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Gonzalez v. Martinez

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

May 23, 2017


         On Appeal from the 333rd District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2014-32788.

          Panel consists of Justices Massengale, Brown, and Huddle.


          Michael Massengale Justice

         Appellant Elma Garza Gonzalez was sued by her eight siblings for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and conversion in connection with the disposition of their late father's assets. The trial court granted summary judgment against Elma, awarding damages to her siblings and declaring void a gift of real property.

         On appeal, Elma raises two issues, arguing that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and that her siblings' claims were barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel. We conclude, under long-standing Texas precedent, that her siblings lacked standing to sue absent an allegation and proof that administration of the estate was either closed or unnecessary. We therefore reverse and render judgment dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction.


         Albino Garza was the father to nine children, who are the parties to this appeal. He had a sixth-grade education, spoke Spanish, and did not read, write, or understand English. When he was 77 years old, he lost the ability to manage his affairs due to dementia and a severe hearing impairment. His daughter, appellant Elma Garza Gonzalez, lived next door to him. She obtained power of attorney for him in January 2011, and she used that power to add herself as a signatory and joint owner of his existing Wells Fargo checking account, which had a balance at that time of $239, 584.87. In April 2012, she persuaded her father to execute a gift deed transferring to her all of his real property, including six duplexes in Harris County. She recorded the deed in the real-property records of Harris County. By August 2012, the Wells Fargo checking account had been reduced to $109.

         Appellee Norma Martinez filed an application to be appointed guardian of the person and the estate of Albino. She alleged that Albino was mentally incapacitated and that since Elma had taken over his financial affairs, she had taken more than $200, 000. In connection with that proceeding, Albino was examined by a physician, who concluded that he was totally incapacitated. Norma obtained a temporary restraining order against Elma, but it was later dissolved, and that case was dismissed without prejudice.

         Albino died intestate in December 2013. Elma thereafter held herself out as the owner of the real property, which she leased. She did not share the rent with her siblings. Approximately six months after their father died, Elma's siblings sued her to set aside the gift deed and to recover damages for breach of fiduciary duty, common-law fraud, and conversion or misappropriation of property. They also sought a declaration that the power of attorney and gift deed were void because their father lacked mental capacity when he signed those documents.

         In their petition, Elma's siblings alleged that they and she were Albino's only children and heirs-at-law, and that he died intestate. They sought a determination of "their share and interest in the property, " specifically the real property which had been gifted to Elma and the money she took from the Wells Fargo checking account. The petition did not mention whether an administration was pending, necessary, or had been completed, nor did it mention whether Albino had any debts at the time of his death.

         Representing herself, Elma answered the lawsuit, asserting a general denial without pleading any affirmative defenses. Her answer did not mention anything about whether an administration of Albino's estate was pending, necessary, or had been completed.

         Elma's siblings filed a traditional motion for summary judgment, which addressed all of the causes of action pleaded in their original petition. Like the original petition, the motion for summary judgment asserted that Albino died intestate in December 2013, but it made no mention of any pending or completed administration, nor did it argue that administration of his estate was unnecessary. Instead, Elma's siblings attached summary-judgment evidence that supported their claims on the merits. They attached requests for admissions, which they contended were deemed admitted because Elma failed to respond despite being properly served. Among other things, Elma judicially admitted:

47. That [she] and Plaintiffs are the sole children and heirs-at-law of the Decedent.
48. That as lawful heirs of the Decedent, Plaintiffs are entitled to have their share and interest in the property ...

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