Opinion Released December 7, 2017

Morin v. Rivera, No. 13-17-00096-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rodriguez; Panel Members: Chief Justice Valdez and Justice Hinojosa)

In this appeal taken two years after a default judgment was entered, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals discussed the necessary requirements for a judgment to be final and appealable.

Hector Morin sold Ruben Rivera a plot of land, and he kept a lien on the property. Morin then crashed while driving Rivera’s vehicle and towing Rivera’s boat. Rivera claimed Morin agreed to credit the amount of damage he caused in the wreck against Rivera’s payments for the land. The parties began disputing how much they owed one another, and Morin threatened to foreclose.

Rivera sued Morin, seeking (1) partition of the property; (2) title to and possession of the property; (3) a temporary restraining order to prevent Morin from misusing the property; (4) a temporary injunction to protect and preserve the property; (5) temporary and permanent injunctions prohibiting Morin from harassing Rivera or his friends or lessees; (6) attorney’s fees; (7) costs; and (8) post-judgment interest. Morin failed to appear for trial, and the trial court awarded Rivera title to and ownership of the land, along with attorney’s fees and court costs.

Morin filed a timely motion for new trial on October 16, 2014, and the motion was overruled by operation of law. On July 15, 2016—more than a year later—the trial court entered an order purporting to grant Morin’s motion for new trial. Rivera filed a motion to vacate the order and alternatively, a plea to the jurisdiction, both contending that the trial court’s plenary power had expired. Morin responded that the default judgment was interlocutory because it did not dispose of all claims, and thus the trial court had jurisdiction. On January 18, 2017, the trial court granted Rivera’s motion to vacate, holding that the new trial order was void.

Morin appealed, and Rivera filed a motion to dismiss the appeal for want of jurisdiction.

Held: The trial court’s default judgment was interlocutory. The appeal was dismissed for want of jurisdiction.

The court first addressed the validity of the trial court’s January 18, 2017 order declaring its new trial order void.

A timely motion for new trial that is not ruled upon is overruled by operation of law 75 days after the date the judgment was signed. The trial court retains plenary power for another 30 days. However, even after its plenary power has expired, a trial court may sign an order declaring a prior order or judgment void. Here then, the trial court’s January 18, 2017 order declaring its new trial order void was proper and effective.

The Thirteenth Court then turned to the key issue on appeal: whether the trial court’s default judgment was final or interlocutory. A judgment is only final if it actually disposes of all claims and all parties. However, a default judgment that does not dispose of all claims or parties can be final if it unequivocally expresses an intent to finally dispose of the case, such as an explicit statement that “this judgment finally disposes of all parties and all claims and is appealable.” Although the trial court’s judgment awarded Rivera costs and allowed him to begin enforcing the judgment through “writs and processes,” it did not address Rivera’s requests for injunctive relief or for post-judgment interest. Furthermore, the judgment did not contain an unequivocal explicit statement that it was final and appealable. Thus, the default judgment was interlocutory and the matter was still pending before the trial court. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal for want of jurisdiction.

Read the Full Opinion Here