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Scott v. Carpenter

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

May 31, 2018

RONNY EUGENE SCOTT, AND WIFE ELIZABETH HELEN SCOTT, Appellants,
v.
JOHN C. CARPENTER AND WIFE SUZANNE E. CARPENTER, AND JOSHUA A. CARPENTER, Appellees.

          On appeal from the 249th District Court of Johnson County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Benavides and Longoria

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROGELIO VALDEZ CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Appellants Ronny Eugene Scott and Elizabeth Helen Scott appeal from the trial court's grant of a plea to the jurisdiction filed by appellees John C. Carpenter and wife, Suzanee E. Carpenter and Joshua A. Carpenter. By two issues, appellants contend that the trial court erred in granting appellees' plea to the jurisdiction and the trial court abused its discretion in awarding attorney's fees to appellees. We reverse and remand.[1]

         I. Background

         On March 15, 2016, appellants filed suit against appellees in the 249th District Court, Johnson County, Texas for deceptive trade practices, fraud, statutory fraud, negligent misrepresentation, fraudulent inducement, trespass, quiet title, violation of the Texas Debt Collection Practices Act, breach of contract, and conspiracy. Appellants alleged that appellees sold them a home without disclosing "that the foundation and plumbing was faulty and in need of significant repairs." Appellants accused appellees of falsely representing that the property "was in good condition and had no known issues or incumbrances" because "the foundation and plumbing were in dire need of repair, the roof was in excess of 15 years old, and there existed a lien on the real property which [Joshua] purportedly assumed." Appellants further alleged that Joshua falsified the deed that he filed with the county.

         Appellees filed a special appearance and plea to the jurisdiction contending that the trial court lacked jurisdiction because appellants' case was "barred by [a] prior Court Order, and thus there is no justiciable controversy." Appellees also alleged that appellants had "perpetrated FRAUD in the falsification of an Insurance Policy and Declaration; and have forged the signatures of the [appellees] onto fictitious settlement agreement. . . ."

         According to the pleadings, appellants originally filed their cause against appellees in the 413th District Court. During the pendency of the case in the 413th District Court, Elizabeth filed several bankruptcies. On March 14, 2015, the 413th District Court entered an order closing appellants' case, which stayed the proceedings due to a petition filed in the bankruptcy court. The order states, in pertinent part, "that the clerk of the Court shall close this case without prejudice and remove it from the active docket" of the trial court until the trial court received notice that the bankruptcy stay had been lifted and that the trial court would then reinstate the case. The order specified that "the right to reinstate this case without prejudice shall continue for thirty (30) days after the related bankruptcy proceedings are concluded." Relying on this order, appellees argued in their plea to the jurisdiction that the trial court lacked jurisdiction because appellant's cause in the 413th had been dismissed with prejudice, which foreclosed the refiling of the case in the trial court.

         Appellants responded to the plea to the jurisdiction claiming that "there is no order of judgment that has finally disposed of the causes of actions alleged and the causes of action alleged in this cause are not pending in a suit in any other court." Appellants explained that they attempted to reinstate the cause in the 413th District Court on February 29, 2016 and on March 4, 2016, but the 413th District Court rejected both filings because according to appellants, the judge "would not open the case."

         The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on appellees' plea to the jurisdiction. The bulk of the evidence presented focused on whether the parties had engaged in any fraudulent conduct such as falsifying documents. Both sides accused the other of such shenanigans. The trial court granted appellees' plea to the jurisdiction stating that appellants' cause in the 413th court had been dismissed with prejudice, which foreclosed the refiling of the cause. This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The purpose of a plea to the jurisdiction is to "defeat a cause of action without regard to whether the claims asserted have merit." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). A challenge to the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). We will, when necessary, consider relevant evidence submitted by the parties to resolve the jurisdictional dispute. Id. at 227 (citing Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 555). However, we will consider only the evidence relevant to the jurisdictional question. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 555. "[I]f the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issues, the trial court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228.

         III. Dismissal of Cause in 413th District Court

         By their first issue, appellants contend that the trial court erred by concluding that the 413th District Court dismissed their cause with prejudice. Appellees counter that the order states that appellants had thirty days to reinstate the case and that ...


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