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In re Marriage of Garcia

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

April 9, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE MARRIAGE OF MARI LOU GARCIA AND RENE GARCIA

          On Appeal from the 300th District Court Brazoria County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 76162-F

          Panel consists of Justices Jewell, Zimmerer, and Spain.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JERRY ZIMMERER JUSTICE.

         Appellant Rene Garcia appeals the trial court's Final Decree of Divorce signed following a bench trial. Rene argues in his first, third, and fourth issues that the trial court abused its discretion when it divided the marital estate because legally and factually insufficient evidence supports the trial court's division, and also because its decision to award specific property items to appellee Mari Lou Garcia, while assigning various debts to him, resulted in a property division so disproportionate that it was manifestly unjust and unfair. We overrule Rene's first issue because there was evidence that (1) Rene's refusal to cooperate with Mari Lou resulted in the foreclosure of a building owned by the community estate causing the loss of $40, 000 in equity; and (2) Rene misused an insurance payment meant to pay for repairs to the former couple's home. We overrule Rene's third and fourth issues because the record contains some evidence of a probative and substantive character supporting the trial court's property division; therefore, it was not manifestly unjust and unfair. Rene contends in his second issue that legally and factually insufficient evidence supports the trial court's finding that Rene was guilty of cruel treatment of Mari Lou. We overrule this issue because there is more than a scintilla of evidence that Rene engaged in cruel treatment of Mari Lou throughout the marriage. We therefore affirm the trial court's decree.

         Background

         Rene and Mari Lou were married in 1974. They separated in 2013 and Mari Lou filed for divorce in 2014. The case went to trial before an associate judge in 2015. The associate judge's report was rendered on July 10, 2015 and signed on July 13, 2015. A final decree of divorce was eventually signed on November 4, 2015. Mari Lou filed a motion for new trial, which the trial court granted in its entirety.[1]

         Rene and Mari Lou owned an undivided tract of land during their marriage. The couple lived in a trailer home on the property and Rene ran his electrician business there as well. The property also contained a barn, where the couple stored heavy equipment they owned. Rene used this equipment in his electrician business. The associate judge's 2015 property division awarded this real property to Rene. Following the second trial, Rene and Mari Lou's residential homestead was partitioned into two tracts, Tract A and Tract B. Tract A includes the trailer home, while Tract B holds the barn. The property division at issue in this appeal awarded Tract A to Rene and Tract B to Mari Lou.

         Rene and Mari Lou also owned a commercial building, known as the Velasco Property, in Angleton, Texas. Mari Lou began using the Velasco Property for her own business, Nutritional Melt Away Place, and she had exclusive control of the building beginning in March, 2014. The loan on the Velasco Property matured in February, 2015. Eric Ashenfelder, the vice president of the bank holding the note on the Velasco Property, agreed to renew the loan in January, 2015. Ashenfelder worked primarily with Mari Lou to obtain the renewal. While he worked mostly with Mari Lou, Ashenfelder testified during the second trial that he did ask Rene, on multiple occasions, about signing a deed so that Mari Lou could obtain refinancing. According to Ashenfelder, Rene always deferred signing an agreement by stating that he had to consult with his attorney first. Without Rene's cooperation, Mari Lou was unable to renew the loan.

         The Velasco Property was in foreclosure at the time of the first trial. The associate judge's rendition following the first trial ordered Rene and Mari Lou to sell the Velasco Property "and split the net sales proceeds 50/50 or split the liability 50/50." Mari Lou had previously told Ashenfelder that she had a buyer who agreed to buy the property out of foreclosure. Ashenfelder agreed to the sale of the property to that buyer, Joyce Holloway, a friend of Mari Lou. Holloway agreed to purchase the Velasco Property for $285, 000. Holloway met with Ashenfelder and told him that she would buy the Velasco Property if Rene would sign the deed enabling the sale. According to Holloway, Ashenfelder agreed to the sale as long as Holloway would pay the full amount owed to the bank on the note. Holloway testified that the Garcias had between $35, 000 to $40, 000 equity in the property. Rene refused to sign a deed to facilitate the sale and the deal fell through. The Velasco Property was foreclosed and was sold sometime before the case went to trial the second time in March, 2017. According to Mari Lou, if Rene had just cooperated and signed the deed, either to renew the mortgage or to sell the property, the property would not have been lost through foreclosure. The Garcias lost the equity they had in the property.

         Following the first trial, the associate judge ordered Mari Lou to tender to Rene an insurance check totaling approximately $11, 400. The couple had originally received the check to pay for covered storm damage to the trailer home. The associate judge ordered Rene to use the check to repair the trailer home. Rene, who denied he was under any obligation to use the insurance check to pay for repairs to the trailer home, used the money to either pay (1) the remaining balance on the trailer home's mortgage; or (2) expenses associated with his electrician business. The trailer home had still not been repaired by the time of the second trial.

         During the second trial, Mari Lou asked the trial court to reconstitute the community property in the amount of the insurance check, alleging that Rene had misused the insurance funds to pay a debt that Rene was already obligated to service during the pendency of the divorce proceedings because he was in possession of the property. William Coleman, a certified real estate appraiser, was retained to appraise the value of the Garcias' homestead property. Coleman opined that the value of the undivided Garcia homestead was $122, 000. Coleman took the uncompleted repairs into account in his valuation opinion as additional physical depreciation. Coleman further opined that if the money had been used to repair the trailer home, the property would have had a higher appraised value, but the increase would not equal the amount of the insurance check.

         Rene operates an electrician business, known as Electrical Services by RG, Inc. Rene operated the business out of the homestead property. Over time, Electrical Services by RG built up a substantial debt, totaling approximately $533, 671. The Garcias, not Electrical Services by RG, owned several pieces of heavy equipment Rene used in his business. This equipment included a Bobcat trackhoe, a John Deere tractor with loader and box blade, and three scissor lifts. The couple also owned a John Deere lawnmower and a pleasure boat. Rene used some of the heavy equipment as collateral on several loans that he took out to provide working capital for his electrician business. Mari Lou's sister, Gracie Egan, loaned the Garcias $10, 000 in 2011. The loan proceeds were used to pay bills and/or payroll expenses for Rene's electrician business.

         The case went to trial a second time, this time before the district court judge. During the second trial, Mari Lou and her mother both testified that Rene had verbally abused Mari Lou throughout the marriage. Rene did not deny using coarse language to describe his wife, but he asserted that it had been more than 35 to 40 years in the past, soon after he returned from Vietnam. When asked during the second trial if it was time for him and his wife to get divorced, Rene responded that it has "been time, 40 years."

         Mari Lou also testified about her efforts to take possession of various items of property that had been previously transferred to her. According to Mari Lou, she was advised that her property was ready to be picked up. When Mari Lou travelled to her former home, she found all of the property sitting outside by the road. The property, which included furniture, mattresses, bedding, and other items, was not covered. Some of it was damaged, much of it was muddy. Mari Lou assumed Rene had placed the ...


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