Arbitrating an MSA Drafting Dispute: Opinions, May 17, 2018

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released a memorandum opinion in Farmer v. Farmer, No. 14-17-00077-CV yesterday, which primarily concerns the effect of an arbitrator’s ruling on a MSA drafting dispute.

Wife filed for divorce in March 2015 and husband counterpetitioned. After a number of continuances, the trial court denied wife’s last motion for continuance and set trial for good on September 19, 2016.

On the date of trial, the court excluded wife’s expert, Robert Adams. After that, the parties entered into an MSA which was proved up that same day. The trial court orally rendered the divorce on September 19 and, on October 26, 2016, the trial court entered a final decree of divorce. (If I’m reading this opinion correctly, the timeline here is impressive: On the date of trial, the parties held a Daubert hearing on wife’s expert; then they rushed to mediation, settled the case, and signed the MSA. Then they rushed back to the courthouse and proved up the MSA before the ink was dry. Quite a day.)  Wife filed a motion for new trial, complaining the trial court improperly incorporated a property division into the decree. The property division included in the decree evidently was the ruling of the mediator, serving as arbitrator of drafting disputes. The MNT was denied by operation of law.

On appeal, wife asserted three issues: 1) the decree should be set aside because it departs from the MSA on the property division; 2) wife’s expert was improperly excluded; and 3) wife’s motion for continuance was denied.

On the first issue, wife argued the property division from the MSA should have been used in the decree, not the one signed by the mediator/arbitrator. First, the Court of Appeals noted that the divorce decree and the property division were attached to her notice of appeal and to her opening brief in an appendix, but were not in the appellate record. Because the documents were not included in the record, the Court of Appeals could not consider them.

But even if they had been in the appellate record, the Court of Appeals held the trial court did not err. First, the trial court could have reasonably relied on the property division as being the result of arbitration (as was provided for in the MSA). Secondly, wife did not include a sufficient record of the arbitration. The first issue was overruled.

As for her second and third issues, husband argued these issues were moot because the parties settled. The Court of Appeals agreed, finding the issues became moot once the parties signed the MSA. The trial court was affirmed.

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Evidence, Predicates, & Rule 408: Opinions, May 1, 2018

This morning, the Fourteenth District Court of Appeals released a memorandum opinion in In re J.C.K., No. 14-17-00082-CV, an appeal from a modification in which the father was ordered to pay attorney’s fees in the amount of $252,996.55. But most of the father’s issues on appeal and much of the twelve-page opinion revolve around evidentiary rulings and a packet of documents–a MacGuffin–that was never entered into evidence.*

In April, 2010, the trial court entered a divorce decree which named the parents JMCs of the child. In December, 2010, mother’s attorney sent a letter to father’s attorney which included a proposed modification order, a packet of other documents, and an affidavit by the mother which alleged the father had assaulted her as well as several other women and had drug and alcohol problems. At the time, the father was on deferred adjudication for a previous assault of the mother that had occurred prior to the divorce. In the letter, the mother’s attorney expressed a desire that the parties could reach an agreement regarding the modification based on the attached documents or the mother would have to file the mod with the affidavit attached. According to the father, the proposed modification order would have effectively ended his right to see his son as the proposed order made visitation at the mother’s sole discretion and would have required him to pay exorbitant sums in child support. As mentioned above, the packet of documents which accompanied the letter from mother’s lawyer was also at issue at trial and the appeal. In his brief, father calls this letter from mother’s lawyer an extortion attempt.

Mother filed the modification (without the affidavit attached), seeking to be named SMC, limiting the father’s possession and access, and requesting an increase in child support and payment of the mother’s attorney’s fees. The father counterpetitioned. At the conclusion of the trial, the court named mother SMC and ordered father’s visitation be reduced, supervised, and contingent on him meeting certain requirements, such as him attending drug therapy, and avoiding conviction for domestic violence. The court also ordered him to pay $252,996.55 in attorney’s fees. The court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law found mother had presented credible evidence of father’s drug abuse and violence against women and that it was in the child’s best interests to modify the order.

During the trial, father offered the attorney’s letter which preceded the suit and the mother’s affidavit into evidence. They were admitted. He also evidently “indicated a desire” to enter into the record the entire packet of documents that accompanied the letter and affidavit, but evidently did not offer them. Then, after trial, he attempted to enter into the record a formal bill of exception containing the document packet, but the trial court sustained mother’s objection and refused to accept or sign the bill. Specifically, the trial court found father failed to lay the proper predicate or mark and offer the packet into evidence. Also, he failed to timely comply with all requirements to obtain a completed formal bill of exception.

The father’s first seven issues on appeal assert the trial court erred by not admitting into evidence or considering the packet of documents. Father submitted a bench brief in which he argued the packet of documents was admissible. Mother argued the documents constituted part of a settlement offer and thus were inadmissible. The trial court found that, at that point during the trial, the documents were part of a settlement offer, but did state that the court had not yet heard testimony which would support admitting the documents into evidence under one of the other purposes Rule 408 allows for settlement-related material. On appeal, father argued this was a final ruling regarding the admissibility of the documents; mother argued the trial court did no more than offer a preliminary indication of its ruling which could  change subject to later testimony and potential predicate-laying.  The Court of Appeals found father failed to actually offer the packet of documents into evidence, failed to lay a predicate, and thus failed to preserve the issue of the admissibility of the packet. The issues were overruled.

In his eighth issue, the father challenged the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence to support the award of attorney’s fees. The trial court found mother had incurred $414,809.80 in reasonable attorney’s fees and ordered father to pay $252,996.55 to mother’s attorney. The Court of Appeals found that though the evidence supporting the reasonableness of the fees “[was] quite succinct,” it was sufficient to support the award.

The trial court was affirmed.

*Because the packet of documents was not entered into evidence and was not part of the record, the court’s opinion does not indicate what the packet contains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homeschooling & Educational Decisions: April 26, 2018

The Fourteenth District Court of Appeals released a memorandum opinion this morning in In re M.C.K., No. 14-17-00289-CV, concerning homeschooling and educational decisions.

Mother filed a modification regarding custody of the child. Though Father did not file any pleadings regarding educational decisions, the MSA explicitly stated that the parties were reserving educational decisions as an issue for trial. Mother objected at trial to educational decisions being an issue at trial and the trial court allowed Father’s oral trial amendment.

When the child was a baby, Mother was awarded the right to make educational decisions for the child. But once the child became school-aged, Father sought to share that right because he was concerned about Mother’s homeschooling of the child. The trial court modified the parent-child relationship to give both parents the right to make educational decisions and ordered that, if they cannot agree, the child will attend public school. Mother appealed, arguing the evidence was insufficient to support the judgment.

At trial to the bench, Mother testified that she opposes public schools because: they do not promote critical thinking; they primarily teach children to memorize and regurgitate facts for standardized tests; and they do not teach Hebrew in school which was important to her because she is Jewish. She does not have any teaching degrees or certifications, though she did teach for one year at a Montessori school and she homeschooled her two older children (ages 16 and 11) for their whole lives. She testified that she does not follow a specific curriculum but she shops for textbooks on eBay, at teacher supply stores, and at HalfPrice Books. While the children are working on assignments she gives them, she works as a subcontractor for an online company that offers work-from-home employment.

Father testified that he is worried that the child is isolated in her homeschooling environment and that the child had never attended a birthday party or had play dates with other children. Mother testified that the child played with other children in the community, but she could not name any friend of the child’s and admitted the child had never been to a birthday party for a five-year-old. Father also expressed concern about the child’s curriculum and testified that when he asks the child what she is learning, the child does not say anything.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, finding the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s judgment and that the trial court’s judgment was not an abuse of discretion.

 

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The Future of Adult Disabled Child Support: Opinions, March 28, 2018

Good morning, HFLA readers! This morning we have two memorandum opinions, one from the First District Court of Appeals and the second from the Fourteenth on nunc pro tuncs and amicus fees, respectively. Also,  from last week (better late than never), an interesting concurrence in the denial of a petition for review from the Texas Supreme Court on adult disabled child support.

Taking the First first, in Leblanc v. Leblanc, No. 01-16-00777-CV, appellant appealed from the trial court’s granting of appellee’s motion for judgment nunc pro tunc. According to appellee, at a final hearing in January 2005, the court had rendered judgment ordering appellant to pay $435/mo in child support and $108.92 in medical support, but the final order mistakenly omitted the amount of child support, i.e. the blank was left empty. The docket sheet from January 31, 2005 stated “Reimb her for med ins $108.92 C/S 435.” The Withholding Order required appellant to pay $543.92 month. 435 + 108.92 = 543.92. The docket sheet was the only item admitted into evidence. The JNPT was granted and appellant appealed, arguing in nine issues that appellee failed to prove a clerical error existed. The COA found the evidence was sufficient. Additionally, appellant asserted a laches argument but the COA found this lacked merit because, while appellant showed how he would be harmed by the enforcement of an amended judgment, he did not show how he would be harmed by entry of the amended judgment. The trial court was affirmed.

In In re M.K.M.L., No. 14-17-00010-CV, father appealed the award of amicus attorney’s fees in the amount of $22,910.00 incorporated into a modification order. Specifically he challenged the evidence in support of the award and the award’s allocation. The record on appeal did not include the reporter’s record for the hearing in which the amicus’ request for fees was heard, so the evidence was presumed sufficient by the COA. As for the allocation, no evidence was presented on that issue in the trial court, and thus the COA overruled the issue.

Finally, last week the Texas Supreme Court denied a petition for review in In re D.C., 13-15-00486-CV from the 13th Court of Appeals. Justice Guzman, formerly of the Fourteenth COA and the 309th Judicial District Court, wrote a concurrence concerning the lack of guidance provided by the statute and to “highlight some of the legal inquiries that require direction from the Legislature and guidance from the Court.” Specifically, she explicitly states the Supreme Court will take up the issue of TFC § 154.302’s vagueness and ambiguity (and perhaps provide a test for the courts to employ) if the right case comes up and Legislature has not supplemented the statute.

In this case, when the parents divorced, the child was 14 years old. The trial court considered only lay testimony and found the requirements of TFC § 154.302 satisfied and ordered father to pay child support indefinitely. More than ten years later, father filed a motion to terminate the monthly support. By that time, the child had aged out, graduated from college with a double major, lived in a dormitory by himself, and had begun pursuing a master’s degree. Again, only lay testimony was offered concerning the child’s disability, self-supportability, and need for care and supervision. The trial court declined the motion to terminate the support but ordered the mother to apply for all government services the child may qualify for, including Social Security, and stated the parties could revisit the issue if the child began receiving such benefits. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding father did not establish there had been a material and substantial change in the child’s circumstances since the decree was entered.

Justice Guzman noticed that the statute does not define mental or physical disability or specify what type of proof is required to meet the statutory standard. “But parents need to know what they need to prove and how they need to prove it.” After considering many of the questions that the statute raises, and noting that many of the decisions from Texas courts vary greatly in the “nature and quantum of proof,” Justice Guzman all but issued a plea to the Legislature to develop a standard or the Supreme Court will have to provide it.

Hat tip to Janice Berg for drawing my attention to the concurrence!

 

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Can Parties Agree to Set Aside an MSA?: Opinions, Feb. 27, 2018

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released two interesting, published opinions on Tuesday (it’s been busy ’round these parts), one on whether parties can agree to set aside an MSA (Spoiler alert: No, not without a best interest finding) and the other on the effect of an undisclosed bankruptcy on a property division (It voids it).

The question addressed in In re Minix, No. 14-17-00417-CV, is whether the parties’ agreement to set aside an MSA is legally binding.  In response, the COA produced both a majority opinion, a concurrence, and a dissent. I am going to summarize the procedural history below, but you can skip it  (picking up with the paragraph starting with “In its analysis,…”) because the basic question is whether or not the parties can agree to set aside a binding, valid MSA.

Father filed for divorce from mother. The parties signed an MSA which was filed with the trial court on December 1, 2015. The MSA named the parents as JMCs, father got a SPO and paid $1,300 per month in child support. At this time, the parties did not ask the court to enter judgment on the MSA. The trial court was not asked to enter temporary orders.

In January 2016, father filed several motions to enforce the MSA, alleging mother was denying him visitation. On March 28, 2016, he filed a motion to enter TO consistent with the MSA. On May 24, 2016, mother filed a motion for TRO and emergency motion to modify, requesting the trial court 1) appoint her SMC and 2) deny father possession of and access to the child. She alleged he hit the child with a belt. On May 27, 2016, the trial court signed TO prohibiting father from having possession of or access to the child and setting a date for a TO hearing.

On June 7, 2016, father moved to set aside the MSA and requested TO. That same day, the parties’ attorneys appeared in front of the trial court and represented to the judge that the parties had agreed to set aside the MSA, though there apparently was no document signed by the parties to set aside the MSA. The next day, at a hearing on TO in front of the AJ, mother’s attorney advised the AJ that the parties had stipulated to set aside the MSA and father’s attorney agreed on the record. The AJ entered “band-aid” TO. On June 29 (three weeks later) mother filed a motion to modify the band-aid TO based on newly discovered evidence, again requesting she be appointed SMC and father be denied access to the child.

On August 19, 2016, the trial court signed an agreed order for the parties to undergo psychological examinations. On November 22, 2016, he signed agreed TO appointing the parents temporary JMCs, with mother as primary. The terms of the TO were similar to the MSA provisions, but the child support was higher ($1,422.05 per month).

Mother switched lawyers on March 7, 2017. Her new lawyer moved for entry of judgment on the MSA and requested that all subsequent temporary orders, rule 11 agreements, and other court orders be vacated. A hearing was held on March 21, 2017, on the motion for entry of judgment. At the hearing, father’s lawyer asserted that the MSA had been valid and binding but that the parties had agreed to set it aside. Mother testified that she did not agree to set aside the MSA.

The trial court took the motion for entry of judgment on the MSA under advisement and, on April 27, 2017, signed an order denying the motion. Mother filed a petition for writ of mandamus, asking the COA to set aside the judge’s order denying the motion and direct the trial court to render judgment consistent with the MSA.

In its analysis, the COA first found that the MSA was valid, binding, and irrevocable under TFC §153.0071. Then the COA turned to construing the statute. At the time the trial court decided the question, the trial court could deny entry of judgment on the MSA only if 1) a party to the MSA was a victim of family violence such that it impaired the parties’ ability to make decisions, and 2) the MSA is not in the child’s best interest. “The Legislature has provided no other circumstances under which the trial court may refuse to enter judgment on the MSA,” the COA held. To allow parties to agree to set aside an irrevocable MSA would “render meaningless subsection (e),” which provides that a party is entitled to judgment on the MSA notwithstanding Rule 11, the TRCP, or another rule of law.

The father argued there was at least a fact issue as to whether the parties agreed to set aside the MSA, since mother’s testimony differed from what her then-attorney represented to the court. The COA found it was irrelevant because the trial court could not set aside the MSA.

The father also argued that the Texas Supreme Court in In re Lee left open the possibility that a trial court may properly refuse to enter judgment on an MSA that complies with section 153.0071. In In re Lee, the Court noted that several courts of appeals had addressed the issue of whether section 153.0071 mandates entry of a statutorily-compliant MSA in any and all circumstances, including where it was procured by fraud, duress, or coercion. The Supreme Court did not reach the issue, the COA found, and thus there was no door open to refuse to enter judgment on a statutorily-compliant MSA.

As such, the COA found the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion to enter judgment on the MSA and directed the trial court to vacate its order and enter judgment in accordance with the MSA.

In his concurrence, Justice Busby wrote to address the dissent’s argument, so we’ll get to it in a minute. The dissent (by 14th COA Chief Justice Kem Frost) found that the doctrines of quasi-estoppel and invited error demand that the COA deny the mandamus. The dissent argues that the COA does not need to reach the issue of whether the parties can agree to set aside the MSA because she accepted the benefits of the trial court’s TO which she had requested for nine months.

The dissent also argued that there was a fact issue as to whether the MSA was set aside in open court on June 7, 2016, because the trial court took actions that were inconsistent with the MSA still being in effect by referring the TO to the AJ the next day, June 8, 2017. At that hearing, the parties both stated they should be appointed SMCs. Clearly, the parties did not have an agreement on conservatorship (as represented by the MSA). “If the [MSA] resolved the conservatorship and possession issues and was in effect, why did the parties, the lawyers, and the trial judge spend ten months litigating those issues?” (Because the trial court did not realize it had erred by setting aside the MSA?)

The dissent chides mother for then, after months litigating issues settled by the MSA, suddenly asking the trial court to enter judgment on the MSA.  In other words, the dissent says, she asked the trial court to undo its previous ruling (of setting aside the MSA) to enter judgment on the MSA, “a request that clashed with her pleadings, her arguments, her claims, and her actions up to that point.” (Personally, I find it common for litigation strategy to change when the client’s lawyer changes, which appears to have been the case here)

The dissent urges the majority’s opinion is overly-formalist by relying solely on the statutory text and refusing to consider equitable principles. Specifically, it argues quasi-estoppel (which bars a party from asserting, to another’s disadvantage, a right inconsistent with a position earlier taken) barred mother from doing an about-face on whether or not she wanted the MSA set aside.  It also argues that the invited-error doctrine (which bars a party from asking a court to take a specific action and then complaining of that ruling or action on appeal) barred mother from challenging the trial court’s decision to deny her motion for entry of judgment on the MSA when she herself asked the trial court to set aside the MSA months before.

In the majority opinion, the majority found that quasi-estoppel did not apply because 1) it was not briefed by the parties and 2) father had not shown that enforcing the MSA would have been to his disadvantage because the terms of the MSA were similar to those of the November 22, 2016 TO and father’s child support obligations were less in the MSA. The majority also found the invited error doctrine did not apply because mother did not complain about the setting aside of the MSA or granting the TO in 2016. Rather, mother complained about the trial court’s denial of the motion for entry of judgment on the MSA.

Getting back to the concurrence, Justice Busby wrote separately to explain why the dissent’s emphasis on equity “is incompatible with the statute, principles of equity, the facts of the case, and our adversary system of justice.” (!) In essence, the concurrence argues that the statute is mandatory and that the rule proposed by the dissent would grant trial courts extraordinary license to use equity to upend mandatory statutes.

I couldn’t help wondering what the outcome would have been had the parties agreed on the record on either June 7 or June 8 that setting aside the MSA was in the best interest of the children. If the trial court had granted the parties’ request to aside the MSA on best interest grounds, it seems the trial court would have complied with 153.0071.

In Adeleye v. Driscal, No. 14-14-00822-CV (consolidated with In re Adeleye, No. 14-16-00922-CV), a husband filed both a petition for writ of mandamus and an appeal challenging the trial court’s final judgment in his divorce.

Wife filed for divorce in November 2013. Bench trial was held in September 2014. In October, prior to rendition of judgment, husband informed the judge that he had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 2013. The trial court rendered judgment dissolving the marriage and dividing the marital estate. Husband appealed and the COA affirmed in March 2016 (which I previously blogged about here). Three weeks later, husband informed the COA about his bankruptcy, prior to any proceedings in this case. The COA thus withdrew its judgment, abated the appeal, and remanded to the trial court with some helpful bankruptcy pointers, including information about how the automatic stay applies even if the parties to whom it applies do not have notice of the bankruptcy filing. On November 14, 2016, husband filed a petition for writ of mandamus, complaining the trial court refused to hold a hearing on the issue of the bankruptcy stay. Two days later, the trial court signed an order which said, in relevant part:

The Court finds that there was no notice of filing for Bankruptcy
presented to the Court. The Court finds that if there was proper notice
given of the filing of bankruptcy that an automatic stay would have
been issued and the Court would have requested the attorneys to have
the stay lifted prior to any further proceedings.

The Court of Appeals then issued a clarifying order which I assume informed the trial court (again) about how the automatic stay works and requested specific findings from the trial court about when the bankruptcy was filed, etc. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court entered an amended order and the COA thus reinstated the appeal.  It appears from the trial court’s findings that the bankruptcy stay was in effect for the entirety of the trial court proceedings and the trial court thus had no power to render a judgment dividing the marital estate and the division of the estate was void because it occurred in violation of the automatic stay.

Husband also asserted jurisdictional issues, alleging that wife lacked standing and capacity because her real name was different than the name as it appeared in the litigation. The COA found this was not supported by the record. He also challenged the trial court’s personal jurisdiction over him, but because he did not enter a special appearance challenging the trial court’s personal jurisdiction over him, he waived the argument.

The COA then turned to husband’s evidentiary challenges, which appear to be substantively the same as in the prior opinion, so I won’t go through them again here. Having overruled the challenge to the trial court’s finding that a valid marriage existed between the parties, the decree was affirmed to the extent it recognizes and dissolves that marriage. But because the marital estate was void due to the bankruptcy, the decree was otherwise reversed and remanded for division of the marital estate.

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War of the Roses: The End? (& a Rose By Any Other Name): Opinions, Feb. 15, 2018

The First District Court of Appeals issued a published opinion (and dissent) regarding the name change of a child in Werthwein v. Workman, No. 01-16-00889-CV, and the Fourteenth Court of Appeals finally entered its 65-page opinion in Harrison v. Harrison, No. 14-15-00430-CV, possibly bringing that long-running saga to an end.

Longtime readers of this blog will doubtlessly remember the Harrison case, which I previously posted on, and which has spawned myriad appellate iterations. I once heard you could teach all of first year of law school using exclusively railroad cases and, similarly, I wonder if you could teach all of family law using Harrison cases.

In what the Court of Appeals calls Harrison I, (Harrison v. Harrison, 367 S.W.3d 822 (Tex.App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2012, pet. denied)) the COA affirmed the 2010 decree insofar as it granted the parties’ divorce but reversed the remainder and remanded for new trial. The instant appeal follows a bench trial on remand. On appeal, Mother claims the trial court abused its discretion by: 1) permitting her trial counsel to withdraw, over her objection, approximately four weeks before trial and without granting a trial continuance; 2) naming Father sole managing conservator of the two children; and (3) dividing the marital estate. The COA affirmed.

This doorstop of an opinion begins with an introduction that essentially reiterates the trial court’s power and discretion in resolving cases efficiently and economically when conservatorship of children is at issue. Father initially filed for divorce in October 2006, when the children were 6 and 2 years old. Now they are 17 and 13 and their parents have been in litigation almost their entire lives.

Since the remand of 2012, the case had been set preferentially for trial several times, and Mother had alternated between periods of self-representation and representation by numerous attorneys, all of whom withdrew. (Mother and Father are both licensed attorneys.) In January 2014, the parties signed an MSA. Mother moved to set aside the MSA in March and the trial court denied the motion. Based on the amicus’s motion, the trial court signed an interim order on parent-child issues incorporating portions of the MSA (the “Interim Order”). The Interim Order named the parents JMCs, with Mother as primary. Father received extended possession of the children.

Mother violated the Interim Order and other temporary orders regarding the children’s school and blocked Father’s access to the children. Father moved to set aside the MSA based on Mother’s actions and asked to be named temporary SMC, which the trial court granted in September 2014. Father filed an enforcement and the trial court found Mother in contempt but suspended her confinement and placed her on community supervision, contingent upon Mother paying Father’s attorney’s fees and complying with the trial court’s orders. Mother failed to pay the fees and Father moved to revoke the probation. The motion to revoke was set for hearing on December 18.

On December 15, Mother’s counsel moved to withdraw and filed a motion for continuance. These were set for hearing on December 18. At that hearing, the trial court granted the withdrawal, denied the continuance, and ordered Mother jailed (that enforcement order was later found void).

A pretrial conference was held January 9, 2015. The parties were ordered to exchange exhibits by a certain date and time. Mother failed to do so, which the trial court discovered at a pretrial hearing on January 16. The trial court ordered Mother to produce her exhibits to Father and the amicus by 1:45 that day. Mother failed to do so because she had only her original copies of her exhibits and was “unable to tender copies to opposing counsel  or the amicus.” (Was Kinko’s closed January 16, 2015?) The trial court excluded Mother’s exhibits from the scheduled jury trial.

The parties were ordered to appear on January 20 at 8:30 am. Father and amicus were present, but Mother, pro se at this time, was not. Father waived his jury demand and requested a bench trial. The request was granted and testimony to the bench began. Mother showed up at about 10:15 am and notified the court that she had filed a motion to recuse the trial judge. The trial judge recessed proceedings until the administrative judge could rule on the motion, which was denied. Trial resumed after lunch. Mother objected to the trial resuming without a jury; the objection was overruled.

Father testified to Mother forging checks, attempting to buy an expensive home without Father’s consent or knowledge, secreting the children from Father, alienating them, and violating various court orders. Under cross-examination, Father admitted he had called Mother derogatory names, but denied he had done so in front of the children. He also denied he had physically assaulted Mother in front of the children.

The principal of the children’s former school testified via deposition that the children were not permitted to re-enroll because of Mother’s repeated school policy violations. For example, Mother interrupted teachers, pulled the children out of class during school hours, arrived late for pick up but refused to sign a late form, failed to sign in when she arrived for school visits during school hours, argued with school personnel to alter disciplinary decisions regarding the children and frequently called to change pick up instructions right before dismissal. The principal stated she’d never had a problem with Father.

Mother’s sister also testified via deposition, singing Father’s praises as a father and testifying that she would leave her children with Father, but not with Mother.

At the conclusion of trial, the trial court orally rendered judgment on February 12, 2015 and signed a final judgment on March 26, 2015. Father was appointed SMC, with Mother as PC with supervised possession of the children, for four hours, twice a month. Father was awarded the marital home.

In her first issue, Mother argued the trial court abused its discretion in permitting her attorney to withdraw a month before trial. The COA reviewed the myriad attorneys that had represented Mother since 2006 and noted that Mother had represented herself at the first trial. In December 2014, the attorney that Mother had most recently retained had been on the case for just a couple of weeks when she moved to withdraw. At the December 18 hearing (which was a hearing on Father’s motion to revoke, Mother’s motion for continuance and Mother’s counsel’s motion to withdraw), Mother’s counsel represented Mother for the motion to revoke portion and the continuance portion before telling the court that a conflict had arisen between herself and the client such that she could not continue to ethically represent Mother and could not place Mother’s interests ahead of her own. The conflict was evidently not specified but the trial court ruled that, while it did not want to create a policy of letting lawyers out of cases on the eve of trial, it would not order an attorney to continue representation that required the attorney to behave unethically. The matter was continued to December 22, Mother’s jail review hearing on Mother’s contempt sentence. At that hearing, Mother’s attorney represented her in the jail review portion of the hearing at which the trial court declined to release Mother from jail. The attorney then re-urged her motion to withdraw, arguing that under the disciplinary rules, it was a mandatory withdrawal due to “the egregious conduct that occurred between my client and myself.” The matter was continued to the following day, December 23. At that hearing, Mother opposed the withdrawal and claimed the real reason for her attorney’s motion was financial. The attorney disagreed and asked Mother, “Would you agree with me that I have informed you that there are certain actions that you have done, prior to my filing, post my filing of my Motion to Withdraw, that I have informed you those were one of many reasons why I was withdrawing?” Mother responded that while she did not want to waive her attorney-client privilege, that the attorney had stated reasons for withdrawing though she, Mother, did not agree with those reasons. The trial court permitted Mother’s attorney to withdraw.

The COA observed that though “it would have been preferable to have obtained a more detailed explanation through an in camera conference or other means that would have preserved the attorney-client privilege,” ultimately, it found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting Mother’s counsel to withdraw a month before trial in this case because Mother’s actions “would have caused [the attorney] to violate the disciplinary rules by compromising her fiduciary duties to [the Mother].” Court watchers will note that in Harrison I, the COA found that the trial court very nearly abused its discretion in permitting Mother’s attorney to withdraw 40 days before trial but the basis of that withdrawal was financial. In this case, Mother’s attorney denied Mother’s charge that lack of payment was the basis of her withdrawal. One could probably write an interesting law review article about this key difference between Harrison I and Harrison II.

The COA also found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for continuance because the record contained no written motion for continuance and a trial court does not abuse its discretion in denying an oral motion for continuance.

In her second issue, the Mother challenged the trial court’s ruling appointing Father SMC and naming Mother PC with limited supervised visitation. In her brief, Mother divided this issue into a plethora of subpoints. Firstly, the COA found the trial court did not error in excluding Mother’s exhibits because she failed to comply with the court’s orders regarding the exchange of exhibits and she failed to show any resulting harm from the exclusion. Secondly, Mother testified the trial court erred because of Father’s purported history of domestic violence. The trial court, as fact-finder, was within its rights to resolve the conflicting evidence and testimony in Father’s favor. Thirdly, the COA found the trial court did not err in requiring Mother’s visitation to be supervised because of her “detrimental and disruptive behavior.” The COA reviewed the evidence of Mother’s misconduct, including violating court orders. In fact, one parent whose child was friends with one of Harrisons’ children testified against Mother, stating she had a reputation among the parents for untruthfulness and that they had severed their relationship with the Mother as a result. Fourthly, the COA found that the supervised visitation did not empower Father to “determine or defeat any right of access” by Mother to the children. Fifthly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting Father’s request to waive the jury as Mother was not present when trial began and the request was made. Finally, the COA found the trial court did not err in refusing to enter judgment on the MSA under Lee.  The clerk’s record, the COA observed, does not show that Mother filed a motion to enter judgment on the MSA. While there was a “Motion to Enter the Mediated Settlement Agreement and for Full Compliance” in the reporter’s record as part of Mother’s offer of proof, Mother did not direct the COA to where she presented the motion to the trial court for a ruling in accordance with the rules. She attempted to argue the motion at the January 16, 2015 pretrial conference, but she had not set it for hearing or provided proper notice. As such, she waived the issue and Lee did not apply. (The COA also noted that Lee did not apply on the merits, either, as the circumstances had materially and substantially changed since the MSA had been signed)

In her third issue, Mother argued the trial court erred in dividing the marital estate by awarding the parties’ former marital home to Father. Evidently this issue was not adequately briefed and thus was overruled.

If past is prelude, this will not be the end of the Harrison matter, though it probably should have concluded long ago.

In Werthwein v. Workman, the mother contended the trial court abused its discretion by granting the request of the father to change the last name of their two-year-old son because the evidence was legally and/or factually insufficient.

The parties married in June 2012. The mother continued using her unmarried last name, both personally and professionally, but had father’s last name on her driver’s license. Mother became pregnant and the parties separated before the child was born. The parties’ testimony on the events leading to the separation and selection of the child’s last name conflicted.  Mother filed for divorce in May 2013, Father countersued, denied paternity, and requested genetic testing. In his original counter-petition, he did not request the child’s last name be changed to his. In August 2013, according to the mother, the father told her not to contact him any more and communication stopped. The child was born in September 2013. The father was not at the delivery. The mother listed father as the father but indicated the child’s last name would be her own, not the father’s.

A paternity test proved the father was the father. The divorce proceedings continued, without the father requesting the child’s last name be changed. The divorce became final in June 2014.

In September 2015, the father sought to modify the order to obtain more access to the child. Mother filed a counter-petition seeking an increase in child support. Father then amended his petition in January 2016, when the child was about 2.5 years old, asking the child’s name be changed to his. According to the mother, the father never said anything about the child’s last name being changed until he amended in January 2016. The parties resolved their other mod issues but, after a hearing in June 2016 (at which only the parents testified), the trial court ordered the child’s name to be changed to the father’s last name because it was in the child’s best interest. Mother appealed.

The COA noted that at the hearing, the parents’ testimony often directly contradicted each other. For example, mother testified that the father had previously expressed little interest in bonding with the child. The father testified that the mother had denied him access to the child. The trial court’s role was to determine the credibility and the weight of the parents’ testimony. The father testified that allowing the name change would reduce anxiety and confusion for the child in the future when the two participated in activities together. The father also testified to other reasons why it would be in the child’s best interest to share his name and, as with the “anxiety and confusion” reason, it’s unclear how these same reasons don’t also apply to the child having the mother’s name. “Both parents,” the COA stated, “supplied evidence in support of [the child] having their last name. And both provided testimony relevant to several of the best-interest factors.” But, ultimately, the trial court had the sole authority to make the requisite credibility determinations and resolve the conflicts in the evidence.

Mother also argued that the case law imposes a higher burden on a petitioner to obtain a name change and that the father failed to meet this higher burden. In support of this argument, the mother relied on In re H.S.B., 401 S.W.3d 77, 83 (Tex.App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2011, no pet.) in which that court stated “In Texas, courts have held that a child’s name should not be changed unless the party seeking the change shows that the original name is detrimental to the child.” After this opinion, the Fourteenth rejected an argument similar to the mother’s in In re J.N.L., 528 S.W.3d 237, 241 (Tex.App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.), “clarifying” its previous opinion in finding that section 54.004(a)(1) requires only that the name change be in the best interest of the child and that no higher burden is imposed on the petitioning parent. As such, the First COA found mother’s argument unavailing.

In her second issue, the mother argued that the trial court improperly shifted the burden of proof to her to disprove the propriety of changing the child’s name. The COA disagreed and did not find such a shifting of the burden in the record.

Finally, the mother argued that the trial court demonstrated a bias toward paternal last names. The COA agreed that tradition is not a separate factor to be relied upon in evaluating a petition to change a child’s last name, but found the record did not support the conclusion that the trial court allowed tradition to dominate the best-interest evaluation.

The mother’s issues were overruled and the trial court’s ruling was affirmed.

Justice Terry Jennings filed a dissent to the opinion of Justices Brown and Bland. The substance of the dissent is that the father’s testimony and reasons regarding why the name change would be in the best interest of the child were speculative and conclusory and were not supported by any evidence. The majority responded to the dissent in a footnote, arguing that in name change cases, frequently the only evidence available is the testimony of the two parents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Registering & Enforcing Child Support Judgments: Opinions, Feb. 13, 2018

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released its memorandum opinion in In re J.S., R.S., & M.J.S, No. 14-17-00024-CV, affirming a judgment for child support arrearage.

In 2000, a California court entered judgment requiring Father to pay child support of $352.00/mo. Mother registered the California child support judgment in Harris County in 2013 and moved to enforce it. At the hearing on the child support order, Father testified that he should be entitled to possession credit because he testified that one of the children lived with him for a 31-month period, but this testimony was contradicted by the testimony of Mother and Mother’s sister. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court rendered judgment that Father failed to pay $32,070.71 in child support, from February 2000 to November 2013 and that the accrued interest as of October 31, 2016 was $39,151.46, totaling $71,222.17, plus post-judgment interest and attorney’s fees of $4,500.00. On appeal, Father challenged the failure to award possession credit and the attorney’s fees. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment because: 1) The evidence regarding Father’s purported possession of the daughter was contradicted by Mother and the trial court was within its rights to resolve the difference in Mother’s favor; and 2) His arguments against the award of fees lacked merit.