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February 2012

Dallas Office Secures Court of Appeals Victory in Unusual Professional Liability Case with Attack on Post-Judgment and Appellate Jurisdiction

Dallas Co-Managing Partner Bob Bragalone and Senior Counsel Steve Lawson fought off a line of cases unique to guardianship law in an ongoing battle related to a legal malpractice case the firm is handling for Travelers.  The firm's client is a law firm that represented one of the contestants in a proceeding in the County Court at Law in Henderson County, Texas, to determine who would be guardian of an incapacitated ward.  The guardianship judge sent the case to mediation, and the parties settled all disputes, including financial disputes.  After the settlement, the proposed ward died.  Thereafter, pursuant to the settlement, the trial court entered an agreed judgment denying all relief not granted and dismissing the case with prejudice.  This took place in 2008.
The other guardianship contestant became executor of the decedent's estate, and sued the firm's law firm client for malpractice.  (The client had earlier represented the proposed ward in connection with certain powers of attorney.)  Gordon & Rees filed a summary judgment motion in the malpractice case arguing that the guardianship court's judgment of dismissal was res judicata with respect to the estate's malpractice claim against the attorneys. 
Obviously surprised by this defense theory, in 2011 the estate filed a motion in the guardianship case to set aside the 2008 judgment.  It relied on a well-established line of authority holding that a guardianship court loses subject matter jurisdiction on the death of a ward and that any substantive orders entered thereafter are void.  It also argued that subject matter jurisdiction could always be attacked and was never waived, such orders always being void ab initio.  The County Court at Law denied the motion to set aside the 2008 judgment. 
On appeal, Bob and Steve argued that in Texas, a direct attack on a judgment following the expiration of the trial court's plenary power must be brought by a special equitable proceeding called "bill of review," not a post-trial motion to set aside or vacate.  There is an exception to this requirement in cases where the trial court lacked jurisdiction to consider the "class of case" in question, sometimes couched in terms of "subject matter jurisdiction," but in fact narrower than that.  Since the County Court at Law had unquestioned jurisdiction in the guardianship "class" of cases, they argued, appellant was not excused from the bill of review requirement even if the judgment was void for the reason appellant asserted.   They also argued that the challenge was improper even if considered a collateral attack on the 2008 judgment, because it relied on circumstances extrinsic to the judgment itself (the ward's death) -- impermissible in Texas.  It followed, they argued, that the trial court lacked the plenary authority to consider the motion to set aside, which in turn deprived the Court of Appeals of jurisdiction to hear the appeal.
One week after oral argument, the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal for want of jurisdiction.  It issued a memorandum opinion by Chief Justice James Worthen (designated for publication) that followed Gordon & Rees's analysis.  The result is that the 2008 judgment in the guardianship case remains final, and Gordon & Rees's res judicata argument in the pending summary judgment motion in the malpractice case is preserved.  (In re Guardianship of Fowler, 2012 Tex.App. Lexis 1119 (Tex.App. - Tyler, 2012).)

Robert A. Bragalone