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Jones v. Patterson

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eleventh District

May 9, 2019

MILTON JONES, JR., Appellant
v.
GEORGE D. PATTERSON, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 259th District Court Jones County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 023467

          Panel consists of: Bailey, C.J., Stretcher, J., and Wright, S.C.J. [3]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN M. BAILEY CHIEF JUSTICE.

         This is an appeal from a bench trial. Appellant, Milton Jones, Jr., appeals the trial court's judgment denying his claims for breach of contract, conversion, quantum meruit, and a statutory worker's lien. To the contrary, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of Appellee, George D. Patterson, on his counterclaim for civil theft under the Texas Theft Liability Act. Appellant raises four issues on appeal. We reverse and remand that portion of the judgment awarding attorney's fees to Appellee. Otherwise, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Background Facts

         This dispute between family members arises out of a transaction involving Appellee's 2007 BMW 525 vehicle. The parties vigorously dispute the nature and details of this transaction. Appellant asserts that he and Appellee entered into a contract for the sale of Appellee's vehicle and that Appellee wrongfully retook possession of the vehicle. Appellee contends that he never agreed to sell his vehicle to Appellant and that Appellant stole and subsequently damaged his vehicle.

         Appellant was married to Judi Jones, Appellee's mother. Appellant and Jones[1] lived in Hamlin. Appellant testified that, while he and Jones were visiting Appellee in Hurst, Appellee offered to sell his vehicle to Appellant for $15, 000. Appellant claims that the parties orally agreed to a down payment of $10, 000 and monthly installments of $494 until the purchase price was fully paid.

         Appellant and Jones returned to Hamlin with the vehicle. Before leaving, Appellant claims that he instructed Jones to give Appellee $10, 000 in cash and obtain a signed receipt. Appellant stated that Jones provided Appellant with two documents, one which stated: "I, George Patterson, am selling Judi & Milton Jones my BMW [VIN] for 15, 000.00. Ten thousand down & 494.00 month." The document appears to bear Appellee's signature. The other document contained Appellee's bank account number for the deposit of the monthly installments.

         Conversely, Jones and Appellee assert that Appellee never agreed to sell his vehicle. Instead, they assert that Appellee only agreed to allow Jones to borrow the vehicle in exchange for her paying the monthly payments still owed by Appellee on the vehicle. They testified that Appellant never made a $10, 000 down payment. Appellee denied writing or signing the document purporting to sell his vehicle to Appellant. Jones testified that she wrote the document and forged Appellee's signature on it. She claimed that Appellant demanded that she "fix [him] a receipt" for the vehicle during an argument. Appellant subsequently moved out of Jones's house, taking the vehicle with him.

         A few months later, the parties began disputing rightful possession of the vehicle as each attempted to reclaim possession of the vehicle from the other party. Appellant took the vehicle from Jones's house, explaining at trial that he believed she was not taking care of the vehicle. Appellant testified that he prevented Jones and Appellee from taking the vehicle from Appellant's residence on multiple occasions, some of which included police intervention. Appellee testified that he spoke with the Hamlin Police Department and the Jones County District Attorney about how to legally recover his vehicle from Appellant.

         Appellant subsequently reported to the Hamlin Police Department that the vehicle had been vandalized. Appellant and Jones had obtained insurance through Affirmative Insurance Company for the vehicle, and Appellant filed an insurance claim with Affirmative for the vandalism. Appellant operated an auto body shop business at his home, and he attempted to repair the damage himself by painting part of the vehicle with a metal flake finish. Appellant asserts that he and Appellee agreed that Appellant would pay Appellee the balance due of the purchase price out of the insurance payment and retain the remaining amount for his services. Affirmative sent a check for $3, 968.87 directly to Appellee because title to the vehicle remained in Appellee's name. However, Appellee deposited the check and retained the full amount.

         About a month later, Jones successfully removed the vehicle from Appellant's garage and drove it to Appellee's residence in Hurst. Appellee filed a claim with his insurance provider, Progressive Insurance Company. Progressive determined that the vehicle was a total loss. Appellee received $11, 087.62 from Progressive for the totaled vehicle.

         Appellant filed suit against Appellee seeking relief for breach of contract, conversion, quantum meruit, and a statutory worker's lien. Appellee filed an answer denying the existence of an oral or written contract for the sale of his vehicle and asserting a counterclaim under the Texas Theft Liability Act (TTLA). Following a bench trial, the trial court entered judgment denying all relief requested by Appellant and awarding Appellee $6, 634.13 in damages and $9, 000 in attorney's fees under the TTLA.

         Analysis

         Appellant presents four issues on appeal challenging the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence. In his second issue, Appellant challenges the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence supporting the trial court's finding that Appellee's signature on the alleged agreement was forged. The trial court entered the following finding of fact: "George D. Patterson did not sign the agreement introduced into evidence which purported to sell the vehicle to Milton Jones, Jr., although the document purported to be executed by George D. Patterson." The threshold inquiry in a breach-of-contract action is whether an enforceable agreement exists between the parties. Hussong v. Schwan's Sales Enters., Inc., 896 S.W.2d 320, 326 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1995, no writ). Because a forgery finding results in the lack of a valid contract, the trial court's finding precluded Appellant's recovery on his breach-of-contract claim.

         When reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to support the trial court's express or implied findings, we apply the same standards of review that apply to a jury's verdict. See MBM Fin. Corp. v. Woodlands Operating Co., 292 S.W.3d 660, 663 n.3 (Tex. 2009) (citing Catalina v. Blasdel, 881 S.W.2d 295, 297 (Tex. 1994)). Appellee had the burden of proof on his affirmative defense of forgery. See Am. Petrofina, Inc. v. Allen, 887 S.W.2d 829, 830 (Tex. 1994). When the appellant challenges the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting an adverse finding on which he did not have the burden of proof at trial, he must demonstrate that there is no evidence to support the adverse finding. See City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 827 (Tex. 2005); Croucher v. Croucher, 660 S.W.2d 55, 58 (Tex. 1983). Under a legal sufficiency review, we consider all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, make every reasonable inference in that party's favor, and disregard contrary evidence unless a reasonable factfinder could not. City of Keller, 168 S.W.3d at 807, 822, 827. We cannot substitute our judgment for that of the factfinder if the evidence falls within this zone of reasonable disagreement. Id. at 822.

         The evidence is legally insufficient to support a finding only if (1) the record discloses a complete absence of a vital fact, (2) the court is barred by rules of law or evidence from giving weight to the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact, (3) the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact is no more than a mere scintilla, or (4) the evidence conclusively establishes the opposite of a vital fact. Id. at 810. "Anything more than a scintilla of evidence is legally sufficient to support the finding." Formosa Plastics Corp. USA v. Presidio Eng'rs & Contractors, Inc., 960 S.W.2d 41, 48 (Tex. 1998). "More than a scintilla of evidence exists when the evidence would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to reach different conclusions." Burbage v. Burbage, 447 S.W.3d 249, 259 (Tex. 2014). "However, if the evidence is so weak that it only creates a mere surmise or suspicion of its existence, it is regarded as no evidence." Waste Mgmt. of Tex., Inc. v. Tex. Disposal Sys. Landfill, Inc., 434 S.W.3d 142, 156 (Tex. 2014).

         As noted previously, the details of the transaction according to Appellant vary greatly from the testimony of Jones and Appellee. Appellant claimed that Appellee agreed to sell his vehicle to Appellant and that Appellant instructed Jones to give Appellee the $10, 000 and obtain a signed receipt. Dale B. Stobaugh, Appellant's expert witness, testified that there were "indications" that the person who wrote the contract may not have been the same as the person who signed it. However, he could not determine with "[v]irtual certainty" or "certainty" whether the document was forged, and his conclusion was only one level of certainty above "inconclusive." Stobaugh further testified that his determination was "[j]ust based on a cursory exam" of the purported contract because he did not have a "full complement of known writings . . . attributed to [Appellee]."

         Both Jones and Appellee testified that there was no oral or written agreement for Appellee to sell his vehicle to Appellant. Appellee testified that he did not discuss selling the vehicle with Appellant, write any part of the document purporting to be a contract to sell his vehicle to Appellee, nor sign the document. Jones testified that she prepared the document and forged Appellee's signature. Jones also testified that Appellee did not ask her to write the document, had no knowledge that she was signing it, and received no money for a sale of the vehicle. Jones testified that Appellant demanded that she "fix [him] a receipt" for the vehicle a few months after they returned to Hamlin with Appellee's vehicle. She testified that she created the document because she "was scared [Appellant] was going to hit [her] with [a] bat."

         Appellant premises his evidentiary challenge on alleged deficiencies in the testimony of Jones and Appellee. He asserts that Jones's testimony was "mostly excited, confused, and unintelligible." Appellant contends that Jones was not a credible witness in light of her criminal history. With respect to Appellee, Appellant contends that Appellee's testimony was "outrageous" and "confused" based upon Appellee's inability to recall various matters. ...


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