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Letot v. United Services Automobile Association

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

April 27, 2017

SUNNY LETOT, Appellant

         On Appeal from the 192nd Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 13-00156-E

          Before Justices Lang, Brown, and Richter [1]



         We deny appellee United Services Automobile Association's (USAA) motion for rehearing, but withdraw our original opinion and substitute the following in its place.

         Appellant Sunny Letot appeals a summary judgment granted in favor of USAA. In two issues, Letot generally asserts the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because (1) USAA failed to establish that it properly reported her vehicle as salvage to the Texas Department of Transportation, and (2) USAA otherwise failed to show it was entitled to summary judgment on her individual claims. For the following reasons, we reverse the trial court's summary judgment on Letot's claims under the Texas Insurance Code, conversion, and tortious interference with existing contractual relations and remand those claims to the trial court for further proceedings. We affirm the trial court's summary judgment that Letot take-nothing on her claims for tortious interference with prospective contractual relations, slander of title and injurious falsehood.


         On January 2, 2009, Letot was involved in a motor vehicle accident with USAA's insured, Evan Crosby. At the time of the collision, Letot was driving a vintage 1983 Mercedes she had recently restored.

         Almost immediately after the collision, Letot contacted USAA seeking to recover her property damages. On January 15, after investigating her claim, USAA informed Letot that it had deemed her vehicle a "total loss" and offered to pay her $2, 494.02, which it asserted was the actual cash value of her vehicle. On January 20, Letot rejected USAA's valuation and its offer.

         Nevertheless, the next day, on January 21, USAA mailed Letot an uncertified check for $2, 494.02 and, the day after that, USAA submitted an "Owner Retained Report" ("Report") to the Texas Department of Transportation ("TxDoT") pursuant to provisions of the Texas Certificate of Title Act ("the Act").[2] In the Report, USAA represented to TxDoT that it had paid a claim on a salvage motor vehicle, that Letot retained that vehicle, and therefore the motor vehicle records should be marked to prevent further transfer of title until Letot obtained a salvage title.

         Letot subsequently received USAA's check. On January 30, now through counsel, Letot returned the check. That same day, TxDoT sent Letot a letter to inform her that USAA had filed the Report and, as a result, her registration was no longer valid, she was not permitted to operate the vehicle, and she could not transfer it until she obtained a salvage title.

         After receiving the letter and discussing her options with her mechanic, Letot disposed of the vehicle as scrap to avoid incurring further storage fees. Then, almost two years after it filed the Report, USAA filed a "correction" with TxDoT, representing it had filed the Report in error and that the damages to Letot's vehicle were insufficient to classify it as a salvage motor vehicle.

         Letot sued USAA asserting claims for (1) violations of the Insurance Code and the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, (2) conversion, (3) tortious interference with existing and prospective contractual relations, (4) slander of title, and (5) injurious falsehood. USAA moved for summary judgment asserting both traditional and no-evidence grounds. First, USAA asserted it was entitled to summary judgment on all of Letot's claims because it properly filed the Report in accordance with the provisions of the Act. USAA also moved for summary judgment on each of Letot's individual claims. Following a hearing, the trial court granted USAA's motion, without stating its reasons, and rendered judgment that Letot take nothing. This appeal followed.

         Summary Judgment

         1. Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment

         A traditional motion for summary judgment must state "the specific grounds therefor." Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); see also Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Lenk, 361 S.W.3d 602, 609 (Tex. 2012) ("[C]ourt cannot grant summary judgment on grounds that were not presented."); McConnell v. Southside Indep. Sch. Dist., 858 S.W.2d 337, 339 (Tex. 1993) (motion must expressly present grounds for summary judgment). "Grounds" refers to the reasons entitling the movant to summary judgment. McConnell, 858 S.W.2d at 339 n. 2. The motion must provide the nonmovant with adequate information to oppose the motion and to define the issues for the purpose of summary judgment. See Westchester Fire Ins. Co. v. Alvarez, 576 S.W.2d 771, 772 (Tex. 1978).

         To be entitled to traditional summary judgment, a defendant must conclusively negate at least one essential element of each of the plaintiff's causes of action or conclusively establish each element of an affirmative defense. Am. Tobacco Co., Inc. v. Grinnell, 951 S.W.2d 420, 425 (Tex. 1997). Evidence is conclusive only if reasonable people could not differ in their conclusions. City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 816 (Tex. 2005). Summary judgment is also proper if the material facts are not in dispute and the sole question is whether those facts entitle the movant to summary judgment. City of Dallas v. Cornerstone Bank, N.A., 879 S.W.2d 264, 269 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1994, no writ).

         2. No-Evidence Motion for Summary Judgment

         A no-evidence motion is distinct from a traditional motion. Its purpose is to pierce the pleadings to assess whether the factual allegations have evidentiary support. Robinson v. Warner-Lambert & Old Corner Drug, 998 S.W.2d 407, 410 (Tex. App.-Waco 1999, no pet.). Unlike a movant seeking summary judgment on traditional grounds, the movant is not required to show it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law or to present any evidence. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(i). Instead, the movant may move for summary judgment on the ground that there is no evidence of one or more essential elements of a claim or defense on which the adverse party would have the burden of proof at trial. See id. The motion must identify the particular element or elements on which there is no evidence. Id. A motion may be directed at specific factual theories or allegations within a claim or defense only if the challenge is connected to a specified element of a claim or defense. See Pakideh v. Pope, No. 13-08-00560-CV, 2010 WL 3820899, at *4-5 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi Sept. 30, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op.) (no-evidence challenge to fourteen factual allegations not connected to a no-evidence challenge to an element of a claim was defective); see also Callaghan Ranch, Ltd. v. Killam, 53 S.W.3d 1, 3-4 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2000, pet. denied).

         In ruling on a no-evidence motion, the trial court does not rule on substantive questions of law. See, e.g. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co. v. Seagoville Partners, 05-15-00760-CV, 2016 WL 3199003, at *2 (Tex. App.-Dallas June 9, 2016, no pet.) (explaining distinction between summary judgment rulings based on summary judgment evidence and those based on substantive questions of law). Rather, it determines whether the movant produced more than a scintilla of probative evidence to raise a fact issue on the challenged elements. Killingsworth v. Housing Auth. of City of Dallas, 447 S.W.3d 480, 486 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2014, pet. denied). More than a scintilla of evidence exists if the evidence rises to a level that would enable reasonable and fair-minded jurors to differ in their conclusions. Hamilton v. Wilson, 249 S.W.3d 425, 426 (Tex. 2008) (per curiam).

         Owner Retained Report

         As noted, Letot's claims are based on her complaint that USAA falsely reported that it had "paid a claim" on a salvage motor vehicle. USAA moved for summary judgment asserting it was entitled to traditional summary judgment on all of Letot's claims because it showed, as a matter of law, it filed the Report in accordance with mandatory provisions of the Texas Transportation Code. In her first issue, Letot contends the trial court erred in granting ...

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