Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prisoner's Bill of Review suit fails following appellate win in prior case

First Court of Appeals, in memo opinion by Justice Tim Taft, affirms trial court's denial of inmate's bill of review. Same plaintiff had won a reversal in the other Houston court of appeals in prior suit. In restating the requirements for a successful attack on a judgment by bill of review, reviewing court holds that the fact that an injustice was committed does not provide sufficient grounds for relief.

Williams v. TDCJ-ID No. 01-06-00404-CV (Tex.App.- Houston [1st Dist.] Jan. 10, 2008)(Taft)(bill of review denied, multiple suits and appeals)
Before Justices Taft, Hanks and Higley) Howard Vanzandt Williams v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice-ID
Appeal from 23rd District Court of Brazoria County (Judge Ben Hardin)
Disposition: Trial court's judgment affirmed


Howard Vanzandt Williams appeals the trial court’s order denying his bill of review. We affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

Howard Vanzandt Williams, an inmate of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Institutional Division (“TDCJ–ID”), sued Dale Denault, a corrections officer employed by TDCJ–ID, and TDCJ–ID. The trial court dismissed the suit in its entirety, and Williams appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals. The 14th Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal as to Denault only and reversed it as to claims against TDCJ–ID. See Williams v. Denault, No. 14-00-00889-CV, 2001 WL 1249311, *5 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] October 18, 2001, no pet.) (memo op.).
Concluding that Williams had stated a claim against TDCJ–ID subject to the Texas Tort Claims Act, but that Williams had not served TDCJ–ID nor had TDCJ–ID answered the allegations, the 14th Court held that “the trial court abused its discretion in ordering that the case was dismissed with prejudice and in its entirety as frivolous.” Id. at *4. In so holding, the court determined that the trial court’s order dismissing the entire action with prejudice “cannot be said to operate as a dismissal on the merits of a defendant that has not yet been served or answered on the record.” Id. at *4.

The opinion from the 14th Court of Appeals issued on October 18, 2001. On March 12, 2003, Denault’s attorney, a representative from the Attorney General’s office, filed an amicus motion to dismiss the claims against TDCJ–ID for want of prosecution and as frivolous because the statute of limitations had run. An order of dismissal was signed in July and again in December of 2003. The orders are identical, except that the December order includes the language, “All relief not specifically granted is denied.”

In April of 2006, Williams filed a petition for a bill of review seeking to set aside the court’s judgment dismissing his claims against TDCJ–ID. That petition does not contain a certificate of service. As best we can determine, Williams alleged that TDCJ–ID waived service. The trial court denied the petition for bill of review without a hearing.

Bill of Review

A bill of review is an independent equitable action brought by a party to a former action seeking to set aside a judgment that is no longer appealable or subject to a motion for new trial. Baker v. Goldsmith, 582 S.W.2d 404, 406 (Tex. 1979). The grounds upon which a bill of review can be obtained are narrow because the procedure conflicts with the fundamental policy that judgments must become final at some point. Transworld Fin. Servs. Corp. v. Briscoe, 722 S.W.2d 407, 407 (Tex. 1987); Alexander v. Hagedorn, 148 Tex. 565, 569, 226 S.W.2d 996, 998 (1950). The mere fact that an injustice has been done is not sufficient to warrant granting a bill of review. Alexander, 148 Tex. at 569, 226 S.W.2d at 998.

A party who has participated in the trial court proceedings must plead and prove three elements to obtain a bill of review: (1) a meritorious ground of appeal exists; (2) which the party was prevented from presenting in a motion for new trial or ordinary appeal by the fraud, accident, or wrongful act of the opposing party, or official mistake or misinformation; (3) unmixed with the fault or negligence of the petitioner. McDaniel v. Hale, 893 S.W.2d 652, 660, 662–63 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1994, writ denied); see Petro-Chem. Transp., Inc. v. Carroll, 514 S.W.2d 240, 245–46 (Tex. 1974). A meritorious ground of appeal is one that, had it been presented to the appellate court as designed, might, and probably would, have caused the judgment to be reversed. Petro-Chem., 514 S.W.2d at 245.

In our review, we must indulge every presumption in favor of the trial court’s ruling. Nguyen v. Intertex, Inc., 93 S.W.3d 288, 293 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2002, no pet.). We will not disturb that ruling unless the petitioner is able to show affirmatively that there was an abuse of judicial discretion. Id. A trial court abuses its discretion only if it acts in an unreasonable or arbitrary manner or without reference to any guiding rules and principles. Id. Finally, because we have no findings of fact or conclusions of law entered in this case, we must affirm the trial court’s ruling on any theory finding support in the record. See id. When the inquiry on the bill of review concerns questions of law, such as whether an appellant presented prima facie proof of a meritorious ground of appeal, we review the trial court’s decision de novo. See BMC Software Belg., N.V. v. Marchand, 83 S.W.3d 789, 794 (Tex. 2002).

As a pretrial matter, the plaintiff must present prima facie proof to support the alleged meritorious claim. Caldwell v. Barnes, 154 S.W.3d 93, 97 (Tex. 2004); Baker, 582 S.W.2d at 408; Martin v. Martin, 840 S.W.2d 586, 591 (Tex. App.—Tyler 1992, writ denied). If the trial court concludes that a prima facie meritorious ground of appeal has not been shown, it may dismiss the case without conducting a trial. Beck v. Beck, 771 S.W.2d 141, 142 (Tex. 1989); Baker, 582 S.W.2d at 409.

Prima facie proof may consist of documents, admissions, and affidavits, along with other evidence that the trial court may receive. Baker, 582 S.W.2d at 409. Williams presented no proof to support the allegations contained in his petition for bill of review. See Caldwell, 154 S.W.3d at 97. Thus, the trial court did not err if it concluded that Williams failed to establish a meritorious claim in his bill of review.


We affirm the order of the trial court.

Tim Taft

Panel consists of Justices Taft, Hanks, and Higley.

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