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In re C.M.L.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Sixth District, Texarkana

May 8, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF C.M.L. AND M.P.L., CHILDREN

          Date Submitted: April 10, 2019

          On Appeal from the 200th District Court Travis County, Texas Trial Court No. D-1-AG-10-001764

          Before Morriss, C.J., Burgess and Stevens, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOSH R. MORRISS, III, CHIEF JUSTICE

         In 1987, Grant M. Lawson was divorced in New York, at which time a trial court there ordered him to pay child support for his two minor children in the amount of $125.00 per week. Over the years, the child-support was modified, Lawson endured a period of unemployment, his children were emancipated, and he moved to Texas. Ultimately, however, Lawson accumulated an arrearage in his child support obligations in the amount of $33, 965.40, as confirmed in 2012 in Travis County, [1] Texas. An administrative writ of withholding was subsequently entered to satisfy the arrears. In 2018, the Travis County trial court denied Lawson's pro se motion to withdraw the administrative writ of withholding. On appeal, Lawson contends that the trial court violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection by failing to apply a New York statute to reduce, or annul much of, the arrearage. We affirm the trial court's judgment because Lawson's arguments are barred by res judicata.

         On December 5, 2011, the Office of the Attorney General of Texas, in its role as the support enforcement agency in Texas, see Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 159.103(b) (West Supp. 2018), had filed a motion to confirm Lawson's child support arrearage in the amount of $33, 965.40. In Lawson's pro se answer and supporting brief, he had argued that the arrearage should be $24, 565.40 because, under New York law, when his oldest child was emancipated in June 2003, the New York Support Collection Unit should have automatically reduced his child support obligation by fifty percent. Essentially, Lawson claimed he had been overcharged from June 2003 through February 2007, when his youngest child was emancipated, and he had asked the court to give him a credit of $9, 400.00 for that overcharge. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found and confirmed, in a cumulative judgment, that Lawson's child support arrearage totaled $33, 965.40, granted the attorney general a judgment against Lawson in that amount, and ordered Lawson to pay $100.00 per month until the arrearage was paid in full. The administrative writ of withholding was issued to collect the $100.00 per month from Lawson's income.

         Lawson filed a request for de novo appeal of the withholding order. In his request, Lawson argued, for the first time, that, under Section 413, subsection (1)(g), of the New York Family Court Act, the amount of his arrears was limited to $500.00. "Where the non-custodial parent's income is less than or equal to the poverty income guidelines amount for a single person as reported by the federal department of health and human services, unpaid child support arrears in excess of five hundred dollars shall not accrue." N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act § 413(1)(g) (McKinney 2016). The trial court denied Lawson's request for de novo appeal because it was not timely filed.

         On February 13, 2018, Lawson filed a motion to withdraw the administrative writ of withholding, once again arguing that Section 413, subsection (1)(g), applied to his arrears. In his motion, Lawson argued that he did not attempt to have the arrearage reduced because, due to Section 413, subsection (1)(g), there was never any arrearage in excess of $500.00. The associate judge presiding over the matter denied the motion. Lawson filed a request for de novo appeal, and the State answered.

         Lawson's de novo appeal was heard by the 200th Judicial District Court of Travis County, Texas, on August 24, 2018. In his trial briefs and in his arguments to the court, Lawson argued, in pertinent part, that Section 413, subsection (1)(g), applied to his arrears, that his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection required the trial court to apply the New York law to the case, and that he could challenge the arrears at this stage of the litigation because it was a "constitutionally based attack." The State argued that Texas law applied to the case and that Lawson's claims were barred by res judicata because he was challenging the January 18, 2012, order confirming the child support arrearage, rather than the State's enforcement of the order through the administrative writ of withholding. The trial court denied Lawson's motion and entered findings of fact and conclusions of law. Lawson appealed.

         Through several points of error, Lawson contends that the trial denied him equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to apply Section 413, subsection (1)(g), to his arrearage.

         Res judicata prevents parties and those in privity with them from relitigating a case that a competent tribunal has adjudicated to finality. Ingersoll-Rand Co. v. Valero Energy Corp., 997 S.W.2d 203, 206 (Tex. 1999). Res judicata generally bars a claim or defense that, through diligence, could have been litigated in the earlier suit, but was not. Id. at 206-07; Getty Oil v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 845 S.W.2d 794, 798 (Tex. 1992). "The doctrine is intended to prevent causes of action from being split, thus curbing vexatious litigation and promoting judicial economy." Ingersoll-Rand Co., 997 S.W.2d at 207. Res judicata "requires proof of the following elements: (1) a prior final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction, (2) identity of parties or those in privity with them, and (3) a second action based on the same claims that were raised or could have been raised in the first action." Amstadt v. U.S. Brass Corp., 919 S.W.2d 644, 652 (Tex. 1996).

         Here, Lawson's argument that Section 413, subsection (1)(g), of the New York Family Court Act limits his arrears to $500.00 is an attack on the January 18, 2012, order confirming his arrearage. The January 18, 2012, order is a final judgment because the 200th Judicial District Court was a court of competent jurisdiction, and Lawson did not appeal from its judgment. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. §§ 159.102(24), (29), 159.103(a), 159.305(b)(4) (West Supp. 2018). Both Lawson and the State were parties to the January 2012 arrearage proceeding and the August 2018 administrative writ proceeding. Lawson could have raised the New York statutory challenge during the January 2012 proceeding, but he did not.[2] Therefore, under the doctrine of res judicata, Lawson is barred from making that challenge in this administrative writ proceeding. See Ingersoll-Rand Co., 997 S.W.2d at 206-07; Amstadt v. U.S. Brass Corp., 919 S.W.2d at 652.

         Lawson contends that his claim is not barred by res judicata because Section 606 of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), codified in Texas as Section 159.606 of the Texas Family Code, allows him to make a constitutionally based challenge to the arrearage at any time. He claims to have raised a constitutionally based challenge because he argued at trial and on appeal that the trial court violated his constitutional right to equal protection by refusing to apply the New York statute in this case.[3] Statutory construction is a question of law "which is reviewed de novo to ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's ...


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