In re M.K.R.

Decision Date25 January 2007
Docket NumberNo. 2-05-240-CV.,2-05-240-CV.
Citation216 S.W.3d 58
PartiesIn the Interest of M.K.R., a Minor Child.
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Appeal from the District Court, Tarrant County, Brian A. Carper, J Griffith, Jay, Michael & Moore, L.L.P., and Thomas M. Michel, Fort Worth, for Appellant.

The King Firm and Heather L. King, Fort Worth, for Appellee.

Panel B: HOLMAN, WALKER, and McCOY, JJ.

OPINION

BOB McCOY, Justice.

I. Introduction

In five issues, appellant Charles Roberts complains of the trial court's judgment against him awarding $29,604.49 in child support arrearages and interest to his ex-wife. Because we hold that the trial court abused its discretion by entering an arrearage judgment against Roberts that included amounts barred by res judicata, we reverse and remand.

II. Background

This is the case of the two-bite arrearage. In March 1985, Roberts and appellee Mary Ann Sanderson were divorced, and Roberts was ordered to pay Sanderson $250 per month in child support for their son, M.K.R., until he reached his eighteenth birthday or became otherwise emancipated. The divorce decree specified that this child support was to be paid each month in two equal installments of $125 each, due on the 4th and 19th days of each month. Sanderson soon thereafter requested that Roberts pay her directly, and not through the child support office in Denton County, because she had moved to Tarrant County and was experiencing delays in receiving the payments from the Denton County office. In February 1991, Roberts was laid off from his job and did not return to work until September 1992; he reported less than $6000 in income for each of those two years.

A. The First Payment Dispute

On November 12, 1993, Sanderson filed a single document titled "Motion to Transfer Venue, Motion for Contempt, and Motion to Modify Prior Order of the Court." In the motion for contempt portion of the document, Sanderson alleged that Roberts had failed to make child support payments from January 4, 1991, to October 4, 1993. On June 15, 1994, the associate judge made a recommendation regarding this motion in a "Report for Contempt," which was signed by the parties, their attorneys, and the associate judge; the report also contained the stamped signature of the district judge under the words "APPROVED AND SO ORDERED." The report grants an arrearage judgment to Sanderson for $5,825 and orders Roberts to make payments of $200 per month on this arrearage judgment in addition to his $250-per-month child support payments. The report also sentences Roberts to thirty days in jail for contempt but suspends the sentence for five years or until the arrearage judgment is paid, whichever comes first. The record shows no further proceedings in this matter,1 and according to the docket sheet, the remainder of the pleading was dismissed for want of prosecution on July 25, 1995.

B. The Second Payment Dispute

Almost six years later, on June 1, 2001, Roberts filed a motion to modify, seeking custody of M.K.R. and modification of his child support obligations. Sanderson responded, in part, by filing a motion for enforcement on August 9, 2002, asserting that Roberts had failed to pay almost all child support payments due from September 1984 through June 1994, as well as other, intermittent payments from December 1996 through July 2002. Sanderson amended her motion for enforcement to request an arrearage judgment of $61,624.70, interest on the arrearage amounting to $36,132.89, costs, and attorney's fees. The court eventually entered an order on April 7, 2005, finding that the arrearage owed by Roberts was $29,604.49 "for the period January 4, 1985 through December 5, 2002, which includes accrued interest." The court also assessed attorney's fees against Roberts in the amount of $6,720. The trial court's November 16, 2005 Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, as well as its January 12, 2006 Additional Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, shed little light on how this number was calculated, which payments were made or missed, or how interest was calculated. Roberts now appeals.

III. Standard of Review

Issues regarding the payment of child support, including confirmation of child support arrearages as well as payment of attorney's fees, are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Worford v. Stamper, 801 S.W.2d 108, 109 (Tex. 1990). Legal and factual sufficiency are factors that can be considered in determining whether an abuse of discretion has occurred. London v. London, 94 S.W.3d 139, 143-44 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2002, no pet.). A trial court abuses its discretion if it acts without reference to any guiding rules or principles; in other words, if it acts arbitrarily or unreasonably. Worford, 801 S.W.2d at 109.

Findings of fact entered in a case tried to the court have the same force and dignity as a jury's answers to jury questions. Anderson v. City of Seven Points, 806 S.W.2d 791, 794 (Tex.1991). The trial court's findings of fact are reviewable for legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence to support them by the same standards that are applied in reviewing evidence supporting a jury's answer. Ortiz v. Jones, 917 S.W.2d 770, 772 (Tex.1996); Catalina v. Blasdel, 881 S.W.2d 295, 297 (Tex.1994). Conclusions of law may not be challenged for factual sufficiency, but they may be reviewed to determine their correctness based upon the facts. Dominey v. Unknown Heirs and Legal Representatives of Lokomski, 172 S.W.3d 67, 71 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2005, no pet.); Rogers v. City of Fort Worth, 89 S.W.3d 265, 277 (Tex.App.-Fort Worth 2002, no pet.).

A legal sufficiency challenge may be sustained only when (1) the record discloses a complete absence of evidence of a vital fact, (2) the court is barred by rules of law or of evidence from giving weight to the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact, (3) the evidence offered to prove a vital fact is no more than a mere scintilla, or (4) the evidence establishes conclusively the opposite of a vital fact. Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. v. Martinez, 977 S.W.2d 328, 334 (Tex.1998), cert. denied, 526 U.S. 1040, 119 S.Ct. 1336, 143 L.Ed.2d 500 (1999); Robert W. Calvert, "No Evidence" and "Insufficient Evidence" Points of Error, 38 TEX. L.REV. 361, 362-63 (1960). In determining whether there is legally sufficient evidence to support the finding under review, we must consider evidence favorable to the finding if a reasonable fact-finder could, and disregard evidence contrary to the finding unless a reasonable fact-finder could not. City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 827 (Tex.2005).

An assertion that the evidence is factually insufficient to support a fact finding means that the evidence supporting the finding is so weak or the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming that the answer should be set aside and a new trial ordered. Garza v. Alviar, 395 S.W.2d 821, 823 (Tex.1965). We are required to consider all of the evidence in the case in making this determination, not just the evidence that supports the finding. Mar. Overseas Corp. v. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d 402, 406-07 (Tex), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1017, 119 S.Ct. 541, 142 L.Ed.2d 450 (1998).

IV. Res Judicata

In his first issue, Roberts asserts that the portion of Sanderson's claim for child support arrearage representing amounts incurred prior to the June 15, 1994 Report for Contempt is barred by res judicata.

A. The Doctrine of Res Judicata

Broadly speaking, res judicata is the generic term for a group of related concepts concerning the conclusive effects given final judgments. Puga v. Donna Fruit Co., 634 S.W.2d 677, 679 (Tex.1982). Within this general doctrine, there are two principal categories: (1) claim preclusion (also known as res judicata); and (2) issue preclusion (also known as collateral estoppel). Res judicata, or claims [sic] preclusion, prevents the relitigation of a claim or cause of action that has been finally adjudicated, as well as related matters that, with the use of diligence, should have been litigated in the prior suit. Gracia v. RC Cola-7-Up Bottling Co., 667 S.W.2d 517, 519 (Tex.1984); Bonniwell v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 663 S.W.2d 816, 818 (Tex. 1984). Issue preclusion, or collateral estoppel, prevents relitigation of particular issues already resolved in a prior suit.

Barr v. Resolution Trust Corp., 837 S.W.2d 627, 628 (Tex.1992) (footnote omitted). Res judicata prevents splitting of lawsuits and reflects a policy to bring all litigation on a matter to an end, prevent vexatious litigation, maintain stability of court decisions, promote judicial economy, and prevent double recovery. Id. at 629.

Res judicata requires proof of the following elements: (1) a prior final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction, (2) identity of parties or those in privity with them, and (3) a second action based on the same claims as were raised or could have been raised in the first action. Amstadt v. U.S. Brass Corp., 919 S.W.2d 644, 652 (Tex.1996). Identity of parties is present here; the parties are the former spouses in both the 1993 and 2001 proceedings. Furthermore, Sanderson obviously could have claimed in the 1993 enforcement action any and all missed payments from the time of the institution of divorce proceedings in 1984 up to the time of the 1993 filing, including many of those that she asserted for the first time in the later 2001 enforcement action. Accordingly, the second two factors have been met in this appeal, and it is the first factor concerning finality of the judgment that warrants discussion.

B. The Finality of the Prior Judgment

An examination of Sanderson's 1994 filing, styled "Motion to Transfer Venue, Motion for Contempt, and Motion to Modify Prior Order of the Court," reveals that it is composed of three distinct pleadings in one document. The motion for contempt portion of the document sets forth specifically alleged missed payments by Roberts for 1991 through 1993 and is written in...

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