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Hawes v. Henderson Peden

Court of Appeals of Texas, Sixth District, Texarkana

December 16, 2019

ROGER HAWES, TDCJ #712549, Appellant
v.
TAMMY E. HENDERSON PEDEN, AN INDIVIDUAL, TAMMY E. HENDERSON PEDEN, PLLC, A CORPORATION, THE ESTATE OF TAMMY E. HENDERSON PEDEN, TANIKA J. SOLOMON, AN INDIVIDUAL, AND TJ SOLOMON LAW GROUP, PLLC, A CORPORATION, Appellees

          Date Submitted: October 24, 2019

          On Appeal from the 369th District Court Anderson County, Texas Trial Court No. DCCV 18-630-369

          Before Morriss, C.J., Burgess and Stevens, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Ralph K. Burgess Justice

         Roger Hawes appeals from an order dismissing his suit against the Estate of Tammy E. Henderson Peden (Peden Estate) and Tanika J. Solomon, among others, for breach of contract, fraud, and misrepresentation. The primary issue in this case is whether the 369th Judicial District Court of Anderson County[1] had jurisdiction over Hawes's claims. For the reasons stated herein, we conclude that the trial court properly dismissed the lawsuit.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Hawes filed a petition in a district court in Anderson County alleging that, in April 2016, he paid $2, 500.00 to Tammy Henderson Peden (Peden) and her law firm-Tammy E. Henderson Peden, PLLC (Peden, PLLC)-to represent his interests before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (Parole Board).[2] Hawes claimed that when Peden unexpectedly passed away in April 2017, Tanika J. Solomon and TJ Solomon Law Group, PLLC (Solomon), contracted with him to fulfill Peden's legal representation of Hawes and that that obligation was not fulfilled. In response to Hawes's petition for breach of contract, fraud, and misrepresentation, Solomon filed a plea to the jurisdiction alleging that the petition was subject to the jurisdiction of the probate court in which Peden's estate was then being probated. The trial court agreed, finding that the Harris County Probate Court had exclusive jurisdiction over Hawes's claims, and dismissed the suit without prejudice to refiling in the proper court.

         In his pro se appeal from the order of dismissal, Hawes claims that the trial court erred in granting the plea to the jurisdiction because (1) his claims rose to the level of the trial court's jurisdiction, (2) Solomon's assumption of his legal representation negated the probate court's jurisdiction, (3) damages exceeded the probate court's statutory limits, (4) venue was mandatory in the county in which he was incarcerated, (5) the ex parte, unnoticed hearing without service of any pending motion caused Hawes to suffer an undue financial burden by subjecting him to additional filing fees, and (6) the basic tenets of due process required service of the motion and Hawes's presence at the hearing. Because we conclude that the trial court properly dismissed the lawsuit pursuant to Solomon's plea to the jurisdiction, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard of Review

         "Whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law." Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004) (citing Tex. Nat. Res. Conservation Comm'n v. IT-Davy, 74 S.W.3d 849, 855 (Tex. 2002)). Unless a case involves "disputed evidence of jurisdictional facts that also implicate the merits of the case," we review questions of jurisdiction de novo. Id. "In deciding a plea to the jurisdiction, the trial court must determine if the plaintiff has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate its jurisdiction to hear the case." Narvaez v. Powell, 564 S.W.3d 49, 53 (Tex. App.-El Paso 2018, no pet.) (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226). We construe pleadings liberally in favor of the pleader and accept the factual allegations in the pleadings as true. Id. When the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of jurisdiction, "the trial court may grant the plea to the jurisdiction or the motion to dismiss without allowing the plaintiff an opportunity to amend." Id. (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226). "Whether a pleader has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law reviewed de novo." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226.

         B. The Trial Court Did Not Err in Dismissing Hawes's Lawsuit

         1. Probate Court Jurisdiction

         At the time Hawes filed his petition in the trial court, the probate of the Peden Estate was pending in Probate Court No. 1 of Harris County. That is a statutory probate court. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 25.1031(a). "In a county in which there is a statutory probate court, the statutory probate court has original jurisdiction of probate proceedings." Tex. Estates Code Ann. § 32.002(c). "In a county in which there is a statutory probate court, the statutory probate court has exclusive jurisdiction of all probate proceedings . . . ." Tex. Estates Code Ann. § 43.0059(a). "A cause of action related to the probate proceeding must be brought in a statutory probate court unless the jurisdiction of the statutory probate court is concurrent with the jurisdiction of a district court as provided by Section 32.007 or with the jurisdiction of any other court." Tex. Estates Code Ann. § 32.005(a).[3]

         The term "probate proceeding," as used in the Texas Estates Code, has been defined to include "an application, petition, motion, or action regarding the probate of a will or an estate administration, including a claim for money owed by the decedent." Tex. Estates Code Ann. § 31.001(4) (Supp.)[4]; see Tex. Estates Code Ann. § 22.029 ("probate matter," "probate proceedings, "proceeding in probate," and "proceedings for probate" are synonymous and include matters or proceedings related to decedent's estate). "[A] matter related to a probate proceeding includes . . . an action for trial of the right of property that is estate property." Tex. Estates Code Ann. § 31.002(a)(6), (c)(1) (defining matters "related to a probate proceeding").

         2. Hawes's Petition

         In his first three points of error, Hawes essentially claims that his case was properly filed in the district court notwithstanding the probate court action because his petition satisfies the statutorily required amount in controversy and because Solomon replaced Peden as his legal counsel.[5] We turn to Hawes's ...


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