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Texas Alliance of Energy Producers - Workers' Compensation Self-Insured Group Trust v. Bennett

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

May 17, 2018

TEXAS ALLIANCE OF ENERGY PRODUCERS - WORKERS' COMPENSATION SELF-INSURED GROUP TRUST, Appellant
v.
JOHN BENNETT, Appellee

          Submitted on March 13, 2018

          On Appeal from the 253rd District Court Liberty County, Texas Trial Cause No. CV1104807

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Kreger and Horton, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HOLLIS HORTON Justice

         The dispositive issue before the Court in this appeal concerns whether the trial court still had plenary jurisdiction over the case when it rendered the order from which the appellant elected to pursue this appeal. We conclude that the trial court no longer possessed plenary jurisdiction to enter the order from which the appellant has appealed because approximately six months before signing the order at issue, the trial court had signed an order that became final and the appellant failed to appeal from the trial court's earlier final order. Consequently, we hold that the order from which the appellant elected to appeal is void and that it must be vacated.

         Background

         On August 30, 2006, John Bennett suffered a work-related injury while driving a truck for his employer, Hercules Transport, Inc.[1] Based on the work-related injuries Bennett received in the collision that occurred while he was driving his employer's truck, Bennett filed a workers' compensation claim against Texas Alliance, Hercules Transport's workers' compensation carrier. After Bennett's compensation claim was adjudicated by the Department of Insurance, Workers' Compensation Division (the Department), Bennett challenged the award by appealing it for further proceedings in the 253rd District Court. After several years of litigation, Bennett filed a motion for summary judgment on his compensation claim, alleging that no issues of fact existed regarding his claim that he was entitled to compensation benefits in a greater amount than those he was awarded when his claim was decided by the Department. Based on Bennett's motion, the trial court signed a summary-judgment order in Bennett's favor on April 20, 2016. The April order adjudicated Bennett's claim for supplemental income benefits. When the trial court signed the April summary-judgment order, Bennett's claim for supplemental income benefits was the only remaining claim that was before the trial court at that stage of the proceedings.[2] However, the language the trial court used in its April summary-judgment order contains neither language stating that the order was intended to be final, nor does the order contain "Mother Hubbard" language, indicating that the trial court recognized that its order disposed of Bennett's last remaining claim.[3] Despite the fact the trial court did not include any express language to indicate that its April 2016 summary-judgment order was final, both of the parties agree in the briefs they filed in this Court that the trial court's April summary-judgment order was both final and appealable despite the fact that it contains no express language to indicate that the order was intended by the trial court as the court's final order.

         Within thirty days of the date the trial court signed the April summary-judgment order, Bennett asked that the trial court clarify the order so the order expressly stated the monetary amount that Bennett was to receive in prejudgment interest.[4] Subsequently, in late June 2016, Bennett filed a motion requesting that the trial court increase his compensation award by $58, 924, [5] a figure that did not include interest, and increase the attorney's fees previously awarded under the April summary-judgment order by $14, 731.

         In October 2016, the trial court held a hearing on Bennett's request to increase the principal and attorney's fees the trial court had awarded Bennett in its April summary-judgment order. During the hearing, Bennett and Texas Alliance provided the trial court with competing expert reports, which conflict, addressing how these experts thought Bennett's supplemental income benefits award should have been calculated. Neither report suggested that the trial court had awarded Bennett the correct amount he was entitled to receive in supplemental income benefits as compared to the amount Bennett received under the trial court's April summary-judgment order. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court advised the parties that it respected the opinion of Bennett's expert, a certified public accountant, and that it would increase Bennett's supplemental income benefits award to make it consistent with the calculations provided by Bennett's expert.

         On October 12, 2016, the trial court signed an order that is titled "Order Granting Additional Interest and SIBS Payments and Order for Funds to be Placed Into the Court Registry." The October order substantially alters the April order in several ways-it increased the amount Bennett received in compensation benefits, increased the amount Bennett received in statutory interest, and increased the amount Bennett was awarded in attorney's fees.

         While Texas Alliance filed a timely notice of appeal from the trial court's October 2016 order, it did not file a timely notice of appeal from the trial court's April 2016 summary-judgment order. After the parties filed their briefs, and after this Court became aware that the trial court's April order disposed of Bennett's last live claim, we directed this Court's clerk to notify the parties of our request that they file supplemental briefs to address whether the trial court still had plenary power over the cause in October 2016 when it signed the order from which Texas Alliance filed its notice of appeal. See Tex. R. App. P. 38.9(b). In response to our request, the parties filed supplemental briefs. In these, the parties agree that the April 2016 summary-judgment order was final, but they disagree about whether the trial court still had any power to change the supplemental income benefits and attorney's fees the trial court awarded in its April 2016 summary-judgment order.

         Texas Alliance argues that by the date the trial court signed the October 2016 order, it no longer had jurisdiction over the case because the court's plenary power to change its orders had expired. In contrast, Bennett argues that the changes the trial court made to its April 2016 summary-judgment order were only clerical. He suggests that a trial court may always correct clerical errors even when the court's plenary power to change its prior orders has expired.

         Jurisdiction

         A trial court has only a limited period of time in which to make substantive changes to orders that it signs that are final. Tex.R.Civ.P. 329b. Rule 329b(d) provides that when no post-judgment motions to alter the trial court's judgment are filed, the trial court retains plenary power to make substantive changes to a final judgment for a period of only thirty days. Tex.R.Civ.P. 329b(d). However, when a party files a timely post-judgment motion to alter a final judgment, the trial court's plenary power to make substantive changes to a judgment is extended for a short period that begins to run on the date the judgment was signed. Tex.R.Civ.P. 329b(e) (extending the trial court's plenary power if a post-trial motion such as a motion for new trial is filed for "thirty days after all such timely-filed motions are overruled, either by a written and signed order or by operation of law, whichever occurs first"). If a trial court acts outside its plenary power by signing a judgment or order after its power to alter the original judgment or order has expired, the judgment or order that purports to modify the original judgment or order the trial court rendered is void. Tex.R.Civ.P. 329b(f); see ...


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