pronouncement, the findings of fact and conclusions of law and the written decree, the COA disagreed on each and affirmed the trial court.

Turning to the sanctions order, the opinion paused to examine the parties and the procedural posture. Specifically, the sanctions order is predicated on conduct of Wilma and her attorney and, though not crystal clear, it appears to impose sanctions on both Wilma and her attorney. But Wilma was the only named relator in the mandamus petition and Wilma only has standing to challenge the sanctions awarded against her. That is, because her attorney did not seek appellate review in his own capacity, the COA can only address the sanctions order as it relates to Wilma.

Nonetheless, a trial court cannot enter a sanctions order after its plenary jurisdiction has expired and the trial court’s plenary jurisdiction had long since expired in this case and thus the sanctions order was void.

Will this be the end of the Reynolds Saga? Time will tell.

2 Weddings, 2 Divorces, & a Bill of Review: Opinions, Sept. 7, 2017

Not surprisingly, there appears to have been a backlog caused by Harvey, with both the First and Fourteenth COA issuing a dozen or more opinions each today.

The First released one family law memorandum opinion in Grant v. Grant, No. 01-16-00581-CV, regarding bills of review. That sounds boring but the story is not. Howard and Ariann were married and divorced twice. They were first married in 1994. Ariann filed for divorce in 2010. While the divorce was pending, the parties continued living in the same marital residence. Also while the divorce was pending, Howard was convicted of health-care fraud and sentenced to three years in prison. They tried to set trial for before he shipped off to Club Fed. About a week before trial, Ariann’s lawyer came to the house to depose Howard because he had an ankle monitor on and generally was not allowed to leave the premises. The notice of trial was sent to Howard who was pro se at the time. The COS stated it was sent to him by CM/RRR and U.S. regular mail. Ariann appeared for trial, but Howard did not. The trial court awarded her property he now contends was his separate property.

A year after the divorce, and while Howard was still incarcerated, they remarried. While Howard was in hoosegow, Ariann sold some of the property awarded to her in the first divorce (which Howard now says was his separate property). In late 2015, they divorced for the second time. After the decree for the second divorce was entered, Howard filed a bill of review attacking the decree from the first divorce.

At the hearing on the bill of review, Ariann testified Howard had actual notice of the upcoming first trial date and that he could have gotten permission to leave the house to appear in court. Howard alleged that they were sleeping in the same bed, Ariann did not inform him of the trial date and that she misled him to believe she had decided not to pursue the divorce. The trial court denied the bill of review and Howard appealed.

The COA noted that the bill of review was filed more than four years after the first decree was entered and that it would thus be time-barred unless Howard established extrinsic fraud. Howard alleged she committed fraud in two ways: 1) misleading him by waking up, kissing him on the cheek, and going to court to obtain a default judgment when she knew she never told him the case was set for trial; and 2) by providing the court with the address of the marital residence instead of prison in Beaumont because she knew he “was not going to be at the marital residence.”

Taking the second first, the COA found that to show extrinsic fraud, Howard would have to show that Ariann knowingly but falsely certified to the court his last known address after he was incarcerated but before judgment was rendered. “Howard did not make this argument or show that this is what happened.” The issue was overruled.

Secondly, the COA noted he presented no evidence of Ariann’s supposed misleading and thus failed to establish extrinsic fraud.

Because the bill of review was time-barred (because Howard did not establish extrinsic fraud), the COA did not reach the merits of the bill of review issue.

The Fourteenth COA released two memorandum opinions, In re D.A., No. 14-16-00491-CV, and In re C.A.W. and C.H.W., No. 14-16-00768-CV, both affirming the trial courts.

In In re D.A., the father challenged the award of attorney’s fees in a modification order after bench trial. But the record on appeal did not contain a complete reporter’s record and the COA must presume the omitted evidence supported the order.

In In re C.A.W. and C.H.W., the father appealed the trial court’s order granting a child support modification in favor of the mother. Mother and father were divorced in 2013 after signing an MSA. They were named JMCs and father was ordered to pay $1,875/mo in child support, with a step down to $1,562.50 when the oldest turned 18.

C.A.W. aged out and mother filed a modification seeking above-guideline support for C.H.W. At bench trial in August 2016, the following facts were adduced:

C.H.W. resided with Mother. Father stopped fully exercising
his periods of possession of C.H.W. Mother’s net monthly income is $2,116.29 and
Father’s net monthly income is $23,200. C.H.W.’s needs were itemized in Exhibit
6, which is entitled “Child[]’s Needs List” (the “List”). The List also itemized the
anticipated monthly expenses for C.H.W.’s needs while residing with Mother. The
List reflected that C.H.W.’s needs totaled $5,291.65 per month. Mother did not have
the ability to meet C.H.W.’s monthly needs exceeding $1,700.

At the conclusion of trial, the trial court announced its finding that increasing child support was in the child’s best interest. On August 30, 2016, the trial signed an order for father to pay $3,500/mo in child support.

In his first issue on appeal, father argues the trial court abused its discretion in ordering above-guideline support because there was “no evidence of proven needs.” Specifically, the father argued that the mother had “merely shown in the trial court what her monthly expenses may be at this time” and failed to establish “that these expenses exist because of some need for the child.” The COA disagreed and found that the list of child’s needs clearly segregated the child’s expenses from the mother’s and that there was more than a scintilla of evidence establishing the child’s needs. The issue was overruled.

In his second issue, the father argued the trial court abused its discretion in ordering a modification where there was “no evidence of a material and substantial change.” To prevail in a modification suit, the petitioner must establish either that there was a material and substantial change or that more than three years have elapsed since the decree was entered and the monthly child support obligation differs from the amount that would be awarded under the statutory child-support guidelines by 20% or $100. Because this case met the latter, the issue was overruled.