NO IMPLIED LIFTING OF ABATEMENT

Cruz v. Hernandez
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-19-00956-CV (April 23, 2021)
Justices Schenck (Opinion, linked here), Smith, and Garcia
In 2012, Cruz was appointed guardian ad litem for three minors in a personal injury case. In 2015, the trial court issued an order abating the case pending resolution of a separate lawsuit against an underinsured-motorist insurance carrier. After the case had lain dormant for about three years, the trial court set a status conference. When Cruz didn’t appear for the conference, the trial court removed him and appointed a new guardian. Months later, in May 2019, Cruz applied for compensation for his services as guardian and, two days later, the trial court signed a final judgment in the case. On Cruz’s motion, the trial court then signed an amended judgment that, among other things, awarded fees both to Cruz and to the new guardian ad litem. Cruz appealed, arguing the trial court erred in the fees it awarded to him, in appointing the new guardian, and in entering judgment—all while the case was still abated. Perhaps surprisingly, the Court of Appeals agreed.

“An abatement is a present suspension of all proceedings in a suit.” “During abatement,” the appeals court explained, “the court and the parties are prohibited from proceeding in any manner[, and] unless otherwise specified in the abatement order, any action taken by the court or the parties during the abatement is a legal nullity.” Prior decisions from the Dallas Court required that, “to end an abatement, … an order of reinstatement must be entered.” Contrary to what one might expect, the Court’s precedent “rejected implied cessation of abatement by the court’s or the parties’ conduct, such as entering a judgment or otherwise proceeding with the case.”

Because no “order of reinstatement” had been entered in this case, all the actions of the parties and the trial court after the 2015 abatement order were “a legal nullity”—even though Cruz had sought or participated in several of those actions and even though the actions logically reflected an understanding by the parties and trial court that the abatement was no longer in effect. Although it acknowledged the waste and delay entailed in its ruling, the Court of Appeals, bound by its own prior decisions, had no choice but to reverse and remand the case to the trial court.

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