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Spriggs v. Gonzales

Court of Appeals of Texas, Seventh District, Amarillo

June 28, 2018

RONALD SPRIGGS AND LEVI SPRIGGS, APPELLANTS
v.
ALBENITA GONZALES, APPELLEE

          On Appeal from the 181st District Court Randall County, Texas Trial Court No. 69, 573-B, Honorable Edward Lee Self, Presiding

          Before CAMPBELL and PARKER and HATCH, [1] JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES T. CAMPBELL JUSTICE

         Ronald T. Spriggs and his son Levi L. Spriggs, both Texas attorneys, appeal an adverse money judgment rendered in favor of appellee Albenita Gonzales. Levi Spriggs also appeals a pre-trial order of sanctions imposed by the regional presiding judge. We will affirm the trial court's judgment and the order of the regional presiding judge.

         Background

         After the death of appellee Albenita Gonzales's husband, a property dispute arose between Mrs. Gonzales and her mother-in-law Dorothy Gonzales.[2] Dorothy Gonzales filed suit against Mrs. Gonzales, who retained Ronald Spriggs to represent her in the dispute. Ronald Spriggs had represented Mrs. Gonzales also in the probate of her husband's estate.

         As Mrs. Gonzales's attorney, Ronald Spriggs failed to appear for a mediation session and ultimately did not appear for trial. He later testified that at the time of trial he was representing another client in a federal court trial. He did not seek a continuance of the state court trial and in his absence a post-answer default judgment for Dorothy Gonzales in the amount of $452, 000 was taken. A few days after the default judgment against his client was signed, Ronald Spriggs transferred the building housing his law office to his son Levi Spriggs. Ronald Spriggs timely filed a motion for new trial but it was overruled by operation of law. A notice of appeal was filed but the filing fee was not paid, and for that reason the appeal was dismissed. A motion for rehearing was overruled.

         Mrs. Gonzales obtained new counsel who sought a bill of review. During that proceeding Dorothy Gonzales and Mrs. Gonzales settled their dispute, reducing Mrs. Gonzales's liability to approximately $133, 000.

         On Mrs. Gonzales's behalf, her new counsel then brought suit against Ronald Spriggs for legal malpractice. After the judge of the trial court recused himself, the case was assigned to a retired judge. Ronald Spriggs responded to Mrs. Gonzales's malpractice claim with a counterclaim against Mrs. Gonzales and a third-party cross-claim against her lawyer, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. The counterclaim and cross-claim were subsequently dismissed on motions under Rule 91a.[3]

         Mrs. Gonzales later amended her petition to allege Ronald Spriggs fraudulently transferred his law-office building to Levi Spriggs. Levi Spriggs was joined as a defendant to the suit. Levi Spriggs attempted to challenge the assigned retired judge but his request for relief was denied by the regional presiding judge. After an evidentiary hearing, the regional presiding judge rendered an order sanctioning Levi Spriggs under Rule 18a(h).[4]

         Trial of Mrs. Gonzales's suit against Ronald Spriggs and Levi Spriggs was by jury. After four days the jury found the transfer of the Spriggs law-office building was not fraudulent. On the malpractice claim, it found for Mrs. Gonzales against Ronald Spriggs and awarded compensatory damages of $131, 250. In a bifurcated hearing, it awarded exemplary damages against Ronald Spriggs in the amount of $13, 000. In a post-trial hearing on Mrs. Gonzales's motion for sanctions, and on the trial court's own motion, the court imposed monetary sanctions against Ronald Spriggs and Levi Spriggs pursuant to Rule 13[5] and the trial court's inherent power. Ronald Spriggs and Levi Spriggs each filed a notice of appeal.

         Analysis

         For our discussion of the issues presented by Ronald Spriggs and Levi Spriggs, we will group the issues into three categories: first, Ronald Spriggs' complaint of charge error; second, Ronald Spriggs' challenge of the trial court's rulings on his objections to three of Mrs. Gonzales's experts; and finally, the sanctions levied in pretrial and post-trial hearings against Levi Spriggs and in a post-trial hearing against Ronald Spriggs.

         Charge Error

         Ronald Spriggs broadly argues the trial court erred by failing to submit a jury charge containing suit-within-a-suit instructions and questions. A more succinct statement later in his argument clarifies his complaint: "[B]y refusing to submit the suit-within-a-suit question, the incorrect jury charge causes direct harm by imposing damage questions without requisite liability questions." His argument refers to a jury question Ronald Spriggs proposed, which read, "would [Mrs. Gonzales] have won the underlying case?"

         We review claims of charge error for an abuse of discretion. Columbia Rio Grande Healthcare, L.P. v. Hawley, 284 S.W.3d 851, 856 (Tex. 2009). A trial court abuses its discretion when it acts without reference to any guiding rules and principles. Concept Gen. Contracting, Inc. v. Asbestos Maint. Servs., Inc., 346 S.W.3d 172 (Tex. App.- Amarillo 2011, pet. denied) (citing Downer v. Aquamarine Operators, Inc., 701 S.W.2d 238, 241-42 (Tex. 1985)). A trial court is required to give "such instructions and definitions as shall be proper to enable the jury to render a verdict." Tex.R.Civ.P. 277.

         To prove a legal malpractice claim, a former client must show (1) the existence of a duty of care owed to the client, (2) that the duty was breached, and (3) that the breach proximately caused damage to the client. Starwood Mgmt., LLC v. Swaim, 530 S.W.3d 673, 678 (Tex. 2017) (per curiam) (citing Stanfield v. Neubaum, 494 S.W.3d 90, 96 (Tex. 2016)). Ronald Spriggs is correct in his assertion that the "suit-within-a-suit" analysis was applicable to Mrs. Gonzales's claim that his negligence was responsible for the damages she suffered from the outcome of Dorothy Gonzales's suit against her. See Rogers v. Zanetti, 518 S.W.3d 394, 401 (Tex. 2017) ("When a legal-malpractice case arises from prior litigation, the plaintiff must prove that the client would have obtained a more favorable result in the underlying litigation had the attorney conformed to the proper standard of care").

         But the court's charge incorporated the requirement that the jury take into account the "more favorable result" that hypothetically would have been obtained had Ronald Spriggs' representation conformed to the proper standard of care. See Zanetti, 518 S.W.3d at 401. The court's damage question required the jury to state in dollars and cents "[t]he difference, if any, between the result obtained for [Mrs. Gonzales] by [Ronald Spriggs] and the result that would have been obtained with a competent attorney." See Elizondo v. Krist, 415 S.W.3d 259, 263 (Tex. 2013) (describing standard for legal-malpractice damages as "the difference between the result obtained for the client and the result that would have been obtained with competent counsel"); Comm. on Pattern Jury Charges, State Bar of Texas, Texas Pattern Jury Charges: Malpractice, Premises & Products (2016) PJC 61.5 (comment providing in legal malpractice case plaintiff must effectively "try two suits in one-a 'suit within a suit'"); 84.4 (sample instruction "C," for case involving increase in damages assessed against malpractice plaintiff in underlying litigation, "the increase in damages assessed against Paul Payne in the original suit brought by Tom Taylor caused by the failure of Andy Attorney to properly defend the lawsuit") (italics in original).

         Because its charge to the jury incorporated the suit-within-a-suit principle, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing Ronald Spriggs' requested question asking the jury to determine whether Mrs. Gonzales "would . . . have won the underlying case." See Tex. R. Civ. P. 278 ("A judgment shall not be reversed because of the failure to submit other and various phases or different shades of the same question"); Dallas Area Rapid Transit v. Agent Systems, Inc., No. 02-12-00517-CV, 2014 Tex.App. LEXIS 12797, at *9-10 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth Nov. 26, 2015, pet. denied) (mem. op.) ("Because the submitted question does not differ in substance from appellants' requested instruction, but merely in wording, the trial court did not err"). Ronald Spriggs' charge-error issue is overruled.

         Challenges of Mrs. Gonzales's Expert Witnesses

         Ronald Spriggs argues the trial court abused its discretion by overruling objections to the testimony of three of Mrs. Gonzales's expert witnesses, licensed real estate salesperson Gabe Irving, law professor Larry Spain, and attorney Edward Norfleet.

         We review a trial court's decision to admit or exclude expert evidence under the abuse of discretion standard. Exxon Pipeline Co. v. Zwahr, 88 S.W.3d 623, 629 (Tex. 2002). However, even if a trial court abuses its discretion by improperly admitting evidence, reversal is warranted only if the error probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment. Id.; Tex.R.App.P. 44.1(a) (error is reversible if it probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment).

         An expert's testimony is admissible if the expert is qualified to testify about "scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge" and the testimony is relevant and based on a reliable foundation. See Tex. R. Evid. 702; TXI Transp. Co. v. Hughes, 306 S.W.3d 230, 234 (Tex. 2010); Zwahr, 88 S.W.3d at 628; Gammill v. Jack Williams Chevrolet, Inc., 972 S.W.2d 713, 720 (Tex. 1998) (citing E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Robinson, 923 S.W.2d 549, 556 (Tex. 1995)).

         "The reliability requirement focuses on the principles, research, and methodology underlying an expert's conclusions." Kerr-McGee Corp. v. Helton, 133 S.W.3d 245, 254 (Tex. 2004); Williams v. Crawford, No. 03-16-00696-CV, 2018 Tex.App. LEXIS 1641, at *8 (Tex. App.-Austin Mar. 2, 2018 n. pet. h.) (mem. op.). The reliability analysis does not require the court to determine the correctness of an expert's conclusions but "whether the analysis used to reach those conclusions is reliable." Zwahr, 88 S.W.3d at 629. An expert's testimony is unreliable if based on unreliable data or if the expert applies a flawed methodology to draw conclusions from the underlying data. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. Hood, No. 05-16-00609-CV, 2018 Tex.App. LEXIS 3228, at *8 (Tex. App.-Dallas May 8, 2018, n. pet. h.) (citing Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc. v. Havner, 953 S.W.2d 714 (Tex. 1997)). In Robinson the court identified six non-exclusive factors for consideration in deciding the reliability of proffered expert testimony. 923 S.W.2d at 557. But these factors are not always useful. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Mendez, 204 S.W.3d 797, 800 (Tex. 2006) (automobile accident case). When the subject matter requires an expert to rely on experience, knowledge, and training rather than a certain methodology to reach a conclusion, a court makes the reliability assessment by determining whether there is "too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion proffered." Mack Trucks, Inc. v. Tamez, 206 S.W.3d 572, 578 (Tex. 2006) (citing Gammill, 972 S.W.2d at 726); Crawford, 2018 Tex.App. LEXIS 1641, at *9. Regardless, "there must be some basis for the opinion offered to show its reliability." Gammill, 972 S.W.2d at 726. "'An expert's bare opinion will not suffice' and is unreliable if 'based solely upon his subjective interpretation of the facts.'" Ford Motor Co. v. Ledesma, 242 S.W.3d 32, 39 (Tex. 2007) (quoting Volkswagen of America, Inc. v. Ramirez, 159 S.W.3d 897, 906 (Tex. 2004)). "[A] claim will not stand or fall on the mere ipse dixit of a credentialed witness." Burrow v. Arce, 997 S.W.2d 229, 235 (Tex. 1999). "Expert testimony fails if there is simply too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion offered." Elizondo, 415 S.W.3d at 264 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (legal malpractice case).

         To determine whether an expert is sufficiently qualified, the trial court must "ensure that those who purport to be experts truly have expertise concerning the actual subject about which they are offering an opinion." Gammill, 972 S.W.2d at 719 (quoting Broders v. Heise, 924 S.W.2d 148, 152 (Tex. 1996)).

         Gabe Irving

         An issue in the case was the value of a caliche pit owned by a corporation of which Dorothy Gonzales and Mrs. Gonzales were the shareholders. Mrs. Gonzales presented Gabe Irving as an expert on real property valuation. The evidence showed Irving holds a marketing degree and is a licensed real estate salesperson with some seventeen years' experience in real estate transactions. It appears he based his qualification to render a valuation opinion on his experience rendering such opinions in the course of his work. Levi Spriggs filed a motion to exclude Irving's testimony on the grounds he was not sufficiently qualified to render a valuation opinion; both Levi Spriggs and Ronald Spriggs also argued to the trial court that the methodology Irving employed to reach his valuation opinion did not lead to a reliable opinion. The centerpiece of the defendants' methodology challenge seems to be ...


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