Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Which SAPCR issues are for the jury and which are properly decided by the judge?

Jury verdict in child custody modification suit and judge's orders regarding child support affirmed. Appellate opinion by Chief Justice Adele Hedges also holds that technicalities of pleading in accordance with the rules of procedure not important in suits affecting the parent-child relationship (SAPCR proceedings).

Keith James Halla v. Dina Marie Halla, No. 14-06-01126-CV (Tex.App.- Houston [14th Dist.] Aug. 21, 2007)(Opinion by Chief Justice Hedges)(SAPCR modification, jury charge) (Before Chief Justice Hedges, Justices Hudson and Guzman)
Appeal from 306th District Court of Galveston County


This limited appeal originates from a suit to modify a trial court's prior Order in Suit to Modify Parent-Child Relationship, which was based on a mediated settlement agreement between the appellant, Keith James Halla, and appellee, Dina Marie Halla, regarding conservatorship of their son, Joseph Michael Halla. In a single point of error, appellant contends that the trial court erred in denying his Motion to Amend, Correct or Reform Judgment. We affirm.


Appellant initiated the action below by filing a petition to modify the trial court's prior Order in Suit to Modify Parent-Child Relationship, rendered July 6, 2001, which was based on a mediated settlement agreement between the parties and provided in principal that (1) each parent have primary custody of the child six months every year as joint managing conservators, (2) the child attend Walter Hall Elementary School, and (3) neither party be obligated to pay child support. In response, appellee filed a counter-petition, requesting that the court award her the exclusive right to make decisions concerning the child's education, and that the restriction requiring the child attend Walter Hall Elementary School be removed.

Appellant then filed a first amended original petition detailing in particular the changed circumstances compelling modification of the court's prior order, and requesting (1) the exclusive right to designate the child's primary residence, (2) the exclusive right to make decisions concerning the child's education, and (3) retention of all other terms of the previous order. Shortly thereafter, appellee filed a first amended petition likewise requesting that she be awarded the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child.

Following a brief trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that circumstances had changed sufficiently to support modification, and it was in the best interest of the child to award appellee the exclusive right to designate the child's primary residence, restricted to the bounds of Clear Creek Independent School District. After receiving the verdict, the judge stated: "What we need to do is plan on a time to finish the ancillary matters." The judge then urged the parties to attempt to reach an agreement regarding the remaining ancillary matters, stating "if you cannot resolve it without my intervention we'll have a hearing on the issues that are before me which are basically access and child support." The judge then set a hearing date.

At the subsequent hearing, the judge called the case and stated that the matter to be addressed was Aa continuation of the hearing that started with the jury case on August 21 and ended with a verdict on . . . the jury portion of the issues on August 23.@ The judge further said: ABoth parties were notified at that time that we would have a hearing to resolve the final nonjury issues before the court this afternoon at 1:30.@ The judge then asked the attorneys if they were in agreement regarding the remaining issues before the court. As appellee=s counsel went through each issue in turn, appellant=s counsel confirmed agreement on each point, including Aa child support figure which [the parties] agreed on,@ and Aan expanded standard possession order@ altering visitation rights. The judge reiterated Achild support [would] be $876 per month@ and set it to commence ASeptember 15 and [continue] monthly thereafter.@ The judge then noted that it would Aaccept those agreements as a Rule 11 agreement@ to be incorporated along with the jury verdict in its final order, and set a timetable to provide the parties adequate time to finalize their agreement. At no point during the hearing did appellant object to the proceedings or to the terms as proposed by appellee or the court.

Finally, on September 29, 2006, the judge entered a final Order in Suit to Modify Parent-Child Relationship, reflecting the terms of both the jury=s verdict and the parties= agreement. Appellant subsequently filed a Motion to Amend, Correct, or Reform the Judgment, which the court denied.

A trial court=s decision modifying the parent-child relationship is reviewed for abuse of discretion, and will only be disturbed where it is clear the court acted in an arbitrary or unreasonable manner, without reference to any guiding rules or principles. Turner v. Turner, 47 S.W.3d 761, 763 (Tex. App.CHouston [1st Dist.] 2001, no pet.) (citing Gillespie v. Gillespie, 644 S.W.2d 449, 451 (Tex. 1982), and Worford v. Stamper, 801 S.W.2d 108, 109 (Tex. 1990)).
Appellant specifically contends: (1) the trial court=s final Order in Suit to Modify Parent-Child Relationship granted excessive relief not raised by the pleadings; (2) there were no pleadings, evidence, or issues submitted to the jury inquiring about any of the elements necessary to support modification; and (3) the trial court had no authority to order a Abifurcated trial@ on issues not submitted to the jury. We shall discuss each contention in turn.

(1) Excessive Relief

Appellant first contends that the trial court=s final order granted excessive relief not raised by the pleadings when it altered appellant=s rights of access, ordered him to pay child support, and removed the requirement that the child attend Walter Hall Elementary School. In child custody and support cases, the paramount concern for the court is the best interests of the child; accordingly, detailed pleadings are not required, and the technical rules of pleading and practice are afforded little importance. Cohen v. Sims, 830 S.W.2d 285, 288 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 1992, no writ); Aguilar v. Barker, 699 S.W.2d 915, 917 (Tex. App.CHouston [1st Dist.] 1985, no writ). At minimum, the pleadings must notify the opposing party of the claim involved. Tex. R. Civ. P. 47(a). Once the parties have properly invoked a court=s jurisdiction, the court is given wide discretion in the proceedings and is Avest[ed] with decretal powers regarding all relevant custody, control, possession, and visitation matters involving the child.@ Dunker v. Dunker, 659 S.W.2d 106, 107-08 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 1983, no writ) (citing Ex parte Eaton, 252 S.W.2d 557 (Tex. 1952)); see also Leithold v. Plass, 413 S.W.2d 698, 701 (Tex. 1967).

Although appellant correctly notes that a trial court=s judgment must conform to the pleadings, A[w]hen issues not raised by the pleadings are tried by express or implied consent of the parties, they shall be treated in all respects as if they had been raised in the pleadings.@ Tex. R. Civ. P. 67; see also id. 301 (AThe judgment of the court shall conform to the pleadings, the nature of the case proved and the verdict, if any . . . .@); Herrington v. Sandcastle Condo. Ass=n, 222 S.W.3d 99, 102 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.) (A[A] trial court cannot enter judgment on a theory of recovery not sufficiently set forth in the pleadings or otherwise tried by consent.@) (emphasis added). In order to determine whether an issue was tried by consent, this Court must Aexamine the record not for evidence of the issue, but rather for evidence of trial of the issue.@ Haas v. Ashford Hollow Cmty. Improvement Ass=n, 209 S.W.3d 875, 883-84 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.); Pickelner v. Adler, No. 01-03-01050-CV, 2007 WL 1844922, at *4 (Tex. App.CHouston [1st Dist.] June 28, 2007, no pet.) (quoting RE/MAX of Tex., Inc. v. Katar Corp., 961 S.W.2d 324, 328 (Tex. App.CHouston [1st Dist.] 1997, no pet.)). For example, consent may be found where Aevidence [regarding a party=s unpleaded issue] is developed under circumstances indicating both parties understood the issue was in the case, and the other party failed to make an appropriate complaint.@ Haas, 209 S.W.3d at 884 (citing Johnson v. Structured Asset Servs., LLC, 148 S.W.3d 711, 719 (Tex. App.CDallas 2004, no pet.)).

In the present case, it is clear from the record that both parties expressly consented to adjudicate not only the issues presented to the jury but also the ancillary matters of child support, access, and school attendance not explicitly raised in the pleadings. After the jury returned its verdict, the judge requested that the parties attempt to resolve the nonjury issues of child support and access, stating that barring agreement, a hearing would be held on those subjects.[1] Appellant did not object to this procedure and even agreed to set a date for the hearing. Subsequently, at the hearing, the judge called the case, stating that it was a continuation of the earlier proceeding. Both parties indicated to the court that they had come to an agreement and would draft an order in the form of a Rule 11 agreement to be incorporated in the trial court=s final judgment. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 11.

Among the matters addressed in the proceedings and agreed to by appellant=s counsel were the amount of child support appellant would be obligated to pay, as well as the adoption of an expanded standard possession order modifying appellant=s visitation rights. At no time did appellant=s counsel object to these issues as proposed by opposing counsel, let alone their inclusion in the proceedings before the court; rather, appellant=s counsel merely requested ample time to review the final order with his client before it was submitted to the court. Thus, appellant had several opportunities to object to the inclusion of the issues of child support, access, and school attendance in the proceedings but did not do so.2 Accordingly, we find that appellant consented to trial of these issues.

(2) Elements Necessary to Support Modification

Next, appellant contends that there are Ano pleadings, evidence or issue [sic] submitted to the jury@ regarding the elements necessary to support a modification as required by chapter 156 of the Texas Family Code. To modify a previous order providing child support or detailing conservatorship of a child: (1) the modification must be in the best interest of the child, and (2) the circumstances of the child, conservator, or other person or party affected by the order must have materially and substantially changed since the earlier of (a) the date the order was rendered, or (b) the date the mediated settlement agreement on which the order is based was signed. See Tex. Fam. Code '' 156.101, 156.401.

We begin by noting that because appellant did not raise this argument in the trial court, he failed to preserve it. See Tex. R. App. P. 33.1; Greenberg Traurig of N.Y., P.C. v. Moody, 161 S.W.3d 56 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2004, no pet.).3 Further, even if appellant had preserved error, appellant=s argument that no pleadings raised the elements necessary to support modification is factually incorrect because appellant=s own First Amendment to Original Petition to Modify Parent-Child Relationship (1) alleged that A[t]he actions of a person affected by the order have materially and substantially changed since the ratification of the [court=s original July 6, 2001] Order,@ and (2) mentioned the best interests of the child. Appellant=s contention that no issue was submitted to the jury is also factually incorrect: Question 1 of the jury charge specifically asked whether it was Ain [the child=s] best interest to modify the existing order and [whether there had] been a material and subsequent change in either his circumstance [sic] or those of either of the conservators to warrant a modification of the current court order.@ Lastly, regarding appellant=s contention that no evidence supports a finding on the elements necessary for modification, appellant cites no authority and provides no analysis regarding the legal sufficiency of the evidence. Accordingly, this issue is not properly briefed. See Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(h). For the foregoing reasons, we find appellant=s argument alleging the absence of the elements necessary to support modification without merit.

(3) ABifurcated Trial@

Finally, appellant contends that the judgment should be corrected to conform strictly to the jury=s verdict because the trial court Ahad no authority to order a bifurcated trial on issues . . . not found by the jury@Cnamely, child support and access. In child support and custody cases tried before a jury, the court may not contravene a jury verdict on the determination of (1) which joint managing conservator has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child, or (2) whether to impose a restriction on the geographic area in which a joint managing conservator may designate the child=s primary residence. Tex. Fam. Code ' 105.002(c).4 By contrast, the court may not submit to the jury questions on the issues of (1) support, (2) specific terms or conditions concerning access to the child, or (3) any other rights or duties of a conservator other than the right to designate the primary residence of the child. Id.5
In the present case, the jury was appropriately charged within these limitations; specifically, the jury was asked to decide whether a modification was in the child=s best interest and whether there had been a change in circumstances, and then, if so, which parent to award the exclusive right of designating the child=s primary residence, as well as whether to restrict that right geographically. Moreover, the jury charge explicitly stated A[t]he Judge will decide on the terms of visitation, support, and other specific rights awarded to one or both parents.@ The record further reflects that the issues of child support and access were properly bifurcated from the jury portion of the trial and subsequently settled by the parties themselves. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by addressing the issues separately. Accordingly, appellant=s sole point of error is overruled.

We affirm the trial court's judgment.

/s/ Adele Hedges, Chief Justice

Judgment rendered and Memorandum Opinion filed August 21, 2007.
Panel consists of Chief Justice Hedges and Justices Hudson and Guzman.

[1] It is the policy of this state to encourage the resolution of disputes involving the parent-child relationship through voluntary settlement procedures. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. ' 154.002.
2 Because appellant ordered only post-trial excerpts of the reporter=s record, it is impossible to tell what may or may not have been raised during the jury trial. We must presume that missing parts of the record are relevant and support the judgment. Tex. R. App. P. 34.6(c); see also Mason v. Our Lady Star of Sea Catholic Church, 154 S.W.3d 816, 819-20 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2005, no pet.) (citing Christiansen v. Prezelski, 782 S.W.2d 842, 843 (Tex. 1990)).
3 Appellant=s Motion to Amend, Correct or Reform Judgment argued that the trial court=s final judgment granted excessive relief, unsupported by the pleadings, by altering appellant=s visitation rights, obligating him to pay child support, and removing the requirement the child attend a particular school. Appellant cites to no other point in the record for preservation of this issue.
4 To support his argument, appellant cites Rule 300 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure (stating that where a special verdict is rendered, the court shall render judgment thereon) and Traywick v. Goodrich (holding A[w]here there is no irreconcilable conflict in the jury=s findings, it is the ministerial duty of the Judge to enter a judgment on the verdict and the matter involves no judicial or discretionary powers.@). Tex. R. Civ. P. 300; 364 S.W.2d 190, 191 (Tex. 1963). It should be noted, however, that in rendering its final judgment in the present case, the trial court did not alter the verdict as returned by the jury but rather incorporated it unchanged in the final order. Thus, the court did not contravene the jury=s verdict, but preserved its determination intact.
5 We take no position regarding whether a trial court may still make advisory submissions to the jury on these issues. See Martin v. Martin, 776 S.W.2d 572, 574 (Tex. 1989) (discussing use of advisory submissions under former Family Code section 11.13(b), a predecessor to section 105.002); see also Lenz v. Lenz, 79 S.W.3d 10, 20 (Tex. 2002) (discussing Martin as well as advisory submissions under prior version of section 105.002).

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