Preserve early, preserve often.

preservesBeasley v. Richardson, while involving facts unique to pro se litigation, provides a valuable reminder about preservation with relation to the handling of a nonsuit: “Error in dismissing a case with prejudice cannot be raised for the first time on appeal and must be presented to the trial court. To preserve a complaint of error in a judgment for appellate review, Beasley was required to inform the trial court of his objection by a post-judgment motion to amend or correct the judgment or a motion for new trial.” (citations omitted). No. 05-15-01156-CV (Sept. 20, 2016) (mem. op.)

On Indigence

While the slow season for opinions continues at the Dallas Court of Appeals, a short memorandum opinion provides a procedural lesson that could prove useful for any appellate attorney dealing with a pro se opponent. In this case, the appellant filed an affidavit of indigence with the trial court, seeking to avoid prepayment of costs under TRAP 20.1. The clerk challenged the appellant’s indigent status on September 15, and the court reporter contested the affidavit on September 17. But when multiple challenges to an affidavit of indigence are filed, the trial court still has to rule within 10 days of the first challenge. The trial court signed an order sustaining the court reporter’s challenge on October 6, well outside the 10-day period that should have run from September 15. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court had abused its discretion, reversed the order sustaining the contest to the pro se appellant’s indigence, and held that he could proceed with the appeal without advance payment of costs.

Bell v. Harris, No. 05-15-01117-CV

Lost in Translation

A premises liability case between tenant and landlord highlights a potential problem in obtaining a proper waiver of trial by jury. Concerned that the jury would be unable to understand the pro se defendant’s broken English, the trial court first requested a translator. After being informed that no translator would be available for another week, the court continued the trial, then asked the defendant whether he would agree to waive a jury. The defendant agreed, but was not asked to confirm his waiver a week later when the case proceeded to a bench trial with the aid of an interpreter. The trial court awarded $70,000 in damages to the plaintiff. On appeal, the defendant (now also represented by counsel) argued that the jury waiver was invalid because it was made before he had obtained the services of the court-appointed interpreter. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding once the trial court has exercised its discretion to appoint an interpreter, the defendant was entitled to have that interpreter for all purposes, including the decision whether to waive his constitutional right to a jury trial. Without the interpreter, the Court of Appeals could not conclude that the defendant had knowingly waived that right.

Trejo v. Huy, No. 05-14-00310-CV

How to Lose a Default Judgment

In this breach of contract case, the defendant corporation filed an answer pro se. Because corporations must be represented by an attorney, the trial court entered an order giving the defendant notice that its pleading would be struck if it did not file a proper answer within 30 days. After it failed to do so, the plaintiffs moved to strike the pro se pleading and also filed a motion for default judgment. The trial court granted both motions, entering a default judgment in plaintiffs’ favor that included $78,000 in actual damages and over $10,000 in attorneys’ fees.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in striking its answer and entering a default judgment. The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s action was overly harsh, but it agreed with the defendant that there was insufficient evidence in the record to enter the default judgment. The Court noted that, even if the facts in the plaintiffs’ petition were accepted as true, they had “failed to establish a breach of contract claim” against the defendant. Because the plaintiffs had not alleged sufficient facts to establish their claim, the Court set aside the default judgment and remanded the case back to the trial court.

GQ Enters. Corp. v. Rajani, No. 05-12-01353-CV

I Got 33 Problems, But Reversal Ain’t One

After accepting a $1500 settlement for damage to his truck, David Lynd allegedly began to harass various executives and employees of Bass Pro Shop, threatening them and demanding additional money. Bass Pro responded by filing a motion to enforce the releases in the settlement agreement and seeking injunctive relief. The trial court granted temporary and permanent injunctions, ordering Lynd not to contact Bass Pro personnel and to stay at least 100 feet away from Bass Pro’s locations and the homes of its directors, officers, and employees. Lynd — appearing pro se — asserted an impressive 33 issues on appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court was unwilling to consider the errors Lynd claimed from the original lawsuit, which had not been appealed and could only be attacked on bill of review. The Court rejected Lynd’s attempts to argue that the settlement had been procured by fraud, as well as his complaint that he had been “betrayed by own counsel” in that lawsuit. More notably, the Court affirmed the trial court’s injunction, holding that Lynd’s pattern of harassment demonstrated imminent harm that could not be remedied by an award of damages. An injunction was proper, the Court held, because Lynd’s demands for additional money were in violation of his settlement agreement with Bass Pro, in which he had released all his claims concerning his truck, including all claims against the company’s personnel.

Lynd v. Bass Pro Outdoor World, Inc., No. 05-12-00968-CV

Pro Se Plaintiff Loses Foreclosure Challenge

After Brown missed at least twenty-five mortgage payments, the Bank sent Brown notice of default and he failed to cure. The Bank sought a declaratory judgment authorizing a non-judicial foreclosure sale of the property, and obtained summary judgment. Brown appealed, and the Court affirmed. First, the Court found that Brown’s attacks on the admissibility or competency of the Bank’s summary judgment evidence were largely inadequately briefed. Second, the Court rejected Brown’s argument that the trial judge erred by denying Brown a continuance of the summary judgment hearing because (1) Brown’s motion for continuance did not mention the summary-judgment hearing, (2) Brown failed to preserve error because there was no ruling on his motion, and (3) Brown failed to submit evidence demonstrating the materiality of the purportedly previously unavailable summary-judgment evidence. Finally, the Court held that Brown failed to show reversible error due to the clerk’s late filing of the record on appeal.

Brown v. Bank of America

Seizing Animals From a Puppy Mill Is Not a Constitutional Taking

Back in 2004, the State of Texas filed an animal cruelty proceeding against Marsha Chambers, who was apparently breeding the dogs for sale. The jury found that the animals had been treated cruelly, and the justice court transferred their ownership to the Dallas SPCA. Chambers has spent the years since then futilely pursuing collateral litigation challenging the justice court’s order. In March 2012, that quest led to the filing of a suit alleging a constitutional taking of the animals, seeking $575,000 in damages for the value of the animals and lost income. The State filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was granted by the trial court and affirmed by the Court of Appeals. According to the Court of Appeals, Chambers had failed to plead a claim capable of evading the State’s sovereign immunity, because she had not adequately pleaded that the alleged taking had been made for a “public purpose.” Seizing neglected or mistreated animals serves to protect the welfare of the animals, not to confer a benefit on the public. Because the pleading did not establish a constitutional takings claim, the trial court properly dismissed the case, and that judgment was affirmed.

Chambers v. State, No. 05-12-01178-CV

Inadequate Briefing Dooms Appeal

When the trial court granted summary judgment against Tiffiney Cottledge on a breach of contract claim brought against her, Ms. Cottledge decided to appeal the ruling pro se.  Her main argument on appeal consisted of a complaint that the evidence does not support the trial court’s ruling, and that the trial court was biased in its findings.  On her first argument, the Court found that the appellee had presented seven exhibits supporting his motion for summary judgment and Cottledge did not present any discussion or analysis about why the exhibits could not support the trial court’s ruling.  On her second argument, the Court found that the issue was inadequately briefed because Cottledge failed to include appropriate citations to the record or to applicable authorities.  According to the Court, “[o]ur appellate rules have specific briefing provisions that require appellant to state concisely her complaint and provide an understandable, succinct, and clear argument for why her complaint has merit in fact and law, and cite and apply applicable law together with appropriate record references.”

Cottledge v. Roberson

All Independent Grounds

Attorney Robert Collins was sued by his client, Chris Green, for professional negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.  Green claimed that Collins had failed to serve the defendant in the underlying lawsuit, thereby allowing that case to be dismissed for want of prosecution.  As a result, Green’s claims became time-barred.  Collins filed an answer to Green’s lawsuit, but failed to appear at trial. Green testified in support of his claim, and the trial court granted a default judgment for $31,500.  The trial court subsequently denied Collins’ motion for new trial, and Collins appealed.

On appeal, Collins argued that the judgment had to be reversed because Green had failed to prove that he could have collected on any judgment in the underlying lawsuit.  But while that complaint may have been accurate, the court of appeals saw no need to reach it because Collins had failed to brief anything about Green’s breach of fiduciary duty claim.  That meant that he had failed to attack all independent grounds supporting the judgment, resulting in affirmance of the case.

Collins v. Green, No. 05-11-00893-CV

Fannie Mae Knows How to Do Foreclosures

Fannie Mae might sound like somebody’s sweet old grandma, but this grandma knows how to get defaulting borrowers out of the property.  In this instance, the borrower’s mortgage provided that if the house went into foreclosure, he would have to either surrender possession immediately or he would become a tenant at sufferance.  The borrower defaulted, the property was sold at foreclosure, and the buyer sold the property to the Federal National Mortgage Association.  Fannie Mae sent notices to vacate by certified and first class mail, then filed a forcible detainer proceeding.  Both the justice court and the county court at law (in a de novo appeal) ruled in favor of Fannie Mae, and the court of appeals affirmed.  The court held that the tenant at sufferance provision in the mortgage was legally sufficient to establish a landlord-tenant relationship between Fannie Mae and the borrower.  The court of appeals also rejected the borrower’s claim that Fannie Mae had failed to prove it had given him notice of the eviction, holding that delivery of the notice was adequately established by testimony that the copy sent by first class mail had not been returned by the postal service.  Finally, the court of appeals rejected the borrower’s claim that the forcible detainer proceeding should have been abated in favor of a separate lawsuit he had filed in district court to contest title to the property.  Because forcible detainer only determines immediate possession of the property, a separate title contest does not deprive the court of jurisdiction to decide who gets possession of the property in the meantime.

Farkas v. Federal National Mortgage Ass’n a/k/a Fannie Mae, No. 05-11-01416-CV