Stopping time: invoking lack of notice to preserve post-judgment relief

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In In re: Douglas D. Halofitis, No. 05-16-01047-CV (Sept. 27, 2016) (mem. op.), the Fifth Court gives a helpful roadmap for parties who seek to challenge a judgment of which they were given late notice.  We know that trial courts usually lose plenary jurisdiction over a judgment within 30 days after the court signs the judgment, which is also the deadline for filing an appeal. But what if you don’t receive notice of the judgment?

Under Rule 306a, when a party does not receive notice or acquire actual knowledge of judgment within twenty days, the deadlines begin to run not from the signing of the judgment, but instead from the sooner of the date the party received notice or acquired actual knowledge of the judgment or 90 days after the judgment was signed. A few pointers to keep in mind:

  1. the 306a motion must be sworn and must establish the date of first notice or knowledge of the judgment and that this date was more than 20 days after the judgment was signed;
  2. the 306a motion, including any evidentiary supplements necessary to satisfy the procedural requirements of 306a(5), must be filed within the court’s plenary period as calculated from the date of first notice or knowledge of the judgment;
  3. the movant should seek an immediate evidentiary hearing on the 306a motion and obtain a finding of fact of the date of first notice or actual knowledge of the judgment;
  4. in no event will the periods begin to run more than 90 days after the judgment is signed, meaning that if you receive notice more than 90 days after the judgment is signed, your only avenue may be a restricted appeal or bill of review; and
  5. the 306a motion should be coupled with a post-judgment motion, e.g. motion for new trial, motion to reinstate, or motion to modify judgment. If you wait for a decision on your 306a motion, your post-judgment motion may end up being untimely even if your Rule 306a motion is successful because post-judgment motions must still be filed within 30 days of the date found to be the date of first notice or actual knowledge of the judgment.

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Sometimes “Oops!” Is a Good Enough Excuse

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

Not Really So Much Late, Per Se, as Unduly Delayed

One of the questions appellate lawyers get from time to time is “What’s our deadline to file for mandamus?” The answer is that there is no formal deadline under the rules, but if you wait too long you may end up waiving your right to mandamus. A short opinion from the Dallas Court of Appeals exemplifies the latter principle. On June 6, 2014, the county court at law granted a motion for new trial. On May 27, 2015, a mandamus petition was filed, seeking to require the trial judge to explain its reasons for setting aside the jury verdict and granting a new trial. With the new trial now scheduled for July 8, the Court of Appeals held that the unexplained delay of almost one year to challenge the new trial ruling was too long to justify mandamus relief.

In re Stembridge, No. 05-15-00672-CV

New Trial Following Default Judgment Is Also Not Mandamus-able

In February and again in March, the Dallas Court of Appeals held that appellate courts will not conduct merits-based review of orders granting a new trial following bench trials. In a very short opinion denying mandamus review, the Court has now extended that holding to orders granting new trial following entry of a default judgment. So unless the Texas Supreme Court weighs in, it appears that the only new trial orders subject to mandamus review under In re Columbia Medical Center will be those that follow jury trials.

In re Klair, No, 05-15-00462-CV

Trial Court Not Required to Specify Reasons for Denying New Trial

Banco Popular appealed from an agreed final judgment of garnishment for over $900,000 of its account holder’s money. The same day the court signed that agreed judgment, the bank moved for a new trial on grounds that it was not indebted to the account holder after all. The trial court denied the motion for new trial, and the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court first held that Craddock factors did not apply because it was an appeal from an agreed judgment instead of a default. The Court also shut down a pair of creative arguments, holding that trial courts are not required to explain their reasons for denying a new trial, and that they are not required to hold an evidentiary hearing before entering an agreed judgment.

Banco Popular N. Am. v. Am. Fund US Invests. LP, No. 05-14-00368-CV

Motion for New Bench Trial Is Still Not Mandamus-able

Less than a month ago, the Court of Appeals held that a Motion for New Bench Trial Is Not Mandamus-able. Now the Court has reiterated that holding where a district judge granted a new new trial after the case had originally been tried to an assigned judge. The Court relied in part on Justice O’Neill’s dissent in In re Columbia Medical Center, which argued that in the situation of a short bench trial, the benefits of a prompt retrial outweigh the detriments of prolonging the case with interlocutory review.

If motions for new bench trial are becoming a thing, we’ll keep an eye on the Supreme Court to see whether it wants to weigh in.

In re Dixon, No. 05-15-00242

Motion for New Bench Trial Is Not Mandamus-able

Since In re Columbia Medical Center, 290 S.W.3d 204 (Tex. 2009), trial courts have been required to specify their reasons for granting a new trial, and the failure to do so has been subject to appellate review by way of mandamus. In a very short opinion arising out of a divorce case, the Dallas Court of Appeals has recognized a notable exception to that rule. When the trial has been to the court instead of a jury, the concerns about transparency in setting aside a jury verdict are not present. Thus, a trial court does not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial without explanation following a bench trial.

In re Foster, No. 05-15-00179-CV

Hearing on Motion for New Trial Not Necessary

In this bill of review concerning an eviction for unpaid rent, the Court of Appeals found, among other things, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by not holding a hearing on a motion for new trial.  The Court explained that “a trial court is required to conduct a hearing on a motion for new trial only when the motion presents a question of fact upon which evidence must be heard.”

Carson v. El Capitan Apartments

New Trial Overturned on Mandamus

The Court of Appeals has granted mandamus relief to direct a Collin County trial court to vacate its order granting a new trial for the plaintiff in a product liability suit. The district court granted the motion based on both factual sufficiency and juror misconduct grounds. The Court of Appeals held that the new trial order could not be sustained on the basis of juror misconduct because the lower court had not conducted an evidentiary hearing — affidavits attached to the motion alone were not sufficient under Rule 327. The Court also concluded that the jury’s verdict for the defense was not contrary to the great weight and preponderance of the evidence, as conflicting testimony from the parties’ design experts adequately supported the jury’s decision that the medical implant at issue was not defective.

In re Zimmer, Inc., No. 05-14-00940-CV

Summary Judgment Default

A fire at a hotel in Duncanville left the property owner unable to continue paying on the $3.4 million promissory note. The lender foreclosed and the property was sold for $500,000, leaving a substantial balance on the defendants’ personal guaranty obligations. The bank prevailed on summary judgment, a result that was not helped by the failure of defendants’ counsel to respond to the motion or appear at the hearing. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The guarantors challenged the trial court’s denial of their motion for new trial. The Court of Appeals analyzed the case as a post-answer default, applying the Craddock factors of whether (1) the failure to answer or appear was a mistake or accident, (2) the defendant had a meritorious defense, and (3) the motion was filed at a time when granting a new trial would not delay or otherwise injure the plaintiff. In this instance, the motion for new trial failed to establish item (3), as the attorney’s affidavit did not address that factor, Neither the motion nor the affidavit  stated that the defendants were ready, willing, or able to go to trial immediately or offer to reimburse the plaintiff for its expenses. The Court also rejected the defendants’ claim of newly-discovered evidence, given that the affidavits failed to establish the proffered evidence (testimony from friends of the defendants) was actually newly discovered or could not have been discovered earlier through the exercise of due diligence.

Kahrobaie v. Wilshire State Bank, No. 05-13-01459-CV