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In re A.R.M.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

July 12, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF A.R.M., A CHILD

         On Appeal from the 330th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. DF-13-09646

          Before Chief Justice Wright, Justice Lang-Miers, and Justice Stoddart.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CAROLYN WRIGHT CHIEF JUSTICE

         Before the Court is Mother's challenge to the trial court's order sustaining the court reporter's contest to Mother's statement of inability to afford payment of court costs. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 145(g)(1). We reverse the order.

         BACKGROUND

         Mother filed the statement seeking to obtain without payment the appellate record of her divorce and parental rights termination proceedings. [1] The appeal from those proceedings, which resulted in her rights to A.R.M. being terminated, is docketed as appellate cause number 05-17-00539-CV.

         In her statement, Mother listed as dependents a sixteen-year old son and A.R.M. She stated she was a student and had no income other than $511 which she received in food stamps "pending appeal of termination of parental rights." She also stated she had no cash, bank accounts, or "other financial assets" and had outstanding debt exceeding $225, 000 in legal fees. Her personal property consisted of jewelry, which she valued at $300, and she drove a car owned by her father. Her monthly expenses totaled $4240 and consisted in part of "rent/ house payments/maintenance" in the amount of $1350, "clothing and laundry" in the amount of $450, "transportation, auto repair, gas" in the amount of $400, and "school and child care" in the amount $90. The expenses were paid by her boyfriend. The statement reflected she was "financially eligible for [legal aid] representation, but the provider could not take [her] case."

         The trial court's order followed a hearing on the court reporter's contest. The court reporter did not dispute at the hearing that Mother had no income because she was a student and did not work. She testified she contested Mother's statement because Mother had been represented at trial by retained counsel paid for by her father. The court reporter also questioned whether Mother's boyfriend could pay the fee for the record, which she testified would be $4800 "if it was a normal turnaround" and $9600 "if it was expedited[.]"[2]

         Mother testified her father had paid over $165, 000 in legal fees for her, but he was no longer "financially supporting" her "in this litigation." In fact, she was being represented by pro bono counsel.

         As for her boyfriend, he had earned $76, 000 in the past year, but money was "tight." Asked if she could afford to pay for the record, Mother responded "no."

         In sustaining the contest, the trial court found in part that Mother was not credible. The trial court also found specific portions of Mother's statements to be "inaccurate, false, and/or misleading, " including her claims of $450 in clothing expenses, $90 in school and child care expenses, and $400 "for a vehicle she claims she does not own[.]" The trial court found "[t]he household earns $76, 000 per year" and, "[b]ased upon the information provided for the Court's consideration, the . . . household has approximately $3, 200.00 in disposable income."

         APPLICABLE LAW AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 145 exempts a party from paying court costs, including the reporter's fee, if the party files a statement showing he does not have the funds to pay. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 145(a), (c). However, the clerk, another party, the attorney ad litem in certain cases, the court reporter, or the court itself may challenge the statement of inability to pay costs by motion. See id. 145(f)(1)-(4). The trial court may grant the motion and order payment of costs if, following a hearing, the party seeking to proceed without payment of costs fails to establish his inability to afford costs. See id. 145(f)(5). The trial court may order the party pay that part of the costs he can afford or pay in installments. See id. 145(f)(7). If the trial court orders the party to pay court costs, the court must support its order with "detailed findings that the [party] can afford to pay costs." See id. 145(f)(6). The central inquiry under rule 145 "is not merely whether [the party] can pay costs, but whether [he] can afford to pay costs" and still pay for "basic essentials, like housing or food." See id. 145, cmt. The party is not required to show family or friends are unable to pay the costs, and he is not expected to secure the necessary funds by depriving himself and his family of the necessities of life or borrowing money he cannot repay. See Allred v. Lowry, 597 S.W.2d 353, 355 (Tex. 1980) (orig. proceeding); Gofney v. Lowry, 554 S.W.2d 157, 159-60 (Tex. 1977) (orig. proceeding); Pinchback v. Hockless, 164 S.W.2d 19, 20 (Tex. 1942).

         On appeal, the trial court's order to pay costs is reviewed for abuse of discretion and will be affirmed unless the record reflects the trial court acted in an arbitrary and unreasonable manner or without reference to any guiding rules or principles. See In re A.L.V.Z., 352 S.W.3d 568, 570 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2011, no pet.). As the fact finder, the trial court is the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and evidence. In re A.R., 236 S.W.3d 460, 471 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2007, no pet.) (op. on reh'g). However, the trial court may not completely disregard the only evidence ...


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