Opinions Released July 28, 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.

State v. YS & LS & LS P’ship Ltd., No. 13-15-00494-CV (Mem. Opinion by Justice Garza; Panel Members: Chief Justice Valdez and Justice Garza)

In this interlocutory appeal from the denial of the State’s plea to the jurisdiction, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed the validity of a property owner’s inverse condemnation claim.

In November 2007, the State gave YS notice that it intended to condemn a strip of his land. The relevant strip fronted a highway in Corpus Christi, Texas, with a total size of about one-third of an acre. YS was legally required to disclose this pending condemnation to his tenants, and was thus unable to lease the property.

Six years later, in October 2013, the State finally filed a petition to condemn YS’s land, objecting to the Special Commissioners’ valuation of the property. YS filed a counterclaim for inverse condemnation based on his inability to rent the land. The State filed a plea to the jurisdiction with respect to YS’s inverse condemnation claim. The State centered its arguments on Westgate v. State—a 1992 Texas Supreme Court case.

In Westgate, the Texas Supreme Court held that “publicly targeting a property for condemnation, resulting in economic damage to the owner, generally does not give rise to an inverse condemnation cause of action unless there is some direct restriction on use of the property.” Westgate, Ltd. v. State, 843 S.W.2d 448, 453 (Tex. 1992). There, the City of Austin and the State identified a shopping center for condemnation, hampering the owner’s ability to lease the property in the interim. When the property owner filed a claim for inverse condemnation, it was held to be invalid and barred by sovereign immunity.

The State asserted that Westgate controlled YS’s claim. YS responded that Westgate was distinguishable because his claim fit within an exception that allows suits when the government intentionally harms a landowner.

The trial court denied the State’s plea to the jurisdiction, and the State appealed.

Held: As in Westgate, YS’s inverse condemnation claim was not valid because there was not a direct legal or physical restriction on his right to lease out the property. As such, his claim was barred by sovereign immunity.

The Court noted that the State’s waiver of sovereign immunity for inverse condemnation claims only applies if the plaintiff pleads a valid inverse condemnation claim. A valid inverse condemnation claim requires actual physical appropriation or unreasonable interference with the use of property. There must be a current physical or legal restriction on the land’s use. Here, YS asserted only that he could not find tenants because of the State’s action; there was not a direct limitation on his use of the property. Thus, he did not state a valid claim for inverse condemnation, and his suit was barred by sovereign immunity.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Estate of Francis W. Sinatra, Jr. v. Sinatra, No. 13-14-00565-CV (Mem. Opinion by Chief Justice Valdez; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Benavides)

In this appeal from a divorce decree, the estate of Frank Sinatra Jr.—son of singer and actor Frank Sinatra—challenges the trial court’s finding that a common law marriage existed between Frank Sinatra and Cynthia Sinatra.

Frank and Cynthia were legally married, and they divorced in 2001. The couple remained close after the divorce. Frank continued to support Cynthia and her children, even after his court-ordered obligation to pay her $5000 in spousal support each month expired. The couple traveled together, visited one another’s families, and even introduced one another as husband and wife.

Cynthia claimed that her relationship with Frank, despite the divorce in 2001, was a common law marriage. She thus filed for divorce again in 2013. The trial court agreed that a common law marriage existed and granted the divorce.

Frank challenged the divorce, appealing on five issues. The first issue was dispositive: legal sufficiency.

However, in March 2016—before the Thirteenth Court could issue an opinion on the matter— Frank died. Frank’s estate took over the appeal.

Held: The evidence was legally insufficient to support the trial court’s finding of common law marriage.

The court began by reciting the elements of common-law marriage: (1) an agreement to be married, (2) living together in Texas as husband and wife, and (3) representing to others that they are married. The court focused on the first element, noting that there must be specific evidence of an actual agreement to enter into a common-law marriage for one to exist; an agreement cannot be inferred from the parties’ representation of themselves as married. 

Cynthia testified that nothing changed in her relationship with Frank after the divorce; that the two cohabitated and introduced themselves as husband and wife. However, she could not say that Frank explicitly agreed to enter into a common-law marriage. In fact, there were many indications that Frank viewed himself as unmarried. Frank filed his taxes separately, paid gift taxes on the money he gave to Cynthia, and listed himself as a single tenant in common when he purchased property with Cynthia.

There was no evidence of a mutual, specific agreement between Frank and Cynthia regarding the common-law marriage. Thus, the trial court’s judgment was legally insufficient, and the divorce decree was reversed and rendered.

However, as mentioned above, Frank died before the court reversed and rendered. Thus, on the same day that the Thirteenth Court issued its opinion, the Clerk of the Thirteenth District filed a letter dismissing the appeal as moot. It is unclear if the ramifications of the court’s opinion will be binding on Frank’s estate.

Read the Full Opinion Here