Opinions Released November 10, 2016

In this weekly blog, the Law Offices of Brandy Wingate Voss, PLLC will summarize recent decisions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and provide links to decisions on the court’s website.

Vasquez v. Vasquez, No. 13-15-00306-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Perkes; Panel Members: Justices Garza and Longoria)

In this appeal from a divorce decree, the court of appeals analyzed the extent to which a trial court can modify a mediated settlement agreement.

Angelica filed for divorce from Roberto Vasquez, and the parties agreed to mediation. In November 2014, the Vasquezes executed a mediated settlement agreement (“MSA”) dividing their property. As part of the agreement, Roberto was awarded the couple’s 66-acre real property, in exchange for his payment of $250,000 to Angelica on or before January 15, 2015. The entire agreement was made expressly contingent on Roberto’s ability to secure a loan for this amount.

When Roberto failed to secure the loan, Angelica filed a motion, asking the court to modify the MSA and award her the 66-acre property or sell the property and give her $250,000 of the proceeds. Roberto, in turn, filed a motion to set aside the MSA. The trial court held two hearings on the matter, and examined Roberto’s loan applications on file with three separate banks. The court then entered a final divorce decree modifying the MSA to provide for sale of the 66-acre property. The court ordered $250,000 of the proceeds to go to Angelica, as well as any outstanding debts owed to her by Roberto. Roberto was awarded the remainder of the proceeds.

Roberto appealed, claiming that the trial court abused its discretion by modifying the MSA.

Held: The trial court did not have the authority to modify the MSA based on Roberto’s alleged breach, but was bound by the express terms of the agreement. The judgment was reversed and the cause remanded.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals began by noting that an MSA executed in compliance with the statutory requirements is irrevocable and binding on the parties. A trial court must enforce such an agreement unless the MSA was illegal or procured by fraud, duress, coercion, or the like. A trial court may only make minor modifications to an MSA, and may not add terms, significantly change the terms, or otherwise interfere with the parties’ intended agreement.

The Vasquezes did not dispute that the MSA was in compliance with the statutory requirements, and that it was not the result of fraud, duress, or coercion. The MSA clearly stated that it was contingent on Roberto’s ability to secure a loan for $250,000, and that without such loan the agreement had “no further force and effect.” There was no authority permitting the trial court to modify the MSA due to Roberto’s alleged breach. Thus, the trial court erred by entering a divorce decree modifying the MSA. The judgment was reversed and the cause remanded. 

Read the Full Opinion Here

Cooper-Saratoga, LLC v. Lewandos, No. 13-15-00126-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Perkes; Panel Members: Justices Garza and Longoria)

In this appeal from an order granting summary judgment, the court of appeals analyzed whether the trial court could dismiss claims not explicitly addressed in the Lewandos’ motion for summary judgment as barred by the statute of limitations.

Cooper-Saratoga purchased an easement surrounding a billboard from the Lewandos in 2008. The Lewandos’ property was later foreclosed, and the bank resold the land to Marwell Petroleum. Marwell advised Cooper that the easement was not documented and did not exist. Cooper thus purchased a new easement from Marwell, and sued the Lewandos for fraud in 2014.

The Lewandos immediately asserted a four-year statute of limitations defense, but Cooper claimed that the discovery rule applied. The Lewandos moved for traditional summary judgment on their limitations defense, claiming that the discovery rule did not apply because Cooper could have performed a title search to discover the alleged misrepresentation in 2008.

While such motion was pending, Cooper amended its pleadings. Cooper dropped the fraud claim and instead asserted claims for breach of warranty of title and breach of warranty against encumbrances. Cooper then responded to the Lewandos’ motion for summary judgment, making reference to their new warranty claims. The Lewandos filed a reply stating that warranties do not apply to easements, and also arguing that the statute of limitations established in its initial motion applied with equal force to the new warranty claims. The trial court granted summary judgment, and Cooper appealed.

Held: The trial court could not rule on grounds not raised in the Lewandos’ motion for summary judgment. Since the discovery rule and statute of limitations are claim-specific, the Lewandos’ original motion and arguments could not be extended to Cooper’s amended claims. The order granting summary judgment is reversed and the cause remanded.

Cooper argued that the trial court improperly disposed of his breach of warranty claims, since such claims were not addressed in the Lewandos’ motion. The court of appeals noted that, generally, a court errs if it rules on summary judgment grounds not raised in the motion.  However, such error is harmless if the unaddressed claims are barred as a matter of law by grounds explicitly raised in the motion.

Here, the Lewandos’ motion only addressed the fraud claim, which Cooper abandoned and replaced with his breach of warranty claims while the motion for summary judgment was still pending. The trial court’s ruling on the breach of warranty claims was thus error. Since the statute of limitations defense and the discovery rule are claim-specific, the Lewandos bore the burden to establish that the later-pled warranty claims were barred by limitations. They failed to carry this burden. Thus, the trial court’s order granting summary judgment was reversed and the cause remanded.

Read the Full Opinion Here