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Harris County v. Ramirez

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

July 16, 2019

HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellant
v.
CLAUDIA RAMIREZ, Appellee

          On Appeal from the County Civil Court at Law No 1 Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 1081071

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost and Justices Zimmerer and Hassan.

          MAJORITY OPINION

          JERRY ZIMMERER, JUSTICE

         Appellant Harris County, Texas sued appellee Claudia Ramirez to recover unpaid tolls and fees incurred on two vehicles for which Ramirez remained the registered owner, but that she previously had sold. The trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment in favor of Ramirez on Harris County's claims. In four issues, Harris County contends the trial court erred in rendering judgment against it because the trial court failed to issue findings of fact and conclusions of law, the evidence is legally and factually insufficient to support the trial court's judgment, and the trial court abused its discretion by acting arbitrarily and without regard to guiding rules and principles.

         We agree that Harris County established conclusively that Ramirez is liable for the tolls and fees under Section 284.0701 of the Texas Transportation Code. As a result, we reverse the trial court's judgment in favor of Ramirez and render judgment in favor of Harris County for the tolls and fees.

         Background

         By statute, Harris County is authorized to collect tolls from vehicles operated on certain roadways. See Tex. Transp. Code § 284.069. Under the relevant statute, if a party operates a vehicle on a county project and fails to pay the toll, the party commits an offense. Tex. Transp. Code § 284.070(a). The statute also provides that when an offense is committed, the registered owner of the vehicle is liable for the payment of the toll and for an administrative cost. Tex. Transp. Code § 284.0701(a); see also Tex. Transp. Code § 284.202(c) (allowing commissioners court by order to impose a reasonable cost for expenses associated with collecting unpaid toll or charge if registered owner fails to pay).

         At the bench trial, Harris County presented evidence that during 2011, Ramirez was the registered owner of a vehicle bearing license plate CN4F791, and during 2012, she was the registered owner of a vehicle bearing license plate AM19152. On several dates in 2011 and 2012, the two vehicles were operated on Harris County toll roads without payment of the proper toll. With regard to license plate CN4F791, Harris County sent notices of violation to Ramirez and the alleged violations were submitted to an administrative adjudication process. Ramirez did not appear at the hearing and the hearing officer signed an order providing that Ramirez was the registered owner of the vehicle bearing license plate CN4F791, that Ramirez was given proper notice, and that Ramirez is liable for the unpaid tolls and associated fees and costs. The order of the administrative hearing officer was not appealed and became final.[1] With regard to the vehicle bearing license plate AM19152, Harris County presented evidence that the claim for unpaid tolls and fees against Ramirez also went through the administrative adjudication process and resulted in an agreed order. In the agreed order, Ramirez admitted to "personal liability for all tolls, fees, charges, and costs" in the amount of $1, 891.75. She made a down payment on the agreed order in the amount of $318.00 but made no further payments.

         Ramirez presented unrebutted testimony that she sold the vehicles before the tolls were incurred, that she was not driving the vehicles at the time the tolls were incurred, and that she did not know that the Department of Motor Vehicles listed her as the registered owner of the two vehicles. Ramirez, who testified through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, said she was unaware that she needed to file transfer documents with the Department of Motor Vehicles to prevent her from remaining the registered owner.[2]

         The trial court stated that it did not doubt the veracity of Ramirez regarding her testimony that she did not own the vehicles at the time the tolls were incurred and that she did not drive the vehicles through the toll booths. At the conclusion of the brief bench trial, the trial court indicated that it would render judgment for Ramirez. That same day the trial court signed a take-nothing judgment in her favor. Harris County timely requested findings of fact and conclusions of law and provided timely notice of past-due findings of fact and conclusions of law, but the trial court failed to file any findings or conclusions. This appeal followed.

         Analysis

         Harris County has asserted four issues on appeal: (1) whether the trial court erred in failing to file written findings of fact and conclusions of law after a timely request and notice of past due findings; (2) whether the evidence is factually insufficient to support the trial court's judgment; (3) whether the evidence is legally insufficient to support the trial court's judgment; and (4) whether the trial court abused its discretion by acting arbitrarily, unreasonably, and without regard to guiding legal principles. We first address Harris County's issue challenging the failure to file findings of fact and conclusions of law and conclude the error is harmless. We then turn to Harris County's third issue because that issue, if sustained, would afford Harris County the greatest relief. Without addressing the remaining issues, we conclude the legal insufficiency issue is dispositive. See Tex. R. App. P. 47.1 (directing court of appeals to hand down opinion addressing issues raised and necessary to final disposition of appeal); Windrum v. Kareh, No. 17-0328, 2019 WL 321925, at *12 (Tex. Jan. 25, 2019) (noting "[o]rdinarily, a court of appeals will not address the factual sufficiency of the evidence if it determines the evidence is legally insufficient").

         I. Any error in failing to issue findings of fact and conclusions of law is harmless.

         Pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 296, any party may request the trial court to state in writing its findings of fact and conclusions of law following a bench trial. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 296; Ad Villarai, LLC v. Chan IL Pak, 519 S.W.3d 132, 135 (Tex. 2017) (per curiam). If the party timely files its request for findings and conclusions and timely notifies the trial court of past-due findings and conclusions, and the trial court fails to file findings and conclusions, "the court of appeals must presume the trial court made all the findings necessary to support the judgment." Ad Villarai, 519 S.W.3d at 135. A party may rebut the presumption by establishing that the evidence does not support the presumed findings that are necessary to support the judgment. See id. When the facts are disputed, the burden of rebutting all presumed findings may be so burdensome that it effectively "prevent[s the appellant] from properly presenting its case to the court of appeals. . . ." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In such cases, harm ...


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