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

Ignore a Trial Setting at Your Own Peril

In this attorney malpractice case, a client sued his lawyer for malpractice and a number of other related causes of action.  The parties settled the case at mediation and signed a settlement agreement requiring the lawyer to sign an agreed judgment to secure payment of the settlement amount.  The client’s attorney prepared the agreed judgment and sent it to the lawyer’s attorney, but, after several attempts, never received a response.  As a result, the trial court re-opened the case (which had been dismissed due to the settlement), set it for a bench trial, and sent notice of the trial setting to both parties.

At the bench trial, neither the lawyer nor his attorney showed up, and the trial court awarded the client damages in an amount that was more than three times the amount of the settlement.  The lawyer then filed a motion for a new trial.  His attorney acknowledged, however, that he had received notice of the trial but ignored it because he thought that it was an “erroneous” notice since the case had settled.  The trial court found this excuse insufficient and denied the motion.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed, and, although it reversed some of the damages awarded to the client, held that it was within the trial court’s discretion to conclude that the lawyer and his attorney “failed to appear for trial as the result of intentional conduct or conscious indifference.”

McLeod v. Gyr, No. CC-11-02708-B

In re Motions for New Trial

It’s not a Dallas Court of Appeals case, but the Texas Supreme Court this morning issued an opinion further limiting a trial court’s discretion to grant a new trial. The Supreme Court had previously required trial courts to issue written explanations of their reasons for granting a motion for new trial. In re Columbia Med. Ctr. of Las Colinas, Subsidiary, L.P., 290 S.W.3d 204 (Tex. 2009). Now, the court has held that if the record does not support the trial court’s explanation, the appellate courts may grant mandamus relief and order the trial court to render judgment on the jury’s verdict.

In re Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., No. 10-0933

Cleaning Conflict

Sullivan purchased a commercial cleaning franchise from Jani-King. The parties ended up in two disputes that were resolved through a single settlement agreement in 2004. The settlement agreement required Sullivan to “immediately and permanently cease operation” of his competing business, and Jani-King to offer Sullivan a certain amount of accounts within the next 12 months. The franchise agreement remained in full force and effect. In 2005, Jani-King sued Sullivan for breach of the franchise and settlement agreements, alleging that Sullivan continued to operate his competing business and failed to pay Jani-King royalty and advertising fees in compliance with the franchise agreement. The jury found in favor of Jani-King and Sullivan appealed.

Among other issues, Sullivan challenged the factual sufficiency of the jury’s findings. The court of appeals found that Sullivan’s factual sufficiency complaints were not preserved for review because Sullivan failed to file a motion for new trial. The court rejected Sullivan’s claim that his motion to disregard the jury’s findings or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict sufficed as a motion for new trial because those motions did not ask the trial court to vacate the judgment and order a new trial. The court of appeals also found that Jani-King’s failure to provide Sullivan with accounts was excused by Sullivan’s prior breach of the settlement agreement through his failure to immediately cease operation of his competing business. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Sullivan v. Jani-King of NY, Inc., No. 05-11-01546-CV

“PAID” May Mean Paid

UES sued Four D for failing to pay its invoices.  In support of its motion for summary judgment, UES attached an affidavit that established the amount due.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of UES, and Four D appealed.  Four D argued that fact issues exist on the amount owed on the account.  The court of appeals rejected UES’s argument that the affidavit could not support the summary judgment motion because it failed to meet the requirements of an interested witness affidavit.  The court found that UES waived this argument because it failed to obtain a ruling on its objection.  “Reasserting” the objection in UES’s motion for a new trial, which was subsequently overruled by operation of law, did not preserve the error.  However, the court agreed with Four D that invoices attached to the affidavit that were stamped “PAID” raised a fact issue as to the amount owed.  The court of appeals reversed and remanded.

Four D Construction v. Utility & Environmental Services, No. 05-12-00068-CV

Desk Drawer Default

Duffy McKenzie sued Christopher Utz and several of Utz’s companies, seeking to recover unpaid wages. The defendants did not answer, and McKenzie obtained a default judgment against them for approximately $34,000. Thirty days later, the defendants filed a motion for new trial, seeking to set aside the judgment under the familiar Craddock standards. McKenzie opposed the motion, eliciting testimony at the hearing that Utz had simply put the lawsuit in his drawer because did not want to deal with it. The trial court denied the motion for new trial, and the court of appeals affirmed. Although the court noted the defendants’ evidence that they had not answered because they thought the parties were trying to settle the lawsuit, the conflict between that evidence and the testimony during the hearing was sufficient basis for the trial court to have found that the failure to appear was intentional or the result of conscious indifference. When the evidence conflicts, the court held, the trial court was not required to accept the movant’s version of events. The court of appeals also ruled against the defendants on a motion for sanctions, holding that various alleged misstatements in McKenzie’s appellate brief were insufficient to support any sanctions.

Utz v. McKenzie, No. 05-11-01647-CV

But Is It L’Arte?

On the eve of trial, the district court granted a motion to withdraw filed by the attorneys for L’Arte de la Mode, Inc., but denied the company’s request for a continuance because it was the client’s fault they had not been paying their bills. The case was called to trial, but nobody appeared for L’Arte. The trial court therefore granted a default judgment for Neiman Marcus, awarding it more than $150,000 in compensatory damages and twice that amount for exemplary damages, all attributable to Neiman’s claim for money had and received.  L’Arte retained substitute counsel, but the trial court denied the company’s motion for new trial. The court of appeals reversed, holding that L’Arte had established all of the elements for a new trial.

The court of appeals analyzed the case under the venerable standards of Craddock v. Sunshine Bus Lines, Inc., 133 S.W.2d 124 (Tex. 1939), which requires the movant to establish that (1) the failure to appear was not intentional or the result of conscious indifference, but was the result of an accident or mistake, (2) the movant has a meritorious defense, and (3) granting the motion will occasion no delay or otherwise injure the plaintiff. L’Arte established the first element through the affidavit of its in-house counsel, who stated that L’Arte had not received either the attorneys’ motion to withdraw or the order granting the withdrawal. L’Arte also established that it had a meritorious defense through its contention that Wells Fargo actually holds Neiman’s money, thanks to its factoring arrangement with L’Arte. Finally, the court of appeals held that L’Arte had satisfactorily assured that a new trial would not injure Neiman Marcus by agreeing to pay its attorney fees incurred in obtaining the default judgment, despite Neiman’s objection that the promise was hollow in light of L’Arte’s inability to pay its own attorneys and its failure to post a bond to supersede the existing judgment. The court of appeals therefore reversed the default and remanded to the district court for a trial on the merits.

L’Arte de la Mode, Inc. v. Neiman Marcus Group, No. 05-11-01440-CV