Opinions Released August 8, 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.

Spiller v. Texas A&M University System, No. 13-16-00041-CV (Opinion by Justice Benavides; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Perkes)

In this appeal from summary judgment, Spiller challenges the trial court’s failure to grant his motion for new trial, after it erroneously allowed his counsel to withdraw.

Spiller sued A&M employee Karlsen Bruner, along with the Texas A&M System, for personal injuries after Bruner crashed his pickup truck into Spiller’s Cutlass at a Galveston intersection. Spiller later added Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service—another of Bruner’s employers—as a defendant, and dismissed Bruner from the case.

The dispute on appeal centered around Spiller’s counsel. On March 4, 2015, Ayesha Rafi filed a notice of appearance as Spiller’s counsel. On August 7, 2015, Rafi filed a one-and-a-half page motion to withdraw, claiming there was good cause for withdrawal and there were no upcoming settings or deadlines. Rafi also provided the court with Spiller’s last known address on 56th Street in Galveston. Spiller was scheduled to be deposed on August 11, 2015. Yet, On August 14, 2015, the trial court granted the motion to withdraw and mailed notice to 56th Street.

Twenty-five days later, A&M filed a no-evidence motion for summary judgment. A&M sent notice of the motion to Spiller at a different address in Galveston—Avenue R—and the court scheduled the motion for a hearing on October 14, 2015. On October 15, the court received a pro se reply from Spiller stating that there were “facts and cause” to deny the motion, with documentary evidence of the crash attached. The court granted summary judgment.

Spiller retained new counsel and filed a motion for new trial, alleging that Rafi failed to comply with the rules for withdrawal and that the court improperly granted Rafi’s motion. The court denied the motion for new trial, and Spiller appealed.

Held: The trial court’s order allowing Rafi to withdraw was harmful error that robbed Spiller of adequate time to prepare for trial. Thus, a new trial was warranted.

Rule 10 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure governs the withdrawal of trial counsel, and a court errs if it grants a motion to withdraw that does not comply with Rule 10. Rule 10 requires, among other things, that the withdrawing attorney file a “written motion for good cause shown.” The Court held that Rafi’s conclusory statement that “good cause” existed was insufficient, and it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to allow her to withdraw.

Furthermore, the abuse was aggravated and rendered harmful by Rafi’s provision of an incorrect mailing address for Spiller. Spiller had not lived at the 56th Street address for two years, and did not receive the motion to withdraw or order granting withdrawal. He thus discovered his lack of representation when he received A&M’s motion for summary judgment on September 8, 2015, leaving him less than a month to hire counsel, investigate the case, and respond to the motion. This was an inadequate time to prepare, and rendered the trial court’s erroneous order granting Rafi’s withdrawal harmful. The Thirteenth Court thus reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Rea the Full Opinion Here

Cano v. State, No. 13-15-00005-CR, 13-15-00006-CR, 13-15-00007-CR (Mem. Opinion by Justice Benavides; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Perkes)

This is an appeal from three felony convictions for sexual assault.

Cano was accused of sexually assaulting 5 of his step-grandchildren. He was charged with 3 felonies: indecency with Child 1 by contact, indecency with Child 2 by exposure, and continuous sexual assault of Children 2, 3, 4, and 5. The charges were joined and tried in a single proceeding. Cano was convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on each of the indecency charges, and 25 years’ imprisonment for continuous sexual assault.

Cano challenged his conviction on three grounds: sufficiency of the evidence, prejudicial joinder of the claims, and double jeopardy.

Held: Cano’s conviction was affirmed; the evidence was sufficient to convict him, his cases were not prejudiced by joinder, and his convictions did not violate double jeopardy.

The Court summarily addressed Cano’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. Cano offered the jury numerous hypothetical reasons he could have exposed himself to Child 2, but the jury convicted him regardless. The Court of Appeals held that the jury was allowed to draw reasonable inferences rather than believing the defendant’s hypothetical suggestions, and thus had sufficient evidence to support their verdict.

Regarding joinder, the Court noted that the right to severance does not apply to offenses arising out of the same criminal episode, unless such joinder would be unfairly prejudicial. The State argued—both at the trial court level and on appeal—that joinder was not prejudicial because the Code of Criminal Procedure allowed the State to introduce evidence of extraneous sexual offenses in the prosecution of other sexual-based offenses. Thus, even if the cases had been severed, the evidence of Cano’s indecency would have been introduced at his trial for continuous sexual assault, and vice-versa. The Court of Appeals agreed with the State, and overruled Cano’s challenge.

Finally, Cano challenged his conviction for indecency with a child by contact as a violation of double jeopardy. The State relied on Cano’s sexual assault of Children 2, 3, 4, and 5 for a conviction of continuous sexual assault, while charging Cano separately for indecency with Child 1 by contact. However, Cano’s assault on Child 1 was only 8 days after the time period relied upon for his continuous sexual assault charge and—Cano argued—should have been encompassed within the latter charge. Furthermore, when the State filed for joinder it argued that all of the relevant events arose from the same criminal episode. The Court of Appeals dismissed this argument, stating that a criminal episode can encompass multiple offenses, and that prosecutors have discretion in how to charge Cano with the crimes he committed.

Thus, having overruled all three issues, the judgment was affirmed.

Read the Full Opinion Here