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In re PDVSA Services, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

December 19, 2017

IN RE PDVSA SERVICES, INC. Relator

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING WRIT OF MANDAMUS 165th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2015-51384.

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Brown, and Wise.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PER CURIAM

         The relator is PDVSA Services, Inc. ("PSI") and the real party-in-interest is the Harris County Appraisal District ("HCAD").

         On October 19, 2017, PSI filed a petition for writ of mandamus in this court. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 22.221; see also Tex. R. App. P. 52. In the petition, PSI asks this court to compel the Honorable Ursula Hall, presiding judge of the 165th District Court of Harris County ("Respondent"), to (1) rule on PSI's motion to submit PSI's underlying appeal of the orders of the appraisal review board to nonbinding arbitration (the "Motion to Submit"), and (2) vacate her October 17, 2017 order granting HCAD's motion to quash PSI's notices to take the deposition of HCAD employees, Paul Wright and Blake Samoheyl.

         Section 42.225(a) of the Tax Code provides, "On motion by a property owner who appeals an appraisal review board order under this chapter, the court shall submit the appeal to nonbinding arbitration." Tex. Tax Code Ann § 42.225(a) (emphasis added). We conclude that Respondent failed to perform her ministerial duty to rule on the Motion to Submit within a reasonable time after it was submitted. But PSI has not shown that the trial court clearly abused its discretion by quashing the depositions. We therefore conditionally grant the petition in part, and direct the trial court to rule on the Motion to Submit, and deny the petition as to the order quashing the depositions.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         PSI is a Texas corporation, engaged in the business of facilitating the purchase, storage and shipment of equipment for eventual use in the Venezuelan oil industry.

         PSI brought the underlying suit to appeal the orders of the appraisal review board determining protest and denying correction for business personal property listed by HCAD on its appraisal records for account nos. 0542885 and 2217879 for the tax years of 2014 and 2015. Among other things, PSI asserted below that it is not liable for taxes because it allegedly never owned the property in question.

         A. Respondent's Failure to Rule on the Motion to Submit and Order Quashing of the Depositions

         On July 12, 2016, PSI filed its Motion to Submit. The then-sitting trial judge[1]signed an order on September 12, 2016, which conditionally denied the motion, but stated that it was denied only until the deposition of a PSI representative and the deposition of the appraiser of the property have been taken, and that, after that time, PSI may re-assert its Motion to Submit. The trial judge wanted to allow the parties to conduct discovery regarding the ownership issue before referring the appeal to arbitration.

         On January 5, 2017, HCAD filed a partial plea to the court's jurisdiction ("Partial Plea to Jurisdiction"), which challenged Respondent's jurisdiction to hear some, but not all of PSI's claims. To defend against the Plea, PSI noticed the depositions of HCAD employees, Paul Wright and Blake Samoheyl, for January 12 and 13, 2017. HCAD moved to quash.

         The two depositions referenced in the September 12, 2016 order on the Motion to Submit were taken on January 10, 2017. PSI reasserted its Motion to Submit. PSI requested an emergency hearing on its motion, but Respondent did not rule on that request. PSI set the Motion to Submit for hearing on February 6, 2017.

         At the February 6 hearing, PSI presented argument on its Motion to Submit, a motion to continue the trial setting, and HCAD's motion to quash the depositions. Respondent continued the trial, but ...


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