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Cooper v. Trent

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

May 1, 2018

LORI ELISE COOPER, Appellant
v.
MICHAEL E. TRENT, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 234th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2016-48150

          Panel consists of Justices Busby, Donovan, and Jewell.

          OPINION

          KEVIN JEWELL, JUSTICE

         Appellant Lori Elise Cooper was convicted of murdering her father. While serving a sixty-year sentence for the murder, Cooper filed a civil lawsuit against appellee Michael E. Trent, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted her. In short, Cooper alleged that Trent induced a witness to testify falsely during the criminal trial that Cooper had solicited the witness to kill her father. Cooper asserted various tort claims and sought money damages from Trent. The trial court dismissed Cooper's lawsuit under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 91a, which permits summary dismissal if the claims pleaded have no basis in law or fact. Tex.R.Civ.P. 91a.

         At issue in this appeal is whether a person convicted of a crime may recover civil damages from the prosecutor-based on the prosecutor's allegedly tortious conduct occurring during the criminal proceedings-when the conviction has not been reversed or invalidated. We conclude that Cooper's factual allegations, if true, and her claims, if successful, would necessarily imply the invalidity of her conviction. For that reason, and because Cooper's conviction has not been overturned or otherwise invalidated by a court, her allegations and claims are not cognizable and do not entitle her to the relief sought. As Cooper's claims lack basis in law, the trial court did not err in granting Trent's Rule 91a motion to dismiss, and we affirm.

         Background

         A. Criminal Proceedings against Cooper

         A Harris County jury convicted Cooper of murdering her father. Cooper appealed the judgment. See Cooper v. State, No. 01-05-00764-CR, 2006 WL 2974366 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] Oct. 19, 2006, pet. ref'd) (mem. op.) (not designated for publication). During the criminal trial, Cooper's friend, Kelton Yates, testified that Cooper offered $5, 000 to Yates and his acquaintance, Kiondrix Smith, to kill Cooper's father. Id. at *1. Yates subsequently stabbed Cooper's father with a knife, causing his death.[1] Id. at *2. In addition to Yates's accomplice testimony, the State presented testimony from a number of non-accomplice witnesses, each of whom testified that Cooper had asked them to kill Cooper's father. Id. at *1. All declined. Id. After a jury found Cooper guilty of murder, she was sentenced to sixty years' confinement. Id.

         On direct appeal of her conviction, Cooper, among other arguments, contested her connection to her father's murder by challenging the legal sufficiency of the non-accomplice witness evidence.[2] Id. at *3-5. The First Court of Appeals affirmed Cooper's conviction in 2006, id. at *1, and the Court of Criminal Appeals refused Cooper's petition for discretionary review. To our knowledge, and as Cooper's counsel confirmed at oral submission, Cooper has not filed any habeas corpus proceedings challenging her conviction.

         B. Cooper's Civil Lawsuit

         In August 2016, approximately ten years after the court of appeals affirmed her conviction, Cooper initiated the civil lawsuit presently before us. As the factual basis for her suit, Cooper alleged that Trent, in preparing for Cooper's trial, made false statements to a district court to obtain a writ permitting Yates's transfer from state prison to the Harris County jail.[3] There, in "woodshedding" sessions, Trent promised Yates a sentence reduction if Yates would provide false testimony to the effect that he killed Cooper's father because Cooper promised to pay him $5, 000.

         As alleged in Cooper's amended petition, Yates agreed with Trent's proposal. In an affidavit attached to Cooper's amended petition, Yates stated under oath that Trent offered to have Yates's sentence reduced from sixty to twenty years if Yates would testify in Cooper's trial that Yates killed Cooper's father because Cooper "manipulated him and offered him $5, 000." Further, Yates testified in his affidavit that he agreed to help Trent even though it was a "lie" that Cooper ever asked Yates to kill her father. According to Cooper, she denies "that she was guilty of participating in, or procuring the murder of her father, " and Yates attested that Cooper "was actually innocent, and had no involvement in her father's death."

         Based on these allegations, Cooper pleaded claims against Trent for abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy (between Trent and Yates) to develop false testimony, and, as Cooper construes her pleading, fraudulent concealment. She also alleged that the statute of limitations was tolled because Trent fraudulently concealed "the facts necessary for . . . Cooper to know that she had causes of action" against Trent. One alleged fact common to all of Cooper's pleaded claims is that Yates's testimony that Cooper participated in her father's murder was false. Cooper sought damages for injury to reputation, physical pain and suffering, severe mental and emotional anguish, anxiety and distress, and lost income-all of which Cooper alleged occurred as a proximate result of Trent's tortious conduct. She also requested attorney's fees and exemplary damages. Cooper expressly denied seeking "a determination of her innocence, or an Order of this Court overturning her conviction based upon her actual innocence."

         Trent filed a motion to dismiss all of Cooper's claims under Rule 91a.[4] In sum, Trent argued that the civil recovery Cooper seeks is foreclosed for two broad reasons: public policy and collateral estoppel. Under the public policy argument, Trent argued, among other things, that Cooper's claims have no basis in law or fact because they are based on an allegedly wrongful conviction and Cooper cannot recover civil damages unless and until she successfully challenges her conviction. According to Trent, all of Cooper's factual allegations, if true, would undermine the validity of her conviction. Trent's amended motion to dismiss cited authority such as Peeler v. Hughes & Luce, 909 S.W.2d 494, 496 (Tex. 1995), and our decision in Gentry v. Houston Police Dep't, No. 14-08-01094-CV, 2009 WL 10453387 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] July 16, 2009, no pet.) (mem. op.).

         Under the collateral estoppel ground, Trent argued that Cooper's claims have no basis in law or fact because she cannot use a civil proceeding to collaterally attack her conviction. The trial court granted Trent's amended motion and dismissed the lawsuit. Cooper appeals.

         Standard of Review

         Under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 91a, "a party may move to dismiss a cause of action on the grounds that it has no basis in law or fact." Tex.R.Civ.P. 91a.1. As specified in the rule, a cause of action has no basis in law if the allegations, taken as true, together with inferences reasonably drawn from them, do not entitle the claimant to the relief sought. Id. A cause of action has no basis in fact if "no reasonable person could believe the facts pleaded." Id. A motion to dismiss must identify each cause of action to which it is addressed and must state specifically the reasons the cause of action has no basis in law, no basis in fact, or both. Tex.R.Civ.P. 91a.2.

         We review de novo whether a cause of action has any basis in law or in fact. City of Dallas v. Sanchez, 494 S.W.3d 722, 724 (Tex. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Tex.R.Civ.P. 91a.6); see also Tony's Barbeque & Steakhouse, Inc. v. Three Points Invs., Ltd., 527 S.W.3d 686, 695 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.). We look solely to the pleading and any attachments to determine whether the dismissal standard is satisfied. Estate of Savana, 529 S.W.3d 587, 592 (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.], no pet.); Wooley v. Schaffer, 447 S.W.3d 71, 76 (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. denied). To determine if the cause of action has a basis in law or fact, we construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff, look to the pleader's intent, and accept as true the factual allegations in the pleadings. Wooley, 447 S.W.3d at 76. In doing so, we apply the fair-notice standard of pleading. Id.

         The dismissal order does not specify the grounds on which the court based its ruling. However, the trial court signed amended conclusions of law, which state, in full:

1. Lori Cooper's causes of action have no basis in law or in fact because her claims, taken as true, together with inferences reasonably drawn from them, do not ...

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