Ms. Mandava served divorce papers on Mr. Chukkapalli in India using the Hague Convention. When Chukkapalli moved for a new trial in Texas, pointing out flaws in how he was served, Mandava countered by showing that he had actual notice of the Texas lawsuit – he had made a filing with an Indian family court that identified the Texas case and attached a document from the Texas case file. The Fifth Court agreed with him about the problems with service and held: “Although it appears Chukkapalli had actual notice of the Texas divorce proceeding, actual notice to a defendant of a pending suit, without proper [service], is not sufficient.” However: “[U]pon remand, the parties will be before the court wihout need for further citation because Chukkapalli has now become subject to the jurisdiction of the court.” Chukkapalli v. Mandava, No. 05-15-01287-CV (June 30, 2017) (mem. op.)
Defendants sought review of a post-answer default judgment by restricted appeal. Unfortunately for them, “the record is silent regarding whether notice of the final hearing date was sent . . . . ” They thus failed to show error on the face of the record, as required in a restricted appeal, because “absence in the record of any proof that notice . . . was sent to a party is ‘just that–an absence of proof of error.” Odela Group LLC v. Double-R Walnut Management LLC, No. 05-16-00206-CV (April 12, 2017) (mem. op.) (applying and quoting Gold v. Gold, 145 S.W.3d 212 (Tex. 2004)).
If Dr. McCoy made his famous pronouncement, not as to an Enterprise crew member in a red shirt, but during litigation about another defendant by filing a “suggestion of death,” would he make a general appearance in that litigation? The Fifth Court answered “no” in Hegwer v. Edwards, primarily citing a line of cases holding that making and filing a Rule 11 agreement does not amount to a general appearance. No. 05-15-01464-CV (March 22, 2017).
Echoing Justice Marshall’s classic head fake in Marbury v. Madison about jurisdiction, the case of In re Ralston Outdoor Advertising Ltd. offered a similar maneuver about Texas mandamus standards. After first expanding the Fifth Court’s usual citation to In re: Prudential Ins. Co., 148 S.W.3d 124 (Tex. 2004) to include its discussion of balancing (“An appellate remedy is ‘adequate’ when any benefits to mandamus review are outweighed by the detriments.”), the Court then denied mandamus relief based on longstanding pre-Prudential precedent : “Texas courts have long held that a plaintiff denied a default judgment has an adequate appellate remedy.” (citing Jackson v. McKinsey, 12 S.W.2d 1044, 1045 (Tex. Civ. App.—Fort Worth 1928, no writ)).
A business involved in the fuel purchases of a convenience store (right) obtained a $344,000 default judgment against an individual involved with the store’s operations. The Fifth Court set aside the judgment under the Craddock factors. As to the first factor (conscious indifference), the Court reminded of the importance of evidence rulings: “Although Quik-Way objected to the affidavits and other evidence filed in support of the motion for new trial, it did not secure any rulings on its objections; thus, we consider all the evidence in support of the motion for new trial” On the merits, the defendant “explained that her sister . . . handled the financial and personnel matters in the business and was the day manager of the store. After they were sued, [the sister] said she would handle the lawsuit. According to [the defendant], [the sister] was more educated and did not have a full-time outside job. [The defendant] said she relied on her sister and believed a lawyer had been hired and that an answer had been filed.” The sister filed a confirming affidavit. This showing sufficed: “A party’s belief that she had taken the appropriate steps to hire counsel is not consciously indifferent conduct, nor does it show [the defendant] knew she was being sued but did not care.” Khwaja v. Quik-Way Retail Associates II, Ltd., No. 05-14-01090-CV (Dec. 28, 2015) (mem. op.)
Sylvester Davis sued TexPro Construction Group after the contractor failed to complete a backyard construction project. When TexPro failed to file an answer, Davis sought and obtained a partial default judgment on liability. TexPro then answered, but Davis moved forward with a hearing to establish damages. TexPro did not appear at the hearing, and the trial court awarded judgment for $117,230 in compensatory damages, treble damages under the DTPA and $350,000 in exemplary damages. After blowing through the deadlines for an ordinary appeal, TexPro hired new counsel and filed a restricted appeal. The Court of Appeals held that there was no error on the face of the record just because TexPro’s registered agent had been served at a location different from the address listed on the citation. The Court also held that there was no error in the trial court’s decision to move forward with the damages hearing, since the filing of TexPro’s answer did not negate the previously-signed default judgment on liability. However, Davis’ testimony on damages was the full amount of the money paid to TexPro, without accounting for the value of the work that TexPro had actually performed. Because his affidavit testimony was conclusory in alleging that the work done was valueless, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages.
TexPro Constr. Group, LLC v. Davis, No. 05-14-00050-CV
A memorandum opinion setting aside a default judgment highlights one of the more forgiving standards for obtaining a new trial. FelCor/CSS Holdings sued Culinaire of Florida for failing to indemnify it in two personal injury suits. Culinaire received a courtesy copy of the lawsuit and put its insurer on notice. The insurer in turn hired defense counsel. But when the actual citation arrived, Culinaire’s CFO somehow forgot to forward it to the company’s insurance agent. Culinaire moved for a new trial under the familiar Craddock factors, but the trial court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that losing paperwork is precisely the kind of “accident or mistake” that negates “conscious indifference” to the lawsuit.
Culinaire of Florida, Inc. v. FelCor/CSS Holdings, LP, No. 05-14-00832-CV
Under Rule 329b of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the trial court loses its plenary power over a default judgment thirty days after it is signed. An exception to this 30 day rule is when a party fails to receive notice within 20 days of the signing of the judgment. In this case, the defendant sought to have a default judgment set aside, alleging that he did not receive notice of the judgment until the 98th day after it was rendered. The trial court granted his motion and vacated the default judgment.
The Court of Appeals, however, granted the defendant’s mandamus petition, because under Rule 306a(4), “a party who does not have actual knowledge of an order of dismissal within 90 days of the date it is signed cannot move for reinstatement.”
In a case involving a dispute among members of the Obowu Union DFW, the plaintiff sued the other members for defamation after he was suspended. The Union filed a plea in intervention but the plaintiff never filed an answer and the Union moved for default judgment, which the trial court granted. The case went to trial and a jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor on his defamation claim for over $200,000.
The defendants appealed the defamation verdict, which the Court of Appeals affirmed, and the plaintiff also appealed the default judgment. The Court affirmed the default judgment, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the trial court should have granted him a new trial because the intervenors failed to serve a copy of the motion for default judgment on him. Specifically, the Court noted that “after a defendant has been served with citation and the petition, the plaintiff has no legal duty to notify the defendant before taking a default judgment . . . .”
In this restricted appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in entering a default judgment against it in the absence of evidence establishing mental anguish damages. Because the trial court received testimony of the plaintiffs physical injuries form a slip and fall, and no testimony on mental anguish, and because there was no way to distinguish between the award of mental anguish damages and those awarded for past physical pain, the judge’s award of $20,000 constitutes error on the face of the record.