Court Lacked Jurisdiction to Enter Declaratory Judgment Because It Was Uncontested

In re Banigan
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-22-01084-CV (January 12, 2023)
Chief Justice Burns and Justices Partida-Kipness and Smith (Opinion, linked here)
After her husband filed for divorce in 2021, Cynthia Banigan moved to vacate a 2015 declaratory judgment establishing that the parties’ agreed partition of community property was valid and enforceable. The husband had filed the declaratory judgment action on the same day the partition agreement was signed. In her response, the wife confirmed the facts set forth in the petition and expressed her consent to entry of an order declaring the partition agreement to be valid. At the hearing, the husband testified as to the validity of the agreement, and the wife testified that she agreed with everything the husband had said.

The wife’s tune changed, of course, after the husband filed for divorce six years later. She argued that she did not voluntarily sign the partition agreement and that it was unconscionable. The trial court referred the matter to arbitration based on an arbitration provision in the partition agreement.

The wife then filed a mandamus proceeding arguing the declaratory judgment was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Dallas Court of Appeals agreed, holding there was no justiciable controversy between the parties when the trial court entered the declaratory judgment. The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act allows a person interested under a written contract to have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the contract and to obtain a declaration of “rights, status, or other legal relations.” But a declaratory judgment is only appropriate if (1) a justiciable controversy exists as to the rights and status of the parties and (2) the controversy will be resolved by the declaration sought. Lack of a justiciable controversy results in a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Because the wife confirmed the facts set forth in the petition, consented to the entry of the declaratory judgment, and “agreed with Husband’s position entirely” at the hearing, there was no live controversy between the parties. The trial court therefore lacked jurisdiction to enter the requested order, and so the Court of Appeals vacated the declaratory judgment as void.
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