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Thomas v. Latson

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

December 31, 2019


          On Appeal from the 61st District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2014-06739.

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Frost and Justices Jewell and Bourliot.


          Kem Thompson Frost Chief Justice.

         Appellants Tracey Renee Lewis and Rodney Edward Thomas, defendants in the trial court, appeal the trial court's judgment in favor of appellee/intervenor Steven Sunde. Finding no merit in appellants' jurisdictional challenge and no merits in appellants' other complaints, we affirm.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         After a bench trial, the district court signed a judgment reciting that Sunde had appeared pro se for trial, that Lewis and Thomas also had appeared pro se for trial, and that another named defendant, Encompass 2 Commercial Corporation, did not appear for trial. According to the judgment, after the trial court heard evidence and arguments of the parties, the trial court found that Sunde was entitled to judgment against Encompass, Lewis, and Thomas on Sunde's claims, and awarded Sunde a judgment in the amount of $482, 202 against Lewis, Thomas, and Encompass, jointly and severally.

         Thomas filed a "Motion to Vacate and Set Aside Judgment," arguing that the parties were bound to resolve their claims through arbitration under a valid arbitration agreement. Thomas also challenged the court's jurisdiction based on the alleged arbitration agreement. The trial court denied the motion, and Lewis and Thomas each have prosecuted this appeal pro se.

         II. Issues and Analysis

         Though Thomas and Lewis each filed an appellate brief, their briefs are substantially the same. Liberally construing the complaints from arguments set out in their appellate briefs, we conclude Lewis and Thomas raise the following issues: (1) the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, both generally and specifically as a consequence of the alleged arbitration agreement covering the claims; (2) the trial court erred when it did not make any findings of fact; and (3) the trial court abused its discretion in denying the "Motion to Vacate and Set Aside Judgment."

         A. Did Sunde lack standing to bring his claims, or was there some other impediment preventing the trial court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over the case?

         Lewis and Thomas make a variety of statements contesting Sunde's standing and the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction. Some relate to an alleged arbitration agreement[1] while others are generic.[2] We consider both categories. See Meyers v. JDC/Firethorne, Ltd., 548 S.W.3d 477, 484 (Tex. 2018) (explaining that subject-matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and that "[a] court can-and if in doubt, must-raise standing on its own at any time"). An issue implicating a court's subject-matter jurisdiction presents a question of law that we review de novo. City of Houston v. Rhule, 417 S.W.3d 440, 442 (Tex. 2013) (per curiam).

         In considering Lewis's and Thomas's arbitration-related jurisdictional contentions, we presume, without deciding, that a valid arbitration agreement existed between the parties. Lewis and Thomas have not cited, and we have not found, any binding authority to support their contention that the existence of an arbitration clause divests a trial court of its jurisdiction over the claim subject to the arbitration agreement. Contrary to their argument, this court has found that the existence of an arbitration clause covering claims filed in a court does not divest the court of jurisdiction over the action. In re China Oil & Gas Pipeline Bureau, 94 S.W.3d 50, 61 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2002, orig. proceeding).

         Trial courts regularly exercise jurisdiction over parties to an arbitration agreement. See FIA Card Services, N.A. v. Sweet, 14-08-00111-CV, 2009 WL 1748741, at *2 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] June 23, 2009, no pet.) (finding that the trial court erred in dismissing for lack of subject matter jurisdiction action to confirm and enforce arbitration award brought under the Federal Arbitration Act in state court). Neither subject-matter jurisdiction nor standing can be waived or conferred by agreement. Houston Laureate Associates, Ltd. v. Russell, 504 S.W.3d 550, 556 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2016, no pet.). By contrast, an agreement to arbitrate, like any contract, can be waived. Perry Homes v. Cull, 258 S.W.3d 580, 593 (Tex. 2008).

         We next consider appellants' generic challenges to the judgment on lack-of-subject-matter-jurisdiction and lack-of-standing grounds. In his petition in intervention Sunde sets out a fraud claim against Lewis and Thomas. The record does not reflect that any party asserted special exceptions against Sunde's petition in intervention, and liberally construing that pleading in Sunde's favor, we conclude that Sunde had standing to assert the claims in this ...

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