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In re Service Corporation International and SCI Texas Funeral Services, LLC

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

June 12, 2019

IN RE SERVICE CORPORATION INTERNATIONAL AND SCI TEXAS FUNERAL SERVICES, LLC (SUCCESSOR-IN-INTEREST TO SCI TEXAS FUNERAL SERVICES, INC.) D/B/A BUENA VISTA BURIAL PARK AND D/B/A FUNERARIA DEL ANGEL BUENA VISTA

          On Petition for Writ of Mandamus.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Benavides and Hinojosa

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DORI CONTRERAS, Chief Justice.[1]

         Relators Service Corporation International and SCI Texas Funeral Services, LLC (successor-in-interest to SCI Texas Funeral Services, Inc.) d/b/a Buena Vista Burial Park and d/b/a Funeraria del Angel Buena Vista filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the above cause on April 9, 2019. Through this original proceeding, relators contend that the trial court[2] erred by compelling pre-arbitration depositions that are "outside the proper scope of pre-arbitration discovery." We conditionally grant the petition for writ of mandamus.

         I. Background

         In the underlying lawsuit, real party in interest Maria Ruiz alleges that relators committed fraud in handling the funeral services and burial of Ruiz's deceased brother, Ernesto Eguia. Ruiz had signed two contracts for her brother's funeral services which contained arbitration clauses. In a previous appeal arising from this case, relators challenged the trial court's denial of their motion to compel arbitration based on the arbitration clauses in these contracts. See Serv. Corp. Int'l v. Ruiz, No. 13-16-00699-CV, 2018 WL 549196, at *1-9 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi-Edinburg Jan. 25, 2018, pet. denied) (mem. op.). We concluded that the arbitration clauses were valid and binding and that Ruiz's claims fell within the scope of the arbitration clauses. Id. at *5-7. We rejected Ruiz's claim that fraud barred arbitration. Id. at *8-9. We concluded, however, that the trial court had not reached the merits of Ruiz's unconscionability defense, and the undeveloped record did not permit us to reach the merits of that defense. Id. at *9. We declined to address the merits of her unconscionability defense, and we left this issue for the trial court's resolution. Id. We reversed the trial court's order denying arbitration and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with our opinion regarding the resolution of Ruiz's unconscionability defense. Id.

         Meanwhile, the parties held a series of hearings regarding discovery. On September 22, 2017, during the pendency of the appeal, the trial court signed a written order compelling various forms of discovery. In pertinent part, the order granted Ruiz's motion to compel the deposition of Arturo Leal, the individual who allegedly embalmed the decedent. On March 5, 2019, at the hearing on relators' motion to reconsider the September 22, 2017 ruling, the trial court declined to reconsider his order compelling Leal's deposition and further orally granted Ruiz's request to depose "people in the arrangement room" who were "witnesses to how the contract[s were] entered into." At a subsequent hearing on April 4, 2019 regarding this discovery, the trial court ordered that the scope of discovery encompassed "up to July the 3rd, which is when [the decedent] was buried." The trial court did not sign an order reducing its oral ruling regarding these additional depositions to writing.[3]

         This original proceeding ensued. By two issues, relators contend that (1) the trial court abused its discretion in ordering discovery that is beyond the proper scope of pre-arbitration discovery, and (2) they lack an adequate remedy by appeal. This Court requested that Ruiz, or any others whose interests would be directly affected by the relief sought, file a response to the petition for writ of mandamus. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 52.2, 52.4, 52.8. Ruiz filed a response to the petition for writ of mandamus through which she asserts, inter alia, that "the trial court was not given a chance to exercise its discretion" and pointed out that the trial court stated at the April 4, 2019 hearing that it had not had the opportunity to read all the underlying motions. She asserted that relators were "obstructing the trial court's attempt to be properly informed to exercise its discretion." She argued that the trial court had not "fully" exercised its discretion by signing an order and that a written order was "necessary" to support mandamus review. Ruiz further asserted, on the merits, that the scope of the circumstances surrounding the issue of arbitrability "include all circumstances related to the mishandling of the corpse."

         On April 24, 2019, this Court abated this original proceeding and remanded it to the trial court. We noted that the record before the Court included one written order pertaining to discovery signed on September 22, 2017; however, the remainder of the discovery rulings at issue were oral. Mandamus may be based on an oral ruling. See In re Nabors, 276 S.W.3d 190, 192 n.3 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2009, orig. proceeding); In re Bill Heard Chevrolet, Ltd., 209 S.W.3d 311, 314 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, orig. proceeding); In re Bledsoe, 41 S.W.3d 807, 811 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2001, orig. proceeding). However, the ruling must be clear, specific, enforceable, and adequately shown by the record. In re State ex rel. Munk, 448 S.W.3d 687, 690 (Tex. App.-Eastland 2014, orig. proceeding); In re Bledsoe, 41 S.W.3d at 811. Given the foregoing, we remanded this original proceeding "for the limited purpose of providing the respondent with an opportunity to fully exercise his discretion and prepare and sign any written orders necessary pertaining to the discovery at issue here." On remand, on May 2, 2019, the trial court signed an order which states:

         The following matters were set for hearing on March 5, 2019 at 9:00 a.m.:

• Defendants' Motion for Hearing to Compel Arbitration and for Abatement of Suit Pending Arbitration;
• Defendants' Amended Motion for Reconsideration (of Court's prior discovery order);
• Plaintiff's Response to said Motions;
• Plaintiff's Motion to Stay Arbitration Hearing Pending Limited Discovery;
• Plaintiff's Motion for Limited ...

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