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Mendoza v. Bazan

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso

April 5, 2019

NESTOR MENDOZA, JR., Appellant,
v.
ANNIE MARIE BAZAN, Appellee.

          Appeal from the County Court of Hudspeth County, Texas (TC# CV-570)

          Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Palafox, JJ.

          OPINION

          GINA M. PALAFOX, JUSTICE

         Nestor Mendoza Jr. appeals a judgment of eviction and monetary award of unpaid rent following a forcible detainer suit by Annie Marie Bazan. Mendoza raises eight issues challenging not only the subject-matter jurisdiction of the courts below, but also the judgment of possession and unpaid rent. We affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         In 2003, Annie Bazan (Bazan) and her former husband, Eric Bazan, [1] contracted to buy a home located at 700 and 704 Sierra Blanca Avenue in Sierra Blanca, Texas, (the property), from the Sierra Blanca Community Development Corporation (CDC), a non-profit corporation. Although the parties signed a sales contract, the record suggests no closing on the sale ever took place. According to Bazan's later testimony and a letter from her attorney, Bazan nevertheless made ongoing payments to the Bank of Sierra Blanca to purchase the property, and she lived there for some years. At some point, the Bank of Sierra Blanca informed Bazan that it could no longer accept payments and it later "folded." For a time, Bazan's original note was transferred to Trans Pecos Bank, but soon, this bank also refused to accept payments from her. While it is unclear exactly what occurred, the record contains references to the temporary dissolution of the CDC and its "reinstate[ment]" at some point around this time period.

         In 2007, Bazan leased the property to Denise and Nestor Mendoza. Although Nestor Mendoza (Mendoza) himself did not sign the lease, both he and Denise were listed as prospective lessees on the agreement which contained Denise's signature. Two years later, in 2009, Bazan and the couple entered a second lease for a one-year term that required a monthly rent in the amount of $500. In the event of default, the lease provided for remedies including "any other recovery to which Landlord is entitled by law or in equity." As before, Denise signed the lease agreement, but Mendoza's signature is not present.

         According to both parties, the Mendozas occupied the property during the term of the 2009 lease and paid rent consistent with the terms of that agreement up until early 2010. The record suggests that on or about April 20, 2010, Bazan sent a letter of eviction addressed to Denise and Nestor Mendoza. The record also contains a letter from Bazan's attorney addressed to the Mendozas' attorney. This letter informed the Mendozas they were delinquent in rental payments. It also warned that if they did not bring their payments current, Bazan would file a suit for forcible detainer and entry. Bazan then received a letter from an attorney who identified himself as representing both Denise and Nestor Mendoza. The letter claimed that Bazan did not hold legal title to the property and alleged that Bazan had engaged in fraudulent conduct by accepting their rent payments. In response, Bazan's attorney sent a letter to the Mendozas demanding that rent be paid or they would face eviction by forcible entry and detainer.[2]

         In 2010, when the Mendozas neither vacated the premises nor made rental payments, Bazan instituted her first forcible entry and detainer suit against them. In this suit, the justice court entered a take-nothing judgment against Bazan for reasons that are not clear from the record, and she was unsuccessful in overturning the judgment following a direct appeal and subsequent bill of review filed with the county court. In January 2015, the Mendozas signed and recorded a "Homestead Designation and Adverse Possession Affidavit." In December 2015, the CDC issued Bazan a warranty deed for the property after the CDC's reinstatement, which was signed by the Director of the CDC.

         In June 2016, Bazan filed her second forcible detainer action against the Mendozas, contending they were wrongfully occupying the property. Bazan asked the justice court to restore possession of the property to her and to award damages for unpaid rent and attorney's fees. The justice court rendered judgment restoring possession of the property to Bazan, damages for unpaid rent totaling $10, 000, prejudgment interest, and court costs. The Mendozas filed an appeal in the County Court of Hudspeth County, which conducted a trial de novo. During the trial, Bazan testified that she was not aware of Mendoza paying taxes on the property, but instead claimed that she herself had paid them. On direct examination, Mendoza acknowledged through his testimony that he did not ever acquire a deed to the property, but nonetheless, he claimed he also paid taxes on the property. Mendoza also admitted he received notice to vacate the property before the proceeding.

         After taking the case under advisement, the county court entered the same judgment as the justice court. Nestor Mendoza then filed this appeal of the county court's ruling against him.

         DISCUSSION

         Mendoza raises eight issues on appeal, arguing that (1) the lower courts did not have jurisdiction over the forcible detainer suit because the amount in controversy totaled $10, 000 in damages, plus attorney's fees, which exceeds the maximum amount in controversy permitted in a suit filed in those courts; (2) the lower courts lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the suit because no landlord-tenant relationship existed between the parties, and because other disputed title issues were intertwined with the right of possession issue; (3) the trial court erred by considering Bazan's warranty deed and testimony because the deed did not exist at the time Mendoza breached the lease agreement; (4) Bazan's award for $10, 000 in unpaid rent should be vacated because the two-year statute of limitations period for bringing a forcible detainer action for unpaid rent had expired; (5) the evidence was factually and legally insufficient to support Bazan's award for unpaid rent because the lease agreement sued upon covered only a one-year lease term; (6) the trial court erred by not granting judgment in favor of Mendoza based on res judicata and collateral estoppel since Bazan's attorney admitted that the same forcible detainer suit involving the same lease agreement and real property had already been litigated by the same parties and was decided in Mendoza's favor; (7) the evidence was legally insufficient to support the award of unpaid rent because Mendoza was not a party to the lease agreement; and (8) the evidence was legally insufficient to prove the statutory notice to vacate element of the forcible detainer suit because Bazan did not present evidence that three days' written notice was given to the Mendozas to vacate the property.

         Several of Mendoza's issues implicate related inquiries. For brevity, we will consider like issues together.

         Jurisdiction of Lower Courts

         Amount in Controversy

         In his first issue, Mendoza argues that both the justice court and county court below lacked jurisdiction to hear the forcible detainer suit because the amount in controversy, when combined with the attorney's fees Bazan sought to recover in her pleadings, exceeded the statutory maximum amount in controversy permitted for those courts. Mendoza bases this contention on Tex.R.Civ.P. 500.3, which defines a "small claims case" as a suit with an amount in controversy not exceeding $10, 000, including attorney's fees, and which further states that in an eviction case, a claim for rent may be joined if the amount of unpaid rent sought to be recovered is not more than $10, 000, including attorney's fees. Tex.R.Civ.P. 500.3(a), (d).

         Yet, as Bazan points out in her response, Rule 816 of the Rules of Civil Procedure also provides that the rules of procedure "shall not be construed to extend or limit the jurisdiction of the courts of the State of Texas[.]" Tex.R.Civ.P. 816. Instead, it is the province of the Legislature to define the jurisdiction of the justice courts, and to set the limit on the amount in controversy permitted in those cases. See Tex. Const. art. V, § 19 (justice courts have "such other jurisdiction as may be provided by law"). Therefore, we must look beyond Rule 500.3 to determine whether the justice and county courts in this instance properly maintained jurisdiction over Bazan's forcible detainer suit.

         As determined by the Legislature, a justice court has jurisdiction over civil cases in which the amount of controversy is not more than $10, 000, and more specifically, also has original jurisdiction over cases of forcible entry and detainer. Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 27.031(a)(1), (2); see also Tex. Const. art. V, § 19 (justice courts have "such other jurisdiction as may be provided by law"). In determining the amount in controversy, accrued interest and post-judgment attorney's fees are not normally considered. Serrano v. Francis Properties I, Ltd., 411 S.W.3d 661, 664 (Tex. App.-El Paso 2013, pet. dism'd w.o.j.) (citing Tarrant Restoration v. TX Arlington Oaks Apartments, Ltd., 225 S.W.3d 721, 726 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2007, pet. dism'd w.o.j.); Crumpton v. Stevens, 936 S.W.2d 473, 477 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 1996, no writ)). Similarly, the appellate jurisdiction of a statutory county court is confined to the jurisdictional limits of the justice court, and a county court does not have appellate jurisdiction over cases originating in the justice court if the justice court did not initially have jurisdiction. S ...


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