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Wiegrefe v. Wiegrefe

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

August 29, 2017

Daniel Wiegrefe, Appellant
v.
Jennefer Wiegrefe, Appellee

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF WILLIAMSON COUNTY, 368TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. 16-0709-C368, HONORABLE RICK J. KENNON, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Field and Bourland

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Scott K. Field, Justice

         Daniel Wiegrefe appeals from the trial court's order granting Jennefer Wiegrefe's amended petition for bill of review in this dispute over the division of property in a divorce. After granting the petition, the trial court signed a revised final divorce decree that assigned a certain financial account to Jennefer instead of to Daniel. In three appellate issues, Daniel contends that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the bill of review. Because we conclude that the alleged error in the original divorce decree does not support relief through a bill of review, we will reverse the trial court's order granting Jennefer's amended petition for bill of review, vacate the final divorce decree of October 17, 2016, and render judgment reinstating the original divorce decree of March 28, 2016.

          BACKGROUND[1]

         In January 2016, Daniel and Jennefer signed a mediated settlement agreement (MSA) that settled the disputes arising from their divorce proceedings. This MSA indicated that a certain Edward Jones account (the Account) was to be awarded to Jennefer. The MSA assigned to Daniel's attorney the task of drafting the divorce decree. Daniel's attorney drafted the decree and presented it to the parties. Daniel and Jennefer signed the "Final Decree of Divorce, " indicating that they "approved and consented" to the decree "as to both form and substance, " and their attorneys signed the document indicating that they approved it "as to form only." Neither party has alleged that she or he was not provided with an opportunity to review the decree or that she or he was coerced into signing it. The final divorce decree awarded the Account to Daniel; otherwise it matched the terms of the MSA.

         On March 28, 2016, Daniel's attorney "proved-up" the divorce, and the trial court signed the decree. On the same day, the district clerk sent Jennefer's attorney notice that the trial court had signed the final divorce decree. In the following weeks, Jennefer's attorney made multiple requests for Daniel's attorney to send her a file-stamped copy of the final decree. Daniel's attorney did not provide the document.

         On April 27, 2016, the trial court's plenary power expired. On May 16, Jennefer went to the courthouse and obtained a copy of the divorce decree. Later, on June 29, Jennefer met with her financial planner and first learned that the final divorce decree awarded the Account to Daniel. On June 30, after Daniel refused to agree that the Account belonged to Jennefer as provided in the MSA, Jennefer filed a petition for a nunc pro tunc judgment. On July 18, Jennefer filed an original petition for bill of review. She later filed an amended petition.

         On September 1, 2016, the trial court held a hearing on the amended petition for bill of review. The same day, the trial court signed an order granting the petition and declaring that the final divorce decree "is void and without force or effect." On October 17, the trial court signed a revised final divorce decree awarding the Account to Jennefer, and the trial court later issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law explaining its decision. This appeal followed.

         DISCUSSION

         A bill of review is an equitable proceeding brought by a party seeking to set aside a prior judgment that is no longer subject to challenge by a motion for new trial or appeal. See Katy Venture, Ltd. v. Cremona Bistro Corp., 469 S.W.3d 160, 163 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam); In re I.G., No. 03-13-00765-CV, 2015 WL 4448836, at *2 (Tex. App.-Austin July 17, 2015, pet. denied) (mem. op.). "Although a bill of review is an equitable proceeding, 'the fact that an injustice has occurred is not sufficient to justify relief by bill of review.'" In re I.G., 2015 WL 4448836, at *2 (quoting Wembley Inv. Co. v. Herrera, 11 S.W.3d 924, 927 (Tex. 1999) (per curiam)); see Marriage of Mobley, 503 S.W.3d 636, 640-41 (Tex. App.-Texarkana 2016, pet. denied). "The grounds upon which a bill of review can be obtained are narrow because the procedure conflicts with the fundamental policy that judgments must become final at some point." King Ranch, Inc. v. Chapman, 118 S.W.3d 742, 751 (Tex. 2003); see Chisti v. Chisti, No. 01-16-00408-CV, 2017 WL 343612, at *1 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] Jan. 24, 2017, no pet. h.) (mem. op.) ("Because of the importance our legal system places on the finality of judgments, bills of review are permitted only in exceptional circumstances.") (citing Nelson v. Chaney, 193 S.W.3d 161, 165 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.)); In the Interest of a Child, 492 S.W.3d 763, 766 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2016, pet. denied) ("The fundamental policy that finality must be accorded to judgments makes the grounds upon which a bill of review will be granted narrow and restricted."); Reynolds v. Reynolds, No. 14-14-00080-CV, 2015 WL 4504626, at *2 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] July 23, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.) ("Because of the fundamental policy favoring finality of judgments, there are narrow grounds for granting a bill of review."); Forney v. Forney, 672 S.W.2d 490, 499 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1983, writ dism'd w.o.j.) ("There must be finality of judgments, and judgments will be disturbed only in the most egregious circumstances. The proof required to establish a right to a bill of review in a divorce case will therefore not be relaxed even in cases where an injustice results.").

         When, as here, the judgment being challenged by a petition for bill of review is not a default judgment, the bill-of-review plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) a meritorious ground of appeal; (2) which the bill-of-review plaintiff was prevented from making by the fraud, accident, or wrongful act of the opposing party or by official mistake; (3) unmixed with any fault or negligence on the part of the bill-of-review plaintiff. See Petro-Chem. Transp., Inc. v. Carroll, 514 S.W.2d 240, 243, 245 (Tex. 1974); Ramsey v. State, 249 S.W.3d 568, 573-74 (Tex. App.-Waco 2008, no pet.); Thompson v. Ballard, 149 S.W.3d 161, 164 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2004, no pet.). We review a trial court's decision to grant a bill of review for an abuse of discretion. See Marriage of Mobley, 503 S.W.3d at 641; Ramsey v. Davis, 261 S.W.3d 811, 815 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2008, pet. denied). A trial court abuses its discretion when it fails to analyze or apply the law correctly. See In re Nationwide Ins. Co. of Am., 494 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Tex. 2016); In re American Homestar of Lancaster, Inc., 50 S.W.3d 480, 483 (Tex. 2001) ("A trial court has no discretion to determine what the law is or in applying the law to the facts, and, consequently, the trial court's failure to analyze or apply the law correctly is an abuse of discretion.").

         In her amended petition, Jennefer alleged that the final divorce decree's award of the Account to Daniel "was an obvious drafting mistake made by the lawyers for both parties." She stated that she believed "this to be an accidental mistake and not an intentional act by [Daniel] and his prior counsel." However, the amended petition also stated, "In the alternative, Petitioner alleges that Respondent, by and through his prior counsel, acted in an intentional manner, whereby Respondent acted fraudulently in entering the Final Decree of Divorce which was not drafted in accordance with the terms of the MSA."

         In its findings of fact and conclusions of law, the trial court rejected Jennefer's fraud allegations and found that the error "was a mistake by both parties." The trial court also found that "[a]ll parties involved made a mutual mistake in drafting" the final divorce decree. In addition, the trial court concluded that "a mistake occurred after entering the [final divorce decree], because as an officer of the Court, [Daniel's attorney] had a duty to send [Jennefer's attorney] a copy of the [final divorce decree], and secondly, it is the routine custom and practice that when an order is entered and one lawyer is there, they are to provide a copy to opposing counsel." Similarly, the trial court concluded that ...


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