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Gillis v. Harris County

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

June 21, 2018

DWIGHT GILLIS, Appellant
v.
HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 215th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2016-44756

          Panel consists of Justices Boyce, Jamison, and Brown.

          OPINION

          Martha Hill Jamison Justice

         Appellant Dwight Gillis appeals from the trial court's dismissal for want of prosecution of his lawsuit against appellee Harris County, Texas. Gillis sued Harris County for employment discrimination and violations of the Texas Constitution after he was discharged from his employment as a deputy constable. The trial court dismissed Gillis's lawsuit after neither he nor his attorney appeared at a pretrial scheduling conference. The trial court also denied Gillis's motion to reinstate. Because Gillis presented proof that his failure to appear for the pretrial conference was not intentional or due to conscious indifference but was due to an accident, mistake, or other reasonable explanation, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         Background

         Gillis filed suit on July 5, 2016, and Harris County answered in September 2016. On September 20, the trial court sent the parties notice of a case management conference scheduled for November 7, 2016. In the notice, the court stated that an agreed docket control order could be filed in lieu of appearing at the conference. The court further stated that if no agreed order was filed and counsel failed to appear for the conference, the matter was "subject to dismissal by the court." It is undisputed that neither Gillis nor his counsel appeared at the conference. The trial court subsequently dismissed the case for want of prosecution on November 11, 2016.[1]

         On December 9, 2016, Gillis's counsel of record, Laurence Watts, filed a motion to reinstate, asserting that the failure to attend the case management conference was inadvertent and unintentional. In the motion, Watts explained that he "had been dealing with issues with a legal assistant whose chronic disease interfered with her performance of duties" and the conference was never calendared on Watts's schedule. Watts further stated that he suffered a heart attack on October 21, 2016, spent several days in the hospital, and was placed on restrictions afterwards that prevented him from appearing in court. He said that had the conference been properly calendared, he would have explained his situation to the court and requested an accommodation.

         At the end of the motion, Watts placed the following purported verification statement:

         VERIFICATION

         I, Larry Watts verify upon penalty of perjury that the facts stated herein above are true to my personal knowledge.

         The signature line was completed as shown, "/s/ Larry Watts, " and did not include an actual signature. In its response to the motion to reinstate, Harris County asserted, among other things, that the verification was improper because it did not contain a valid signature.

         At the hearing on the motion to reinstate, Watts appeared along with co-counsel, Nastasha Anderson. Anderson took the lead in the hearing, reminded the court of the brief procedural history of the case, and explained how and why the pretrial conference was missed. Her explanation was substantially similar to what Watts stated in the motion and included the health issues of the legal assistant and Watts's heart attack and subsequent restrictions. The attorney representing Harris County then informed the court, "the actual substance of the facts, Harris County is not putting in dispute at this time; but we are putting in dispute the verification." The attorneys then debated whether Watts's purported verification of the motion was sufficient. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court denied the motion.

         Gillis filed his notice of appeal on February 14, 2017, 95 days after the dismissal. In two issues on appeal, Gillis contends that the trial court erred in dismissing his lawsuit for want of prosecution and denying the motion to reinstate.

         Ju ...


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