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Gutierrez v. Gonzalez

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

June 26, 2017

JUAN GUTIERREZ, Appellant
v.
MARIO GONZALEZ, Appellee

         On Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 5 Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. CC-16-01067-E

          Before Justices Francis, Brown, and Schenck

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MOLLY FRANCIS JUSTICE

         Juan Gutierrez appeals the trial court's judgment in this forcible entry and detainer action awarding possession of the property at issue to Mario Gonzalez. Gutierrez contends the trial court erred in failing to dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction. In two cross-issues, Gonzalez argues the trial court erred in failing to award him past due rent and attorney's fees. We affirm the trial court's judgment.

         During the trial before the court, Gonzalez, Gutierrez and Gutierrez's daughter testified. The evidence shows Gonzalez employed Gutierrez as a worker in his roofing company from 1990 to 2015. In 1991, Gonzalez began allowing Gutierrez and his family to live in a house he owned in Balch Springs, Texas. Gutierrez testified Gonzalez took some money out of his paycheck every month in exchange for allowing him to live on the property.

          In 1994, Gonzalez renovated the house while it was being occupied by Gutierrez. According to Gutierrez, Gonzalez told him after the renovations were finished that the property was "going to be [his] house as a sale." Gutierrez further stated Gonzalez told him he was "in the will." After that, Gutierrez believed his work for Gonzalez was "going towards the purchase of the house." Gutierrez stated that in 2014 and 2015, Gonzalez did not pay him anything and he thought it was because the money was being applied to his ownership of the house. In addition, Gutierrez testified he paid for all repairs and maintenance to the house after the renovations were completed. Gutierrez conceded that he was never given anything in writing concerning his purchase of the house and Gonzalez paid all the property taxes. Gonzalez denied Gutierrez's assertion that he was not paid for a two-year period and testified there was never an agreement to sell Gutierrez the house.

         In August 2015, Gonzalez terminated Gutierrez's employment and asked him to vacate the property. In response to the request to vacate, Gutierrez's wife and daughter offered to purchase the property. Gonzalez signed a contract to sell them the house for $135, 000. The contract had a closing date of September 30, 2015 and required the buyers to obtain third party financing. Gutierrez's wife and daughter were not able to obtain financing by the closing date and the sale did not occur.

         The following January, an attorney representing Gonzalez sent written notice to Gutierrez demanding he vacate the property within ten days. When Gutierrez did not leave, Gonzalez filed this forcible entry and detainer action in justice court. The justice court awarded possession of the property to Gonzalez but did not award past due rent or attorney's fees. Gutierrez appealed the ruling to the county court at law for a trial de novo. In county court, Gutierrez moved to dismiss the case arguing a genuine issue of title to the property existed over which the justice court and, by extension, the county court did not have jurisdiction. The county court denied the motion to dismiss and awarded Gonzalez possession of the property along with $450 that had been deposited into the registry of the court. Like the justice court, the county court did not award Gonzalez past due rent or attorney's fees. This appeal followed.

         In his sole issue on appeal, Gutierrez contends the trial court erred in failing to dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction over forcible entry and detainer actions is expressly given to the justice courts and, on appeal, to the county courts at law de novo. See Rice v. Pinney, 51 S.W.3d 705, 708 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2001, no pet.). The county court has no jurisdiction over the appeal unless the justice court had jurisdiction below. Id. The sole issue in a forcible entry and detainer action is who has the right to immediate possession of the premises. Id. at 709. Where the right to immediate possession requires resolution of a title dispute, the justice court has no jurisdiction to enter a judgment and the case must be dismissed. Id.

         The existence of a landlord-tenant relationship provides a basis for determining the right to possession without resolving the issue of who owns the property. See Dass, Inc. v. Smith, 206 S.W.3d 197, 200 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2006, no pet.). In some cases, such as here, the parties dispute whether a landlord-tenant or a buyer-seller relationship exists. See Yarto v. Gilliland, 287 S.W.3d 83, 89 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi 2009, no pet.). To defeat the court's jurisdiction, the defendant must provide "specific evidence" of a genuine title dispute that is intertwined with the issue of immediate possession. Id. at 93. Specific evidence of a title dispute exists if a party asserts a basis for title ownership that is not patently ineffective under the law. Id.

         The undisputed evidence establishes that Gonzalez held legal title to the property. Gutierrez contends a title dispute exists because he is claiming equitable title by virtue of his purported oral agreement with Gonzalez to purchase the property. The oral agreement forming the basis of Gutierrez's title claim, however, is nothing more than his assertion that Gonzalez told him the house would be his "as a sale" and his belief that some unspecified portion of his pay during his employment by Gonzalez was being applied to the purchase. For an oral contract to be enforceable, the legal obligations and liabilities of the parties must be sufficiently definite. See Lamajak, Inc. v. Frazin, 230 S.W.3d 786, 793 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2007, no pet.). The contract must be certain and clear as to all essential terms or the contract will fail for indefiniteness. Id. The only "essential term" Gutierrez testified to was the identity of the property. He provided no evidence of any agreement regarding the total purchase price, the duration of the alleged contract, or the amount of the payments he was obligated to make. Nor has he given any indication that evidence of an agreement as to the essential terms of a purchase contract exists. Absent evidence of an agreement to all the essential terms of a purchase contract, Gutierrez's claim of equitable title is patently ineffective under the law and will not defeat the jurisdiction of the justice court or county court at law. See Yarto, 287 S.W.3d at 96. We resolve Gutierrez's sole issue against him.

         In two cross issues, Gonzalez contends the trial court erred in failing to award him past due rent and attorney's fees. In his brief discussion of the trial court's failure to award past due rent, Gonzalez cites no authority and makes no argument concerning the nature of the trial court's alleged error other than to state Gutierrez did not challenge the court's finding that the fair market rental value of the property was $1, 200 per month. The trial court made no findings or conclusions that Gonzalez was entitled to recover past due rent and Gonzalez makes no argument that he is entitled to such damages as a matter of law. Bare assertions of error without argument or authority waive error. See Washington v. Bank of New York, 362 S.W.3d 853, 854 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2012, no pet.).

         As for the attorney's fees, Gonzalez correctly notes that under section 24.006 of the Texas Property Code, a landlord who provides his tenant with proper notice to vacate is entitled to recover his attorney's fees in an eviction suit. Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 24.006(b) (West 2014). Attorney fees were not awarded in the trial court's judgment. Following entry of the judgment, the record does not show Gonzalez brought the omission of the attorney's fees to the attention of the trial court by a motion to amend or correct the judgment or in a motion for new trial. Because Gonzalez failed to bring this issue to the attention of the trial court, we conclude error, if any, ...


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