Appeal from the 259th District Court Jones County, Texas
Trial Court Cause No. 023467
consists of: Bailey, C.J., Stretcher, J., and Wright, S.C.J.
M. BAILEY CHIEF JUSTICE.
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.
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
was married to Judi Jones, Appellee's mother. Appellant
and Jones 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]."
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."
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