caseLori was supposed to receive $200,000 of her spouse’s 401 K.
Both Lori and her spouse, Charles, had attended a meeting called “mediation” and signed a contract that she would get this $200,000 of the 401 K.
After the mediation, Lori and Charles signed final papers, including the all important “decree of divorce.”
Yet, the decree left out the $200,000 award to Lori.
The decree was signed by the judge.
More than 30 days passed.
Any chance to amend the decree or file a motion for new trial had passed since you only have 30 days to do that.
Then, Charles refused to pay Lori the $200,000.
Lori filed what is called a nunc pro tunc.
A nunc pro tunc is simply the filing of a decree that fixes a previous typo.
You can file a nunc pro tunc more than 30 days after a final order.
Clearly the decree had a typo in that it failed to include the term of the divorce dividing the 401 K.
So, they added that term into the decree, and the judge signed the fixed decree.
The matter should have ended there. But today this litigation continues.
It is not uncommon for divorce decrees to have typos which is why there is this nunc pro tunc available to fix them.
But, Charles decided to argue and fight against it.
He appealed the decision to the court of appeals, saying that the nunc pro tunc violated the rules.
He argued that the new decree did not just fix a typo, but it rather substantively changed the very outcome of the case.
He argued persuasively, I guess, because the Houston court of appeals actually reversed the trial court!
In other words, the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston Texas, agreed with Charles, that the nunc pro tunc had substantively changed the division of property and did not remedy a mere typo or clerical error.
As such, Lori was totally screwed, and in the author’s opinion, defrauded out of her own $200,000.
Now, in 2020, Lori has filed a Petition in District Court alleging multiple torts of fraud and conspiracy against Charles and his lawyer.
To Lori, and your excellent Lawyer, Walter P. Mahoney, Jr., we all hope you win.
Additionally, and oddly, the same court of appeals heard the same issue in
This sort of inconsistent unpredictable Court outcome is why it is better to stay away from court.
Use these cases to learn from, and then settle your case without involving judges that do not know you or your case.
Notes to Take Away From Case
Now, the parties have been going through their divorce litigation for what looks like 2 years from the procedural history.
They could have settled things out in a friendly way, by just honoring the heart of their agreement, which was to give Lori the $200,000 of the 401K.
Honoring the meat of an agreement, and finding ways to ensure the law supports that honor is the right practice of law and a faster way to “part as friends.”
Strategy Take Away
What do you do if you cannot get relief as a lawyer in this position, where a court of appeals has the wrong outcome, and a client is denied money she is due?
In this case, they file da post divorce petition alleging numerous torts:
Lori has now filed a post-divorce petition, alleging that Charles, his trial attorney, and her trial attorney committed fraud, conspiracy to defraud, and conversion. Specifically, Lori alleged that they “conspired to defraud [Lori] by deceiving the Court into believing and therefore accepting [the final divorce decree] that deviated substantially from the terms of the written agreement of the parties.” She also alleged that the “conspirators went even further in implementing their fraudulent behavior by signing for the Court a purposed Agreed Decree of Divorce and intentionally misleading the Court into believing that [Lori] had acquiesced in the illegal contract.” In explaining her conversion claim, Lori contended that Charles, his trial attorney, and her trial attorney “wrongfully convert[ed] the property belonging to [Lori] by virtue of the [MSA].”
Below is the case referenced in the blog.
CHARLES WAYNE RUSSELL, Appellant,
LORI ELIZABETH RUSSELL, Appellee.
Robert D. Clements, Jr., Bradley Wayne Hoover, for Charles Wayne Russell, Appellant.
Walter P. Mahoney, Jr., for Lori Elizabeth Russell, Appellee.
On Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 2, Galveston County, Texas, Trial Court Case No. 19-FD-0579.
Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Landau and Hightower.
SARAH BETH LANDAU, Justice.
Lori Elizabeth Russell filed a post-divorce petition alleging that her ex-husband, Charles Wayne Russell, his trial attorney, and her trial attorney committed fraud, conspiracy, and conversion. Charles Wayne Russell answered and moved to dismiss the claims under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (the “TCPA”), and the trial court denied his motion. On appeal, Charles challenges the trial court’s order denying his TCPA motion. Having determined that Charles has not met his initial TCPA burden, we affirm.
Lori’s divorce petition
In 2015, Lori filed her petition for divorce from Charles. Lori and Charles signed a mediated settlement agreement (“MSA”). The MSA divided the marital property, with Lori receiving “$201,000 of Charles[‘s] 401(k)” and twelve payments of $750 each.
Lori’s attorney drafted the final divorce decree. The final divorce decree “did not include the 401(k) award and only included one $750 payment in its division of the marital estate.” The final divorce decree included a provision stating, “To the extent that there may be a conflict between this Order and the Mediated Settlement Agreement from September 28, 2015, this Order controls.” Notwithstanding the conflict between the terms of the MSA and the proposed final divorce decree, both Charles and Lori approved and consented to the final divorce decree “as to both form and substance.”
Lori and her attorney appeared at the prove-up hearing. Charles and his attorney did not appear. Neither the $201,000 of Charles’s 401(k) nor the twelve $750 payments were raised at the prove-up hearing. Lori’s attorney did not introduce the MSA into the record or ask the trial court to render judgment on the MSA. At the end of the hearing, the trial court granted the divorce and signed the final divorce decree. Neither Lori nor Charles appealed from the final judgment, and the trial court later lost its plenary power.
Lori’s motion for judgment nunc pro tunc
Later, Lori filed a motion for judgment nunc pro tunc, contending that the final divorce decree was incorrect because it did not contain the 401(k) award or the twelve $750 payments. After a hearing, the trial court signed and entered a judgment nunc pro tunc, which revised the final divorce decree to reflect the division of marital property as provided by the MSA—namely, that Lori was to receive “$201,000 of Charles[‘s] 401(k)” and twelve $750 payments.
Charles’s motion to set aside nunc pro tunc judgment
Shortly after the trial court entered the judgment, Charles filed a motion to set aside the judgment nunc pro tunc as void. Charles argued that the judgment was void because the trial court rendered judgment on the property division in the final divorce decree. The trial court denied Charles’s motion, and Charles appealed.
In Matter of Marriage of Russell, 556 S.W.3d 451, 461 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2018, no pet.), our sister court reversed the judgment nunc pro tunc as void and reinstated the original final divorce decree. In doing so, the court explained that the judgment nunc pro tunc was void because it “changed the substantive rights of the parties under the [final divorce] decree and corrected judicial, and not clerical, errors.” Id. at 458. The court held that judicial errors cannot not be remedied through a nunc pro tunc judgment. Id. at 456 (citing Matter of Marriage of Bowe & Perry, No. 14-16-00551-CV, 2017 WL 6102779, at *5 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 7, 2017, no pet.). (mem. op.)). The court observed that Lori could have challenged the judgment had she timely done so before the court lost its plenary power over the final divorce decree. Id. at 461. But she did not.
Lori’s post-divorce petition
After the appellate court reinstated the final divorce decree, Lori filed a post-divorce petition, alleging that Charles, his trial attorney, and her trial attorney committed fraud, conspiracy to defraud, and conversion. Specifically, Lori alleged that they “conspired to defraud [Lori] by deceiving the Court into believing and therefore accepting [the final divorce decree] that deviated substantially from the terms of the written agreement of the parties.” She also alleged that the “conspirators went even further in implementing their fraudulent behavior by signing for the Court a purposed Agreed Decree of Divorce and intentionally misleading the Court into believing that [Lori] had acquiesced in the illegal contract.” In explaining her conversion claim, Lori contended that Charles, his trial attorney, and her trial attorney “wrongfully convert[ed] the property belonging to [Lori] by virtue of the [MSA].”
Charles’s TCPA Motion
Charles answered and moved to dismiss under the TCPA. Charles argued that Lori’s suit is based on, relates to, or is in response to his exercise of the right to petition, i.e., “to petition both in the trial court and the Court of Appeals.” Charles further argued that Lori’s suit is based on, relates to, or is in response to his exercise of the right of association, i.e., his right to “associate with his counsel.” Charles also argued that Lori’s suit is based on, relates to, or is in response to his exercise of the right of free speech, i.e., his right to “articulate his opinion pertaining to [the marital property] at issue in this proceeding.” Charles asserted that Lori failed to establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of her claims, thereby entitling him to dismissal of the claims under the TCPA. Finally, Charles raised affirmative defenses, contending that Lori’s claims were barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel. To his motion, Charles attached his affidavit, Lori’s motion for judgment nunc pro tunc, and the Russell opinion.
Lori filed a response, stating that “[t]he issue is not the litigation[.] [T]he issue is the fraud, the deception, the conversion[,] the outright manipulative conduct, the continued pursuit of the deceptive activity[,] and the failure to return the property to which he has no legal right.” In support of her response, Lori asked the court to take judicial notice of “this Court’s file and some of the pleadings upon which Lori relies to support her position.” The associate judge issued a report recommending denying Charles’s motions. On Charles’s request, the presiding judge held a hearing and directed the parties to submit post-submission briefs. The trial court denied Charles’s TCPA motion. This interlocutory appeal followed.
The Texas Citizens Participation Act
A. Applicable law and standard of review
The purpose of the TCPA statute “is to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of a person to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.002; KTRK Television, Inc. v. Robinson, 409 S.W.3d 682, 688 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2013, pet. denied). The Texas Supreme Court has described the statute’s purpose as “to identify and summarily dispose of lawsuits designed only to chill First Amendment rights, not to dismiss meritorious lawsuits.” In re Lipsky, 460 S.W.3d 579, 589 (Tex. 2015).
Under the TCPA, a defendant may move to dismiss a “legal action” that is “based on, relates to, or is in response to a party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.003(a); Mustafa v. Pennington, No. 03-18-00081-CV, 2019 WL 1782993, at *2 (Tex. App.-Austin Apr. 24, 2019, no pet.) (mem. op). A “`legal action’ means a lawsuit, cause of action, petition, complaint, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any other judicial pleading or filing that requests legal or equitable relief.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.001(6).
The TCPA defines “exercise of the right to petition” as, among other things, “a communication in or pertaining to . . . a judicial proceeding.” Id. § 27.001(4)(A)(i). “Communication” is defined under the TCPA as including “the making or submitting of a statement or document in any form or medium, including oral, visual, written, audiovisual, or electronic.” Id. § 27.001(1); Adams v. Starside Custom Builders, LLC, 547 S.W.3d 890, 894 (Tex. 2018) (“Almost every imaginable form of communication, in any medium, is covered [under the TCPA].”). Furthermore, the TCPA defines “exercise of the right of association” as a “communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.001(2). Lastly, the TCPA defines “exercise of the right of free speech” as a “communication made in connection with a matter of public concern.” Id. § 27.001(3). And a “matter of public concern” includes an issue related to “a good, product, or service in the marketplace.” Id. § 27.001(7).
The defendant-movant bears the initial burden of showing by a preponderance of evidence that the conduct that forms the suit is based on, relates to, or is in response to the movant’s exercise of his rights to free speech, association, or petition. Id. § 27.005(b); S & S Emergency Training Sols., Inc. v. Elliott, 564 S.W.3d 843, 847 (Tex. 2018). If the defendant meets this burden, then the burden shifts to the plaintiff-nonmovant to establish “by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.005(c). Dismissal of the case is nonetheless required if the defendant-movant “establishes by a preponderance of the evidence each essential element of a valid defense to the [plaintiff’s] claim.” Id. § 27.005(d); Baumgart v. Archer, 581 S.W.3d 819, 825 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2019, pet. filed). In conducting our review, we consider the pleadings and evidence in a light favorable to the plaintiff-nonmovant. Deuell v. Tex. Right to Life Comm., Inc., 508 S.W.3d 679, 685 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2016, pet. denied).
We review de novo a trial court’s ruling on a TCPA motion to dismiss. Better Bus. Bureau of Metro. Houston, Inc. v. John Moore Services, Inc., 441 S.W.3d 345, 353 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2013, pet. denied). We interpret the TCPA in accordance with its express statutory language. See Jordan v. Hall, 510 S.W.3d 194, 197 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2016, no pet.). When construing the TCPA, as with any other statute, our objective is to give effect to the legislative intent, looking first to the statute’s plain language. Lippincott v. Whisenhunt, 462 S.W.3d 507, 509 (Tex. 2015).
Whether Charles satisfied his TCPA burden
Charles contends that the TCPA applies because Lori’s post-divorce petition is based on, relates to, or is in response to his exercise of his rights to petition, association, or free speech.
A. Right to petition
Charles first contends that Lori filed the post-divorce petition because he filed a “petition to the trial court to enter an agreed Final Decree establishing a just and right division of his marital community property estate.”
Charles’s first theory is that Lori sued him because he petitioned the trial court for entry of a final divorce decree. That theory is not consistent with the undisputed facts in this case. It is undisputed that Lori, and not Charles, petitioned the trial court for a divorce. Lori then petitioned the trial court for a judgment nunc pro tunc. In response to her petitioning, and at every stage thereafter, Charles’s actions were limited to challenging Lori’s petition efforts as he continued to rely on the original decree. Because Charles has not established by a preponderance of the evidence that Lori’s legal action is based on, relates to, or is in response to Charles’s petitioning activity, Charles’s first theory is without merit. SeeElliott, 564 S.W.3d at 847.
Charles’s second theory is that Lori filed the post-divorce petition because he filed “a successful appeal to the Fourteenth Court of Appeals to declare the . . . Judgment Nunc Pro Tunc void and to reinstate the Final Decree.” The TCPA defines “exercise of the right to petition” as “a communication in or pertaining to . . . a judicial proceeding.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.001(4)(A)(i). The issue, then, is whether Charles’s previously-filed appeal constitutes a “judicial proceeding” to implicate the right to petition and invoke the TCPA’s protections.
In Levatino v. Apple Tree Cafe Touring, Inc., 486 S.W.3d 724, 728 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2016, pet. denied), the appellate court rejected the appellant’s position that “judicial proceeding” meant a “previously filed judicial proceeding” and concluded that the ordinary meaning of “judicial proceeding” is “an actual, pending judicial proceeding.” Along these same lines, in Long Canyon Phase II & III Homeowners Ass’n, Inc. v. Cashion, 517 S.W.3d 212, 220 (Tex. App.-Austin 2017, no pet.), a different appellate court stated, “The ordinary meaning of the phrase `judicial proceeding’—versus, e.g., `future,’ `potential,’ or `threatened’ judicial proceeding—is an actual, pending judicial proceeding.”
Applying the TCPA statute’s plain language and ordinary meaning, we similarly conclude that a “judicial proceeding” does not include past or previously-filed judicial proceedings. Charles cannot demonstrate that Lori’s suit is based on, relates to, or is in response to his exercise of the right to petition because he did not have a pending proceeding at the time she filed her post-divorce petition. See Chandni, Inc. v. Patel, ___ S.W.3d ___, 2019 WL 6799759, at *7 (Tex. App.-El Paso Dec. 13, 2019, no pet. h.) (“The mere fact that the parties were involved in litigation does not mean every subsequent action between them that could result in further litigation relates to or arises out of the judicial proceeding.”). Lori filed the post-divorce petition after the Fourteenth Court of Appeals had already issued its decision in Russell. Therefore, Charles’s second theory is also without merit.
B. Right of association
Charles states that Lori’s post-divorce petition “attacks” his right of association “(1) with the trial court, (2) with his own attorney and (3) with Lori and her attorney by alleging `conspiracy'” by communicating with each other to “resolve and settle legal disputes and agree to language to be included in proposed documents filed with courts.”
Charles’s defensive theory is that the defendants did not hold a common interest because they “did not conspire at any time against [Lori].” But we also have to consider Lori’s pleading. See generally Deuell, 508 S.W.3d at 685. In Lori’s pleading, she alleges that Charles, his trial attorney, and her trial attorney “conspired to defraud [Lori].” Charles may deny her allegations, but, in analyzing a TCPA dismissal motion, we evaluate the pleadings as framed by the parties. See Adams, 547 S.W.3d at 892. Lori alleges Charles and the two attorneys joined against her. And Charles concedes, in his TCPA motion, that such intentional tortious conduct is not protected by the TCPA. We find no reason to disagree with his position.
C. Right of free speech
Finally, Charles asserts that Lori’s post-divorce petition “attacks” his right of free speech to request relief from the trial and appellate courts because he cannot “articulate his opinion pertaining to the division of his funds to the trial court without fear of legal sanctions, expense, delay or unwarranted costs.” Charles asserts that his pecuniary interests are a matter of public concern. We disagree. The plain language of the TCPA defines a “matter of public concern” as “a good, product, or service in the marketplace.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.001(7) (emphasis added). The marital property of these private parties is not a good, product, or service in the marketplace. Charles does not cite to any case law holding otherwise. TEX. R. APP. P. 38.1(i) (requiring appellant’s brief to include “appropriate citations to authorities”).
Accordingly, we hold that Charles did not meet his initial burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that Lori’s post-divorce suit was “based on, relates to, or is in response to” the exercise of his right to petition, right of association, or right of free speech. The TCPA does not apply to this action.
Having overruled Charles’s sole issue, we affirm the trial court’s order.
Texas Plenary Power Laws
If you are searching for statute of limitations on plenary power, here you go;)
A trial court has “plenary power to… vacate, modify, correct, or reform [its] judgment within thirty days after the judgment is signed.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 329b(d); In re A.M.C., 491 S.W.3d 62, 66 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2016, no pet.). Once plenary power has expired, a trial court’s jurisdiction cannot be vested by party agreement or waiver. See In re Vaishangi, Inc., 442 S.W.3d 256, 260-61 (Tex. 2014) (orig. proceeding) (per curiam); In re S.A.H., 465 S.W.3d 662, 665 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.).
After the trial court’s plenary power expires, it may not set aside its judgment except by timely bill of review. Tex. R. Civ. P. 329b(f); see King Ranch, Inc. v. Chapman, 118 S.W.3d 742, 751 (Tex. 2003). 455*455 However, a nunc pro tunc judgment permits the trial court to “at any time correct a clerical error in the record of a judgment.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 329b(f) (citing Tex. R. Civ. P. 316 (“Clerical mistakes in the record of any judgment may be corrected by the judge in open court according to the truth or justice of the case….”)).