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Sunesara v. Prappas

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

June 22, 2017


          Submitted on March 27, 2017

         On Appeal from the 60th District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. B-188, 841

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Kreger and Johnson, JJ.



         Noelia Ayala Sunesara ("Noelia") appeals from the trial court's final judgment in favor of appellees after a bench trial in Noelia's suit for alleged fraud, breach of contract, and violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act ("DTPA"). In two issues, Noelia argues that (1) the trial court erred when it imposed sanctions on her and (2) the trial court erred by denying her request for a jury trial. We affirm the trial court's judgment.


         On November 19, 2010, Noelia filed her original petition against George J. Prappas and Robert J. Connor, seeking damages for alleged fraud, breach of contract, and deceptive trade practices. On December 8, 2010, Noelia amended her petition and added Barkat Ali Khoja and Sultan Ali Khoja as defendants. According to Noelia's amended petition, Prappas filed a Final Decree of Divorce on behalf of Zulfikarali Jafar Sunesara ("Jafar"), to which Noelia was the respondent. Noelia pleaded that although a waiver of citation, notarized by Connor, was included with the divorce papers, "she did not sign this document nor was [she] aware she was asked for a divorce." Noelia further pleaded that she had initiated divorce proceedings after losing contact with Jafar. According to Noelia's petition, her divorce attorney located a copy of a final decree of divorce, filed in Jefferson County, Texas, and saw the signature that purported to be Noelia's on the waiver of citation.

         Appellees filed an original answer, in which they asserted that Sultan Ali Khoja died in 1981 and that Jafar died in 2004. Appellees asserted that Noelia's marriage to Jafar was void ab initio because Jafar was married to another woman when he purportedly married Noelia. Appellees also pleaded that their counsel advised Noelia's counsel that Noelia's claims are barred by limitations, and they asserted a counterclaim, in which they alleged that Noelia's lawsuit was brought in bad faith and in an effort to extort funds from appellees to settle the case. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 10.001, 10.004(a), (c)(3) (West 2017). In addition, appellees asserted in their counterclaim that Noelia's causes of action were groundless and brought for the purpose of harassment, and they sought sanctions and attorney's fees. While Noelia's lawsuit was pending, a suggestion of Prappas's bankruptcy was filed, which automatically stayed the proceeding until April 23, 2015, when the Bankruptcy Court signed an agreed order granting relief from the automatic stay with respect to any professional liability insurance coverage Prappas possessed, but not as to Prappas's estate. On November 12, 2015, a notice of death was filed, which indicated that Prappas had died on November 1, 2015.

         On February 11, 2016, Noelia filed a jury demand. Appellees objected to the jury demand because the case was set for bench trial on February 16, 2016. According to appellees, Noelia's jury demand is "untimely, comes on the eve of trial when this case has been a non-jury case on every trial docket . . ., and [this] was a non-jury case when the case was specially set for trial." The trial court found that Noelia's request for jury trial was untimely and denied the request, and the case proceeded to a non-jury trial on February 16, 2016.


         Noelia testified that she met Jafar when Jafar and his brother came to Freeport. According to Noelia, one of her friends had married one of Jafar's friends for a "lump sum money . . . so he could get married into the [c]ountry. So they asked me about that. And so we got married. . . . [H]e, like, started telling me. . . that I would be well-taken care of and that I would[] want for nothing, my kids would be well[-]taken care of." Jafar and Noelia married on February 11, 1997, in Jefferson County, Texas. Noelia testified that she "actually loved" Jafar.

         Noelia explained that Jafar did not tell her that he was already married, and she would not have married him if she had known he was married. A copy of a memorandum of marriage between Jafar and another woman, which memorialized a marriage that took place in India on July 2, 1989, was introduced into evidence, and Noelia stipulated that Jafar had married someone in 1989. The memorandum of the 1989 marriage was dated March 25, 2011. Noelia testified that she lived with Jafar "off and on [for] almost a year." According to Noelia, she eventually lost contact with Jafar, and she hired an attorney to help her locate him and to institute divorce proceedings. Noelia testified that she eventually learned that Jafar had divorced her, and she testified that her signature on the waiver of citation was forged, possibly by her sister, who resembles Noelia and had access to Noelia's identification. A copy of a final decree of divorce, dated January 17, 2003, was entered into evidence, and Noelia testified that her attorney showed her the divorce decree sometime in 2010.

         Noelia explained that she later learned that Jafar had married her "[s]o he could live in this country." Noelia testified that in 2001, Jafar contacted her and flew her to Houston to meet with the immigration authorities, and Noelia testified that Prappas told her what to say to the immigration authorities. According to Noelia, Jafar named her as the beneficiary of his $50, 000 life insurance policy, and she testified that she was unaware that Jafar had designated someone else as beneficiary. Noelia testified that whenever she and Jafar met with Prappas, Barkat was there, but she did not know what part Barkat played or why he was there. The record established that Jafar died in 2004.

         Barkat, who is Jafar's uncle, testified that he leased a convenience store to Jafar. Barkat denied going to Prappas's office with Jafar and Noelia. Barkat testified that he did not know that Jafar had married Noelia until Jafar's wife came over from India, and Jafar told Barkat that Noelia was a "rental wife" that he had married to obtain a green card. Barkat testified that by 1999, he knew Jafar had committed fraud by marrying Noelia. Barkat denied having any knowledge of Prappas facilitating fraudulent marriages, and Barkat testified that Prappas did not know that the marriage between Noelia and Jafar was fraudulent. Barkat testified that two weeks before Jafar died, Jafar told him that he had a life insurance policy, and Barkat explained that Jafar made him the beneficiary of ...

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