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Reagins v. Walker

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

March 7, 2017


         On Appeal from the 387th District Court Fort Bend County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 06-DCV-147524

          Panel consists of Justices Jamison, Wise, and Jewell.


          Martha Hill Jamison Justice

         In this post-answer default, Billy Ray Reagins, Sr. appeals from the trial court's order modifying his parent-child relationship with his minor child. Among other things, the court ordered Reagins to pay child support to the child's mother, Sheila Walker, and to provide health insurance for the child. In two issues on appeal, Reagins contends that (1) the trial court abused its discretion in setting the amount of child support because there was insufficient evidence presented to establish Reagins' net resources and (2) he received ineffective assistance of counsel. Concluding the evidence was legally insufficient to establish Reagins' net resources and Reagins is not permitted to complain regarding ineffective assistance under the circumstances of this case, we affirm in part and reverse and remand in part for further proceedings.


         Reagins and Walker both filed pleadings to modify the trial court's 2011 child support order.[1] Reagins asked for the exclusive right to establish the primary residence of the child and for Walker to pay him child support. Walker alleged a change in circumstances necessitated an increase in Reagins' child support obligation retroactive to the filing of this suit and requested he be required to provide health insurance and pay half of all uninsured health expenses for the child.[2] Reagins also filed a motion for enforcement of his rights as joint managing conservator, with which he claimed Walker was interfering.

         Prior to trial, Reagins' original counsel filed a motion to withdraw, and a new attorney filed a motion to substitute counsel. Neither Reagins nor his original counsel appeared for the trial setting. Although new counsel did appear, the trial court determined that defects prevented original counsel from withdrawing and new counsel from participating.[3] Trial thereafter commenced without Reagins or any counsel representing him participating.

          At the beginning of trial, the judge granted Walker's motions to dismiss Reagins' modification and enforcement actions and proceeded to hear evidence on Walker's claims. The only witness called was Walker. No exhibits were offered into evidence.

         Walker testified that she had not been provided any documentation from Reagins proving the amount of his salary, such as paycheck stubs or federal tax returns. She therefore conducted internet searches and discovered that Reagins is a petroleum engineer with three degrees, at least one of which is a master's degree. She additionally found out that Reagins "worked for GE" and began working there in October 2011. Walker further stated that she recently "found out he does go overseas to work" and had been doing that for several years. Walker testified that she "investigat[ed] with regard to what a petroleum engineer might make with his experience . . . and so forth" and found a range of between $127, 000 to $130, 000. She then stated that it was her belief that Reagins made a minimum of $127, 000 a year. Walker additionally testified that Reagins has two other minor children, both of whom attend private school. She testified to the cost of the private schools, but she did not state how she obtained any of this information. She said that Reagins apparently made too much money to qualify for mediation at the DRC.[4] Walker also testified that Reagins had not provided her with information concerning his health insurance coverage.

         In its order, the trial court found that Walker's material allegations were true, modification is in the best interest of the child, Reagins' income is $10, 584 per month, and he has a total of three minor children. On the basis of these findings and the statutory child support guidelines, the court ordered Reagins to pay $1, 534 per month to Walker for support of their minor child. The court further ordered Reagins to pay $3, 068 in retroactive child support, to provide health insurance for the child, and to pay half of all unreimbursed medical expenses.

         Reagins challenges the trial court's child support calculation and contends he received ineffective assistance of counsel. He does not, however, challenge the trial court's dismissal of his Motion to Modify or his Motion for Enforcement, and he does not challenge the trial court's orders relating to health insurance and expenses.

         Child Support

         In his first issue, Reagins asserts the trial court abused its discretion in setting the amount of his child support obligation because there was insufficient evidence to calculate his net resources. We agree. Walker's generalized testimony based on internet searches was not sufficient to support the net resources calculation, and none of the other arguments made by Walker are supported by the record.

         The Texas Family Code allows a trial court to modify a support order if circumstances have "materially and substantially changed" since the date of the order's rendition under certain conditions. See Tex. Fam. Code § 156.401(a)(1), (2).[5] A change in the obligor-parent's income can constitute a material and substantial change in circumstances. See Plowman v. Ugalde, No. 01-14-00851-CV, 2015 WL 6081666, at *4-5 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] Oct. 15, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.) (citing Rumscheidt v. Rumscheidt, 362 S.W.3d 661, 666 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2011, no pet.), and Starck v. Nelson, 878 S.W.2d 302, 308 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi 1994, no writ)).

          A trial court possesses broad discretion in determining whether to modify a child support order. Friermood v. Friermood, 25 S.W.3d 758, 760 (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.] 2000, no pet.). Accordingly, on appeal, we will not disturb the trial court's determination absent a clear abuse of discretion. Worford v. Stamper, 801 S.W.2d 108, 109 (Tex. 1990) (per curiam); Friermood, 25 S.W.3d at 760. An abuse of discretion only occurs when the trial court acts without reference to any guiding rules or legal principles. Worford, 801 S.W.2d at 109; see also Downer v. Aquamarine Operators, Inc., 701 S.W.2d 238, 24142 (Tex. 1985). Under the abuse of discretion standard, the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence are not to be considered as independent grounds of error, but as relevant factors in assessing whether the trial court did in fact abuse its discretion. Hardin v. Hardin, 161 S.W.3d 14, 19 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2004, no pet.). When applying the abuse-of-discretion standard in this context, we ask first whether the trial ...

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