Dikeman v. Snell

Decision Date24 January 1973
Docket NumberNo. B--3362,B--3362
PartiesM. M. DIKEMAN, Relator, v. Hon. John SNELL, Jr., District Judge, et al., Respondents.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

William E. Mallia, Houston, for relator.

Joel Cook, Toby Bonds, Houston, for respondents.

DANIEL, Justice.

Relator, M. M. Dikeman, has petitioned this Court to issue a writ of mandamus requiring District Judge John N. Snell, Jr., to set aside a nunc pro tunc judgment entered on January 5, 1972, making certain changes in a previous judgment rendered by Judge Snell against Relator on March 29, 1971. Respondent, Charles L. Palmer, originally brought this suit against Dikeman to remove restrictions which prevented the use of Palmer's property for commercial purposes. Palmer won a favorable jury verdict, but Judge Snell's judgment of March 29, 1971, for Palmer contained a proviso, hereinafter quoted, requiring that Palmer build a specific type of fence to separate his property from the rest of the subdivision.

Some nine months later, after the judgment of March 29, 1971 had been affirmed on certificate pursuant to Rule 387, 1 Palmer, claiming that the fence proviso was a clerical error, obtained from Judge Snell the aforesaid judgment nunc pro tunc. Dikeman claims that the error, if any, was judicial rather than clerical and that the nunc pro tunc judgment was therefore void. There is no dispute over the accuracy or sufficiency of the certified copies of the docket sheet, judgments and other papers filed as a part of Relator's verified Petition for Writ of Mandamus. In fact, Respondents filed no verified reply or affidavit traversing same.

It is undisputed that Judge Snell rendered his judgment in writing and signed it on March 29, 1971. It was duly entered in Vol. 764, Page 896 of the Minutes of the District Court of Harris County. There is no contention that he had earlier orally rendered or pronounced a different judgment. 2

On the contrary, the certified copy of the Docket Sheet shows only one entry concerning this original judgment. It reads: 'March 29, 1971 Judg. as per decree (entered).' The judgment rendered as per the written decree was signed and entered on the same date. 3 The relevant portions of the judgment are:

'It is, THEREFORE, ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED by the Court on the 29th day of March, 1971, that the restrictions heretofore placed upon Plaintiffs property, to-wit: . . . shall hereafter be modified as to said property so that same shall be used for commercial purposes, subject to the following provisions: a fence at least 8 feet tall and 12 inches thick, Of suitable brick, shall be constructed to separate said above mentioned lots from the remainder of the said subdivision, Said fence to run north and south so as to form as much as possible a straight line; the cost of said fence shall be paid for by Plaintiffs and shall be constructed all at once and not in portions.' 4

The judgment nunc pro tunc entered January 5, 1972, more than five months after the original judgment admittedly became final by operation of law under Rule 329b, subd. 5, substituted the following language for that above quoted from the original judgment:

'It is therefore ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED by the Court on the 29th day of March, 1971, that the restrictions heretofore placed upon Plaintiff's property, to writ: . . . shall hereafter be modified as to said property so that same shall be used for commercial purposes, subject to the following provisions: a fence at least 8 feet tall and 2 inches thick, shall be constructed to separate said above mentioned lots from the remainder of the said subdivision, The material shall be either redwood or cedar, the vertical boards of said fence to be opposite to each other to assure full ventilation, attached to 2 4 stringers, supported by 4 4 Penta Treated posts set in concrete with a 6 clearance at the bottom of said fence to allow grass to be cut.' 5

Co-Respondent Palmer's motion filed on November 10, 1971 to 'correct' the original judgment was signed and verified by his attorney, Toby C. Bonds. It attached a copy of the original judgment as entered and made no allegation that any different judgment had been previously rendered orally by Judge Snell. On the contrary, Mr. Bonds upon oath alleged that the judgment signed by the Court on March 29, 1971:

'was prepared by TOBY C. BONDS, Attorney for Plaintiffs (Palmer et al) and by mistake and/or omission, contained a provision for a fence to be constructed between the property belonging to Plaintiffs and that of Defendants . . .. In drafting said Judgment, Plaintiffs Attorney through mistake only, included said provision in the Judgment. That the following language, immediately after the words 'commercial purposes', should be deleted from the Judgment heretofore entered:' (quoting the entire proviso as to the fence in the original judgment.)

V.

'In the alternative, Plaintiff would show that said dimensions as described in the Judgment were due to typographical or clerical error in that the fence as described should be 8 feet tall, 2 thick, and constructed of redwood or cedar, or other suitable lumber.'

The prayer asked that 'upon the above and foregoing facts 6 the Court delete that portion of the Judgment, attached hereto as Exhibit A concerning the said fence altogether, or in the alternative, correct said dimensions to comply with paragraph V. hereof.' In his nunc pro tunc judgment of January 5, 1972, after reciting that the hearing on the Motion was attended by attorneys for both parties, 'and the Court, having read and considered said Motion, and being of the opinion that same should be granted pursuant to Rules 316 and 317 . . .,' Judge Snell proceeded to sign and enter the judgment nunc pro tunc.

Thus Co-Respondent Palmer admitted that the original judgment of the Court contained the original language concerning the fence, although it was alleged to have been included by mistake of his attorney. A judgment is usually prepared by the attorney for the successful party, as was done here. Rule 305. When rendered in writing and thus signed and entered it becomes the judgment of the court. Recitations or provisions alleged to have been inserted by mistake of the attorney nevertheless become a part of the court's judgment and therefore are judicial errors when thus rendered in writing by the court. Finlay v. Jones, 435 S.W.2d 136 (Tex.1968).

Clearly, the nunc pro tunc judgment purports to readjudicate or rewrite and change the decretal portion of the judgment as rendered by Judge Snell in writing March 29, 1971. If inclusion of the original proviso concerning the fence in Judge Snell's original judgment was a mistake, it was a judicial and not a clerical mistake. It is well settled that a trial judge has no power to enter a nunc pro tunc judgment purporting to correct a judicial error in a previously rendered judgment after he has lost jurisdiction of the case by operation of Rule 329b. Finlay v. Jones, Supra.

This Court, in the following original mandamus proceedings, held similar nunc pro tunc judgments and orders to be 'void' and granted conditional writs requiring that they be expunged or set aside: Universal Underwriters Insurance Co. v. Ferguson, 471 S.W.2d 28 (Tex.1971); Lone Star Cement Corporation v. Fair, 467 S.W.2d 402, 406 (Tex.1971); Comet Aluminum Company v. Dibrell, 450 S.W.2d 56, 59 (Tex.1970); Finlay v. Jones, 435 S.W.2d 136 (Tex.1968), which used the term 'invalid' instead of 'void'; Buttery v. Betts, 422 S.W.2d 149 (Tex.1968); Fulton v. Finch, 162 Tex. 351, 346 S.W.2d 823, 825, 829 (1961); McEwen v. Harrison, 162 Tex. 125, 345 S.W.2d 706, 710 (1961).

In has been suggested, although not by Respondents, that Relator Dikeman's Petition for Writ of Mandamus should be denied because he had an adequate remedy by appeal which he failed to pursue. We held to the contrary in the recent case of McHone v. Gibbs, 469 S.W.2d 789 (Tex.1971), which was similar in several respects to the instant case. In McHone, the Relator had failed to appeal from an order in the nature of a judgment nunc pro tunc which changed material provisions of an earlier judgment after the court's jurisdiction had expired. As in the present case, Relator's time for appeal from the second judgment had expired before the sought relief by mandamus in this Court. The Respondents argued that the Court should not grant the writ because Relator had an adequate remedy of appeal which he had failed to pursue. The Court overruled this contention and conditionally granted the writ setting aside the second judgment.

In view of our policy for at least a decade of accepting and exercising our mandamus jurisdiction in cases involving void or invalid judgments of district courts, Relator had every reason to expect relief from the void judgment in this case without first attempting an appeal. Fulton v. Finch, Supra; McEwen v. Harrison, Supra; Gulf C. & S.F. Ry. Co. v. Muse, 109 Tex. 352, 207 S.W. 897, 900 (1919). In Fulton v. Finch, Supra, Judge Norvell wrote for the Court in holding that the entry of an order after the trial court had lost jurisdiction under Rule 329b was 'void on its face,' and said:

'An order which proclaims its voidness upon its face needs no appellate action to proclaim its invalidity. It is one thing to say that a void order May be appealed from but it is another thing to say that it Must be appealed from for it would be anomalous to say that an order void upon its face must be appealed from before it can be treated as a nullity and disregarded.' 346 S.W.2d at 830.

Except for one of the orders in Finch, supra, all of the decisions referred to above involved direct attacks on the orders or judgments alleged to be void. Since this is a direct attack, we express no opinion as to whether orders or judgments of this nature are subject to collateral attack. Furthermore, in some instances, relief from alleged invalid orders or judgments might be more easily obtained...

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