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Owens v. Alexander

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

July 25, 2019


          On Appeal from the 191st Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. DC-07-04346.

          Before Justices Myers, Molberg, and Carlyle.



         Ronroyal Owens appeals from the district court's order dismissing his petition. He contends the district court erred: (1) by applying res judicata to any of his claims against Billy D. Wyatt; (2) by applying res judicata to all of his claims against Jerry Alexander; (3) by dismissing his claims "with prejudice," despite determining that it lacked jurisdiction; and (4) by delaying its ruling for approximately seven years in violation of his right to due process. We affirm and, because the issues are settled in law, issue this memorandum opinion. See Tex. R. App. P. 47.4.

         I. Background

         Owens alleges he is the common-law adopted son of Georgia Elredge McGowan. After McGowan passed away in November 2006, Owens tried to obtain her estate on this basis. In May 2007, he filed a lawsuit against Alexander in the Dallas County district court requesting, among other things, a declaratory judgment determining: (1) whether Alexander "was the guardian, trustee, administrator or had power of attorney over" McGowan or her estate before her death; (2) whether and to what extent Alexander was the qualified executor of McGowan's estate; and (3) whether Owens qualified as McGowan's next of kin or was otherwise an interested person for purposes of her estate.

         The case was dismissed for want of prosecution in August 2008, but was reinstated on the district court's docket a few months later. In March 2010, Alexander filed a motion to dismiss and plea to the jurisdiction, asserting Owens lacked standing to bring claims relating to McGowan's estate. Owens responded and amended his petition to assert additional claims against Alexander, as well as claims against Wyatt. He alleged they defrauded him out of his inheritance by, among other things, forging McGowan's estate documents. Although Owens tried to frame at least a portion of his claims in terms of duties owed to him directly, his claims were all based on the loss of his purported interest in McGowan's estate.

         In July 2010, after a hearing on the plea to the jurisdiction, the trial court transferred the case to the Dallas County probate court on its own motion and administratively closed the case on its docket. The probate court, however, rejected the transfer. Citing § 5b of the Texas Probate Code[1] then in effect, the probate court determined the district court lacked authority to transfer the case. As a result, the case was no longer active on either docket as of September 2010.

         Nevertheless, Owens filed a separate application to determine heirship in the Dallas County probate court in September 2010, which was given a different docket number. Meanwhile, Alexander initiated probate proceedings in Denton County, where McGowan resided at the time of her death. The Denton County probate court entered McGowan's will and codicils into probate in February 2011 and appointed Alexander as the independent executor of her estate. About six months later, the Denton County probate court entered a final order approving the estate's inventory, appraisement, and list of claims.

         Owens contends he was unaware of the Denton County probate proceedings until May of 2012, resulting in his continued pursuit of the heirship application in the Dallas County probate court. In February 2012, after the court failed to respond to his requests to set a hearing on the application, he filed a petition for a writ of mandamus. Soon after, the Dallas County probate court set a hearing and appointed an ad litem to represent the unknown heirs. At the May 2012 hearing, however, Owens was informed that the will had already been probated in Denton County and thus, the Dallas County probate court lacked jurisdiction over his heirship application.

         Owens then filed a motion seeking to transfer both his heirship application (from the Dallas County probate court) and his original petition (from the Dallas County district court) to the Denton County probate court. After neither court ruled on that motion, Owens filed an October 2012 motion to reopen his case in the Dallas County district court. He followed that motion up with a December 2012 request for a ruling, but he took no further action in Dallas County until March 2017. Instead, he filed a bill of review in the Denton County probate court in February 2013, seeking to have the final judgment concerning McGowan's estate set aside. The bill of review was denied in April 2013, and the Second Court of Appeals dismissed Owens's resulting appeal because he never filed a brief. See In re Estate of McGowan, No. 02-13-00157-CV, 2013 WL 6046639, at *1 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth Nov. 14, 2013, no pet.) (mem. op.).

         Then, in March 2017, Owens sought to revive his Dallas County suit. He sent the district court a letter asking for a status update on his case. After the trial court failed to respond, Owens filed a petition for a writ of mandamus. We conditionally granted the writ in September 2017 and instructed the district court to rule on Owens's motion to reopen the case. See In re Owens, No. 05-17-00919-CV, 2017 WL 4230840, at *1-2 (Tex. App.-Dallas Sept. 25, 2017, no pet.) (mem. op.). The district court granted Owens's motion to reopen, and Alexander again moved to dismiss Owens's petition both on jurisdictional and preclusive grounds.

         The district court held a hearing on Alexander's motion in December 2017. At the hearing, Owens argued that, because the district court purportedly had dominant jurisdiction to resolve the issues in his case, he did not think res judicata should apply. He added that he was seeking to assert claims that predated McGowan's death and thus should not have been implicated in the probate proceedings. More specifically, he told the court that Alexander transferred property under a fraudulent power of attorney, before McGowan's death, and if "the property is restored to the estate, now I'm the heir of that estate because we would perhaps also decide that issue as well from the documents that I have."

         The district court explained to Owens that it lacked jurisdiction over his claims and that he could not mount a collateral attack on ...

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