Fifth Court: Twenty-Plus Years of Precedent on Bankruptcy Trustee’s “Exclusive Standing” Implicitly Overruled by SCOTX

Moser v. Dillon Investments, LLC 
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-21-00204-CV (August 2, 2022) 
Justices Myers (Opinion, linked here), Osborne, and Nowell 
Mason claimed that, while staying at a hotel on June 30, 2017, she was taking a shower and the bathtub floor shifted, causing her to fall and hit her head. On June 13, 2019, Mason sued the hotel in state court for negligence. But in April 2018, Mason had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy without listing her potential claim against the hotel on her schedule of assets. By the end of 2018, Mason had received a discharge and the bankruptcy case had terminated.

The hotel initially sought summary judgment, alleging Mason lacked standing to assert the claim and that she was judicially estopped from bringing the claim. The hotel argued that because Mason had not disclosed the claim in her bankruptcy schedules, the claim remained with the bankruptcy estate and was not returned to her upon the bankruptcy’s termination. Mason then filed a motion in bankruptcy court to reopen the bankruptcy to amend her schedules to add the negligence claim, which the bankruptcy court granted. 

In January 2021, Moser, the bankruptcy trustee, filed an amended petition in the state court case on behalf of Mason’s bankruptcy estate, alleging the same negligence claim against the hotel. The hotel moved for summary judgment, arguing the amended petition was filed after the two-year statute of limitations had run. The trial court granted the motion. 

Moser’s appeal centered on the relation-back doctrine. Section 16.068 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code provides that when a party initially brings a timely claim, “a subsequent amendment or supplement to the pleading that changes the facts or grounds of liability or defense is not subject to a plea of limitation unless the amendment or supplement is wholly based on a new, distinct, or different transaction or occurrence.” But the relation-back doctrine does not apply to an amended petition when the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the original petition. 

Mason first brought her negligence claim within the two-year statute of limitations, and Moser’s amended petition on behalf of the bankruptcy estate alleged the same facts as Mason’s original petition. So, to determine whether the relation-back doctrine applied, the court of appeals considered whether the trial court had jurisdiction when Mason first sued. 

The court of appeals explained that for the trial court to lack jurisdiction based on a lack of standing, Mason had to lack “constitutional” standing. The Court noted that courts have, at times, blurred the distinction between standing and capacity—a critical if sometimes confusing distinction, because standing is jurisdictional, while capacity is not. In 1999, the Texas Supreme Court held in Douglas v. Delp that a bankruptcy trustee had “exclusive standing” to bring claims on behalf of the estate, quoting a 1994 Fifth Circuit decision that did not expressly address the question of constitutional standing. After an extensive analysis of later Fifth Circuit cases on a bankruptcy trustee’s authority to bring claims on behalf of the estate as well as later Texas Supreme Court decisions addressing the distinction between standing and capacity, the court of appeals concluded the Texas Supreme Court had implicitly overruled Douglas and the various intermediate appellate decisions—including those of the Fifth Court—that had followed it. 

 Accordingly, the Court said, Mason had standing to bring her claim in 2019; she merely lacked capacity to assert it. Therefore, the trial court had subject-matter jurisdiction in 2019, Moser’s amended petition in 2021, in his capacity as bankruptcy trustee, related back to Mason’s timely 2019 petition, and the trial court erred in granting summary judgment based on the statute of limitations.
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