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Oncor Electric Delivery Co. LLC v. Schunke

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

December 18, 2013

ONCOR ELECTRIC DELIVERY COMPANY LLC, Appellant
v.
James Milton SCHUNKE, Appellee

From the 35th Judicial District Court, Mills County, Texas Trial Court No. 11-04-6278 Honorable Stephen Ellis, Judge Presiding

Sitting: Karen Angelini, Justice Marialyn Barnard, Justice Rebeca C. Martinez, Justice

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Karen Angelini, Justice

Oncor Electric Company LLC appeals from a judgment rendered on a special commissioners' award in a condemnation case. We conclude the trial court erred in rendering judgment on the commissioners' award. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

Background

A condemnation action begins as an administrative proceeding and, if necessary, may be converted to a judicial proceeding. City of Tyler v. Beck, 196 S.W.3d 784, 786 (Tex. 2006). To begin a condemnation action, a condemning entity files a petition in the appropriate trial court. Id.; State v. Garland, 963 S.W.2d 95, 97 (Tex. App.—Austin 1998, pet. denied). The trial court then appoints special commissioners, who conduct a hearing and determine just compensation. Beck, 196 S.W.3d at 786; Garland, 963 S.W.2d at 97. Any party to a condemnation action may object to the commissioners' award by filing written objections with the court. Beck, 196 S.W.3d at 786; Garland, 963 S.W.2d at 97. If any party timely files objections, the commissioners' award is vacated and the administrative proceeding becomes a judicial proceeding. Beck, 196 S.W.3d at 786; Garland, 963 S.W.2d at 97. However, if no objections are filed, or if objections are untimely filed, the trial court does not acquire jurisdiction beyond its ministerial duty to render judgment on the commissioners' award. Garland, 963 S.W.2d at 97 (citing Pearson v. State, 315 S.W.2d 935, 938 (1958)).

In this case, Oncor filed a condemnation petition in the district court in Mills County, Texas. In its petition, Oncor sought to condemn land owned by James Milton Schunke. The district court appointed special commissioners, who heard the case and decided to award Schunke $367, 000.00 in damages for the condemnation of his land. Oncor filed the commissioners' award and a notice of the commissioners' decision with the trial court clerk on September 26, 2011. The notice of decision instructed the trial court clerk to mail, by certified or registered mail, a copy of the notice to Schunke's and Oncor's attorneys of record. On September 28, 2011, the trial court clerk mailed a copy of the notice of decision to Schunke's attorneys of record, but she did not mail a copy of the notice of decision to Oncor's attorneys of record. Oncor filed objections to the commissioners' award on October 19, 2011.

Thereafter, Schunke filed a motion seeking judgment on the commissioners' award. In the motion, Schunke argued the trial court was required to render judgment on the commissioners' award because Oncor failed to file its objections in a timely manner. According to Schunke, Oncor's objections were due on October 17, 2011, which was the first Monday following the twentieth day after the commissioners' award was filed with the trial court clerk.

The trial court held a hearing on Schunke's motion. At the hearing, a trial court clerk testified that the notice of the commissioners' decision was not sent to Oncor in the manner specified by the property code. Nevertheless, Schunke argued that the clerk's failure to send the notice of decision to Oncor in the manner specified by the property code did not toll Oncor's time for filing objections because the relevant property code provisions were designed to protect landowners rather than condemning entities. Schunke further argued that Oncor had actual notice of the filing of the notice of decision. In response, Oncor argued its objections were not untimely because the property code required the clerk to mail the notice of decision to the parties or their attorneys of record and the clerk failed to do so. Furthermore, Oncor claimed that it relied on the law stating that the time for filing objections was tolled until the clerk mailed the notice of decision to the parties or their attorneys of record. The trial court concluded Oncor's objections were untimely filed, granted Schunke's motion, and rendered judgment on the commissioners' award. Oncor appealed.

Discussion

On appeal, Oncor argues its objections were timely filed and therefore the trial court erred in rendering judgment on the commissioners' award. Two provisions of the Texas property code are central to the issue presented in this appeal. The first provision, section 21.049, states:

The judge of a court hearing a proceeding under this chapter shall inform the clerk of the court as to a decision by the special commissioners on the day the decision is filed or on the next working day after the day the decision is filed. Not later than the next working day after the day the decision is filed, the clerk shall send notice of the decision by certified or registered United States mail, return receipt requested, to the parties in the proceeding, or to their attorneys of record, at their addresses of record.

Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 21.049 (West 2000). The second provision, section 21.018, states:

(a) A party to a condemnation proceeding may object to the findings of the special commissioners by filing a written statement of the objections and their grounds with the court that has jurisdiction of the proceeding. The statement must be filed on or before the first Monday following the ...

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