691 Pierce v. Blalack, 535 S.W.3d 35 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2017, no pet.)

Monday, July 8th, 2019

Richard F. Brown

The following is not a legal opinion. You should consult your attorney if the case may be of significance to you.

Pierce v. Blalack, 535 S.W.3d 35 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2017, no pet.) (Dismissal with prejudice under Rule 39 in trespass to try title) held that claims were correctly dismissed with prejudice under Rule 39(a)in trespass to try title when plaintiff failed to join necessary parties, and further held that the claims could not be severed. The property at issue was a 366.7 acre tract in Gregg County, Texas (“Tract”). For over 100 years, title to the Tract was apparently clear. Husband owned the Tract in 1870 and bequeathed the Tract to Wife and Daughter. In 1917, Hart claimed to be the sole heir of Wife and Daughter. Hart conveyed fee simple title to King and, in 1921, King obtained a judgment which granted him possession of the Tract against Hart. In 1931, King also filed an affidavit claiming he had been in adverse possession of the Tract since 1918. Guttry claimed under King.

Pierce believed Hart was not the sole heir of Wife and Daughter, and that Pierce was entitled to some portion of the surface and minerals in the Tract. On September 10, 2015, Pierce, as Plaintiff, sued Guttry in trespass to try title, to quiet title in her name, and for a declaration setting aside the conveyance into King, King’s judgment, and King’s adverse possession claim (“King’s title documents”). The original petition included attached documentation that established that other unnamed persons and entities owned surface, mineral, and easement interests in the Tract. A hearing in October 2015 determined Guttry did not own an interest in the Tract and the trial court instructed Pierce “to amend her petition to include all necessary persons and entities who would be adversely affected by a determination of title.” On November 2, 2015, Pierce failed to include all necessary parties, and was given 90 days to amend. “The trial court specifically found that all persons currently claiming an interest under the various conveyances attached to Pierce’s petition would be adversely affected by a judgment in Pierce’s favor and, thus, were necessary parties under [Texas Rules of Civil Procedure] Rule 39(a).” Pierce filed her third through eighth amended petitions, but only included seven defendants, who only owned the surface. Pierce sought to sever the surface and mineral estate claims, which was denied. She was given 90 more days to amend. Her tenth amended petition included 117 defendants and her twelfth included 172 defendants, but none were served. By September 2, 2016, Pierce had served only 55 defendants, and she knew of easement holders that she apparently did not attempt to name as parties. She filed a thirteenth amended petition, but again had only served the same 55 defendants. On October 13, 2016, the court dismissed Pierce’s claims with prejudice based on motions to dismiss filed by several defendants. The issues here were whether the court properly dismissed Pierce’s claims with prejudice under Rule 39(a) in trespass to try title, when Pierce failed to join the necessary parties, and whether she was entitled to severance of the claims.

The court found Rule 39(a) applies to trespass to try title lawsuits and “is ‘broad’ and provides that a person who ‘claims an interest relating to the subject of the action’ must be joined if ‘disposition of the action in his absence, may . . . as a practical matter impair or impede his ability to protect that interest.’” “Although Rule 39 provides for joinder in mandatory terms, ‘there is no arbitrary standard or precise formula for determining whether a particular person falls within its provision.’”

“Further, the Declaratory Judgment Act also mandates the joinder of persons whose interests would be affected by the judgment.” Pierce sought declaratory relief by arguing that King’s title documents should be set aside. “And, while a declaration is not binding on and does not prejudice the rights of a person who is not a party to the proceeding, the trial court may refuse to render a declaratory judgment if it ‘would not terminate the uncertainty or controversy giving rise to the proceeding.’”

The court relied on Longoria I which upheld a Rule 39(a) ruling for dismissal without prejudice. In Longoria I the plaintiff sought to clear title by obtaining a declaratory judgment that a 1924 partition judgment was void. If the court were to find in the plaintiff’s favor, it could diminish other parties’ interests, and damage any unnamed defendants’ ability to protect its interest. The court found the facts of Longoria I to be similar to Pierce, in which the court was asked to set aside King’s title documents. “When the trial court’s decision about whether absent persons should be joined as parties is guided by accepted legal rules and principles, we will not disturb that decision.” Accordingly, the court held the claims were correctly dismissed under Rule 39(a).

Regarding severance, “Rule 41 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure provides, ‘Any claim against a party may be severed and proceeded with separately.’” A court properly utilizes severance when “(1) the controversy involves more than one cause of action; (2) the severed claim is one that could be asserted independently in a separate lawsuit; and (3) the severed actions are not so interwoven with the other claims that they involve the same facts and issues.” Here, Pierce argued her claims against the surface owners should be severed from the mineral owners, which would require her to join fewer defendants in the litigation. The court reasoned that Pierce’s claims against all owners, surface and minerals, depended on her ability to set aside King’s title documents, which involved both the surface and minerals. Thus, the claims were “largely interwoven.” “Furthermore, the trial court determined, correctly, that the severance could result in the possibility of inconsistent verdicts, thereby undermining the controlling reasons for ordering a severance.” Accordingly, the court upheld the denial of the severance.

Finally, the court analyzed whether dismissal with prejudice was proper. The court relied on Longoria II, which involved similar facts as in Longoria I, but resulted in a dismissal with prejudice. Here, Pierce was given plenty of opportunities to amend her pleadings and she drafted thirteen insufficient pleadings. Accordingly, the dismissal with prejudice was proper. Neither Longoria I nor Pierce considered Rule 39(b).

The significance of this case is the court’s discussion of Rule 39(a) and Rule 41 in the context of litigation involving title to the mineral estate. In summary, it appears that surface, mineral, and easement owners must all be joined under Rule 39(a), if, as a practical matter, disposition of the action in a party’s absence may impair or impede another party’s ability to protect his interest.