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Walton v. Walton

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eleventh District

January 11, 2018

JUDKINS WALTON, Appellant
v.
JANET WALTON, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 318th District Court Midland County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. FM-43, 389

          Panel consists of: Willson, J., Bailey, J., and Wright, S.C.J. [3]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN M. BAILEY, JUSTICE

         This appeal arises from a divorce proceeding with a long and complicated procedural history. It involved multiple inquiries into Appellant's competency as well as multiple attorneys representing him in various capacities.

         The divorce decree was ultimately entered based upon a bench trial that occurred after the trial court determined that Appellant was competent. Appellant, a licensed but "non-practicing" attorney, appeared pro se at the bench trial after the trial court had previously permitted his attorney ad litem to withdraw. Appellant sought a continuance on the morning of trial on a variety of grounds. He also sought a jury trial. The trial court denied his requests and proceeded to trial. Appellant left the proceedings soon after they started, asserting that his health precluded him from remaining at trial. The trial proceeded in his absence and concluded with the trial court granting a divorce and dividing the spouses' martial estate.

         Appellant brings five issues on appeal. In his first and second issues, Appellant contends that he did not receive adequate notice of trial and that the trial court erred in refusing to grant his request for a jury trial. In his third issue, Appellant contends that the trial court erred in (1) ordering Appellant to undergo three mental examinations, (2) finding Appellant incapacitated, (3) appointing an attorney ad litem, and (4) appointing a guardian ad litem. In his fourth issue, Appellant contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion for continuance. In his fifth issue, Appellant contends that the evidence is insufficient to support the trial court's disproportionate division of the community estate. Because we find that the trial court improperly held a bench trial on April 28, 2014, we reverse and remand.

         Background Facts

         On April 4, 2005, Appellee, Janet Walton, filed a petition for divorce from Appellant, Judkins Walton, in the 318th District Court of Midland County. Very little occurred in the divorce proceedings during the first four years after it was filed. In March 2009, the trial court signed Appellee's motion to allow the case to remain on the docket.

         Between 2010 and 2014, the trial court was primarily concerned with Appellant's competency to represent himself in the divorce proceedings. On three occasions, the trial court ordered Appellant to submit to a mental evaluation. In 2011, Dr. Ravi Medi conducted Appellant's first mental evaluation and concluded that Appellant was totally incapacitated. Thereafter, the trial court ruled in 2012 that Appellant was incapacitated, appointed an attorney ad litem to represent Appellant in the divorce proceeding, and appointed a guardian ad litem to initiate a guardianship proceeding to litigate Appellant's capacity/competency.[1]

         On August 20, 2012, Dr. Jason D. Dunham conducted a second mental evaluation of Appellant and concluded that Appellant was partially incapacitated and unable to represent himself in the divorce proceeding. After Dr. Dunham's evaluation, Appellee continued to be represented by an attorney ad litem.

         The trial court conducted a hearing on December 18, 2013, that addressed multiple topics, including a request by Appellee that Appellant be examined again for competency. Appellant was not present at this hearing, but he was represented at the hearing for the purpose of the divorce proceeding by attorney ad litem Thomas Hirsch and attorney Jerry D. Caddel.[2] Appellant had previously retained Hirsch to represent him in the divorce. The trial court subsequently appointed Hirsch as Appellant's attorney ad litem. Hirsch obtained the trial court's permission to retain Caddel to assist in Appellant's representation. After the hearing, the trial court ordered Appellant to be examined by Dr. Roddy Strobel.

         The results of Appellant's third mental examination are not in the record. However, it appears that Dr. Strobel concluded that Appellant was competent to represent himself. On February 20, 2014, Hirsch filed a motion to withdraw, stating that "[Appellant] has been found to be competent and . . . no longer needs an attorney ad litem."

         At the December 18, 2013 hearing, the trial court also addressed scheduling various matters in the case. After announcing dates for the filing of inventories and for the deadline for conducting mediation, the trial court stated, "I will get with my coordinator and give you a special setting for the divorce proceeding that will take place in either March or April, and probably April." According to Appellee, the attorneys had a discussion off the record regarding setting a trial date. The trial court's docket sheet entry for December 18 contains a notation that reads: "Final hearing to be set by ct in April (4-28 to May 3)."

         On March 17, 2014, the trial court heard Hirsch's motion to withdraw as Appellant's attorney ad litem. In his motion to withdraw, Hirsch did not list any upcoming deadlines or settings other than an expired deadline of January 31 to file an inventory and appraisement. Appellant did not attend the hearing. Hirsch announced to the trial court at the outset of the hearing that he was there "on [his] motion to get paid and [his] motion to withdraw." Caddel announced that he was appearing on behalf of Appellant "in a limited appearance." Caddel clarified his appearance on behalf of Appellant as follows: "The only reason I'm here is to be able ...


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