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Garcia v. Harding

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso

June 7, 2017

ERIK GARCIA, Appellant,
v.
JOHN M. HARDING AND JANE E. HARDING-AGUIRRE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS HEIRS OF MILDRED HARDING, DECEASED, Appellees

         Appeal from County Court at Law No. 3 of El Paso County, Texas (TC # 2012DCV04274)

          Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Hughes, JJ.

          OPINION

          ANN CRAWFORD McCLURE, Chief Justice.

         This appeal raises the question of whether a trial court can, without some type of proper notice, issue a judgment to enforce a "Rule 11" agreement which settles a case. Under the facts presented here, we conclude that a trial court cannot issue do so and reverse and remand the case for further proceedings.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL SUMMARY

         John and Jane Harding, individually and on behalf of their deceased mother, Mildred Harding, filed this suit against IHS Acquisition No. 131, Inc., d/b/a Horizon Healthcare Center at El Paso (Horizon) and Appellant Erik Garcia. Horizon runs a nursing home and Garcia was an administrator for Horizon. The Hardings allege that Horizon and Garcia's negligence caused the death of their mother, who was a resident.

          After several years of litigation, the parties settled their disputes. The settlement was first memorialized in a letter agreement dated October 7, 2015, signed by their respective counsel, setting out payment terms and the other logistics for resolving the suit. The claims were resolved for a total payment of $115, 000; Horizon and Garcia were to pay that amount in three equal monthly installments. Within two weeks of the letter agreement, the Hardings signed a comprehensive settlement and release agreement. The trial court was informed of the settlement and issued an order on October 7, 2015, directing the parties to present the final "dispositive pleadings" for the court's approval by January 6, 2016. The date was not set as a hearing, but rather a deadline. The parties were informed that failure to have the closing paperwork by that date would result in an automatic dismissal under Tex.R.Civ.P. 165a, unless the deadline was extended by the trial court.

         On January 19, 2016, the Hardings filed a motion to retain the case and attached a redacted copy of the letter agreement. The Hardings asked for additional time to afford them "an opportunity to seek a final judgment effecting the settlement agreement." It appears that Horizon and Garcia had failed to make the payments under the settlement agreement. The court set the motion for a hearing on February 19, 2016. Prior to that hearing, the Hardings filed their Fifth Amended Original Petition which included two additional causes of action. One of the new claims sought to enforce the settlement as a Rule 11 agreement. The second new claim sought to enforce the settlement under a breach of contract theory. The pleading asked that the trial court enforce the terms of the settlement agreement, enter a final judgment for the amount due under the agreement, along with court costs, prejudgment and post-judgment interest, and an award of reasonable and necessary attorney's fees.

         At the February 19th hearing, the trial court did more than merely retain the case.[1]Concluding that a valid and enforceable settlement agreement as "evidenced by a Rule 11 T.R.C.P. filed in the records of this Court" was entered into among the parties, the court signed a judgment in the Hardings' favor. The judgment required each of the defendants to pay one-half of the settlement amount ($57, 500 each), along with post-judgment interest. Both Garcia and Horizon were also jointly and severally liable for taxable court costs.

         Garcia filed a motion for new trial. The motion complained that Garcia was given no notice that the trial court intended to enter a final judgment at the February hearing. The motion included Garcia's declaration that he revoked his consent before the February 19 judgment. He claims that Horizon was supposed to fund the settlement and upon its failure to so, he no longer consented to the terms. The motion was overruled by operation of law, and both Horizon and Garcia filed notice of appeal. Horizon has since filed a motion to dismiss its appeal, which this court granted. Garcia v. Harding, 08-16-00096-CV, 2016 WL 5121995, at *1 (Tex.App.-El Paso Sept. 21, 2016, no pet.)(mem.op.)(not designated for publication).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Garcia presents one issue complaining that the trial court abused its discretion in entering a final judgment without proper notice. Error was preserved through the motion for new trial. Generally, a trial court's decision on a motion for new trial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. In re R.R., 209 S.W.3d 112, 114 (Tex. 2006); Munoz v. Rivera, 225 S.W.3d 23, 26 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2005, no pet.). A trial court abuses its discretion when it acts in an arbitrary or unreasonable manner, or it acts without reference to any guiding principles of law. Downer v. Aquamarine Operators, Inc., 701 S.W.2d 238, 241-42 (Tex. 1985); Acosta v. Tri State Mortg. Co., 322 S.W.3d 794, 801 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2010, no pet.).

         ENFORCEMENT OF SETTLEMENT AGREEMENTS

         Parties may enforce settlement agreements entered into during the pendency of litigation in one of two ways. First, if the agreement is reduced to writing, filed with the court, and neither party has withdrawn their consent, the trial court can enter an agreed judgment consistent with the terms of the agreement. See Padilla v. LaFrance, 907 S.W.2d 454, 460 (Tex. 1995); Kennedy v. Hyde, 682 S.W.2d 525, 528 (Tex. 1984); Kanan v. Plantation Homeowner's Ass'n Inc., 407 S.W.3d 320, 327 (Tex.App.--Corpus Christi 2013, no pet.). Such an agreement meets the requirements of Tex.R.Civ.P. 11 which states, "[u]nless otherwise provided in these rules, no agreement between attorneys or parties touching any suit pending will be enforced unless it be in writing, signed and filed with the papers as part of the record, or unless it be made in open court and entered of record." A trial court has a ministerial duty to ...


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