Rule 91a: “Just the Facts Pleadings, Ma’am” … Even if It’s Not Briefed?

Davis v. Homeowners of American Insurance Co.
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-21-00092-CV (May 31, 2023)
Justices Molberg (Opinion, linked here), Pedersen (Dissent, linked here), and Kennedy
A defendant insurer successfully moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims under Rule 91a, based on limitations. But the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed, 2-1. The problem? The insurer’s motion to dismiss relied heavily on a variety of documents submitted with that motion to establish the limitations point. Rule 91a, however, expressly provides that a “court may not consider evidence in ruling on the motion and must decide the motion based solely on the pleading of the cause of action.” “In the Rule 91a context, only the non-movant’s pleading may be looked to when determining whether the cause of action pleaded has a basis in law.” A Rule 91a motion to dismiss, the Court explained, “is not a substitute for … summary judgment,” and so “the court may not resort to evidence proffered by the movant, such as through affidavits, transcribed testimony, or documents.” The majority therefore reversed the Rule 91a dismissal, but cautioned that it was not addressing the merits of the limitations argument, which might yet succeed on summary judgment.

Seems straightforward, right? So, why a dissent? Well, said Justice Pedersen, the plaintiff did not preserve error in the trial court. More specifically, the plaintiff did not object to the trial court’s considering the movant-insurer’s proffered documentary evidence, choosing instead to argue the merits of the insurer’s argument and the “evidentiary value” of the documents on which it relied. “Issues not timely preserved for appeal are waived,” and the procedural misstep identified by the majority wasn’t objected to or otherwise preserved in the trial court here.

Compounding the problem, the plaintiff-appellant did not raise the Rule 91a pleadings/evidence issue on appeal. That, argued Justice Pedersen, also should have precluded the majority’s decision. Per the Texas Supreme Court in Pike v. Texas EMC Management, “Our adversary system of justice generally depends ‘on the parties to frame the issues for decision and assign[s] to courts the role of neutral arbiter of matters the parties present.’” 610 S.W.3d 763, 782 (Tex. 2020) (quoting Greenlaw v. United States, 554 U.S. 237, 243 (2008) (discussing the “party presentation principle”)). “A court of appeals may not reverse a trial court judgment on a ground not raised” on appeal. Id. “Accordingly,” said Justice Pedersen, “this Court’s precedent … prohibits our panels from reversing trial court judgments on unassigned, nonfundamental error”—as he contended the majority did here.

Curiously, the majority opinion does not respond to the dissent’s preservation and waiver arguments.
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