In re Balawajder

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Court of Appeals of Texas, First District, HoustonFeb 10, 2005
Nos. 01-04-00131-CV, 01-04-00189-CV (Tex. App. Feb. 10, 2005)

Nos. 01-04-00131-CV, 01-04-00189-CV

Opinion issued February 10, 2005.

Original Proceedings on Petitions for Writs of Mandamus.

Panel consists of Justices NUCHIA, JENNINGS, and ALCALA.


MEMORANDUM OPINION


Jeffrey Balawajder, relator in this Court's Cause Nos. 01-04-00131-CV and 01-04-00189-CV, In re Balawajder, and appellant in this Court's Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV, Jeffrey Balawajder v. Texas Dep't of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division, has filed petitions for writs of mandamus relating to perfection of his appeal in Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV, and the filing of the record in the appeal. Balawajder has supplemented his petition for writs of mandamus and has also requested sanctions against respondents, the Honorable Wayne Rucker, District Clerk of Grimes County (Cause No. 01-04-00131-CV) and Linda Wells, official court reporter for the 12th District Court of Grimes County (Cause No. 01-04-00189-CV).


The underlying trial-court cause is styled Balawajder v. Tex. Dep't of Criminal Justice, No. 28,596, in the 12th District Court of Grimes County, Texas. Balawajder's petitions for writs of mandamus are before this Court under appellate cause numbers 01-04-00131-CV, 01-04-00189-CV, and 01-04-00190-CV; all are styled In re Jeffrey Balawajder and are premised on the underlying trial-court cause.

In the appeal, Balawajder seeks to challenge a summary judgment, rendered in favor of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), by which the trial court ordered that Balawajder take nothing on his claims that regulations on which the TDCJ relied in denying Balawajder's request for extra storage space to accommodate approximately 100 religious books, violate the establishment-of-religion and free-speech clauses of the Texas and United States Constitutions. The trial court dismissed Balawajder's claims on October 15, 2002, and Balawajder timely filed postjudgment motions to vacate or modify the summary judgment order and for new trial.

Background and Procedural History

Balawajder filed three petitions for writs of mandamus on February 23, 2004. On April 1, 2004, this Court issued a memorandum opinion denying Balawajder's petition for writ of mandamus in Cause No. 01-04-00190-CV, in which Balawajder sought relief against the Honorable Edward E. Wells, Jr., Clerk of the Court of Appeals for the Fourteenth District of Texas. Our opinion of April 1, 2004 disposed only of Cause No. 01-04-00190-CV, however. Balawajder's petitions for writs of mandamus remained pending against respondents Rucker and Linda Wells. In those remaining petitions, which we now address here, Balawajder seeks writs of mandamus to compel respondents Rucker and Linda Wells to file the clerk's and reporter's records, respectively, from the underlying, trial-court cause. On April 26, 2004, real party-in-interest TDCJ filed its response to these petitions.

On July 31, 2004, respondents Rucker and Linda Wells prepared, certified, and filed with this Court, respectively, the clerk's and reporter's records of the underlying cause for the appeal in appellate Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV.

Cause No. 01-04-00189-CV

Balawajder's complaint in Cause No. 01-04-00189-CV is against respondent Linda Wells, in her capacity as official court reporter of the 12th District Court of Grimes County. Because Linda Wells prepared, certified, and filed the reporter's record of the underlying cause with this Court on July 31, 2004, for the appeal in Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV, we dismiss Balawajder's petition for a writ of mandamus against Linda Wells as moot. In addition, we deny Balawajder's request for sanctions against respondent Linda Wells.

The record before us shows that, after preparing the reporter's record for filing in the appeal, respondent Linda Wells refunded the payment previously made to her for preparing the reporter's record.

Cause No. 01-04-00131-CV Whether Balawajder Perfected His Appeal in Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV

As stated above, respondent Rucker prepared, certified, and filed with this Court, also on July 31, 2004, in Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV, the clerk's record from the underlying cause. On inspecting the clerk's record, however, we discovered that it did not contain a certified copy of the notice of appeal that Balawajder contends he timely filed, in accordance with the extended postjudgment timetable that applies when certain postjudgment motions have been filed, to perfect his appeal in Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV. Because a timely filed notice of appeal is the means by which a party to an adverse judgment perfects an appeal, see TEX. R. APP. P. 25.1, Balawajder's petition for mandamus relief against respondent Rucker calls into question our jurisdiction to consider his appeal in Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV.

See TEX. R. CIV. P. 329b(h); TEX. R. APP. P. 26.1(a).

The clerk's record does, however, contain a copy of Balawajder's petition for writ of mandamus in this Court's Cause No. 01-04-00131-CV.

Discussion

A. Standard of Review and Controlling Legal Principles

With the exception of writs of mandamus sought against a district-court or county-court judge within the appellate court's district, this Court's jurisdiction to issue writs is limited to instances in which the writ is necessary to enforce our jurisdiction. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 22.221(a), (b) (Vernon 2004). Our jurisdiction to issue writs under section 22.221(a) is limited to cases in which we have actual jurisdiction of a pending proceeding. In re Washington, 7 S.W.3d 181, 182 (Tex.App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, orig. proceeding); Lesikar v. Anthony, 750 S.W.2d 338, 339 (Tex.App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1988, orig. proceeding). Our jurisdiction over all parties to a trial court's judgment is invoked when a party to the judgment files a notice of appeal. TEX. R. APP. P. 25.1(b); Olivo v. State, 918 S.W.2d 519, 522 (Tex.Crim.App. 1996); In re Washington, 7 S.W.3d at 182.

A document is generally considered filed when it is delivered to the clerk for filing, "whether or not a file mark is placed on the instrument regardless of whether the file mark gives some other date of filing." Warner v. Glass, 135 S.W.3d 681, 684 (Tex. 2004) (quoting Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. LaCoke, 585 S.W.2d 678, 680 (Tex. 1979); see Biffle v. Morton Rubber Indus., Inc., 785 S.W.2d 143, 144 (Tex. 1990); In re Washington, 7 S.W.3d at 182. A party who has satisfied his duty to put a legal instrument in the custody and the control of the court clerk should not be penalized for errors made by the court clerk. Warner, 135 S.W.3d at 684 (citing Biffle, 785 S.W.2d at 144).

After delivery of a notice of appeal to the trial-court clerk for filing, any further determination concerning appellate jurisdiction is made by the court of appeals. See Verburgt v. Dorner, 959 S.W.2d 615, 616-17 (Tex. 1997) (recognizing that instrument filed in bona fide attempt to invoke jurisdiction of appellate court suffices for that purpose). A court of appeals has jurisdiction to determine whether it has jurisdiction. In re Washington, 7 S.W.3d at 182. Moreover, as our supreme court has frequently instructed, "a party should not lose the right to appeal because of an `overly technical' application of the law." Briscoe v. Goodmark Corp., 102 S.W.3d 714, 717 (Tex. 2003) (citing and quoting from Lehmann v. Har-Con Corp., 39 S.W.3d 191, 205 (Tex. 2001)); Verburgt, 959 S.W.2d at 616-617).

B. Analysis

In seeking mandamus relief, Balawajder supports his contentions that he timely filed his notice of appeal and thus timely perfected his appeal, based, in part, on the following: (1) his personal declarations, executed in accordance with sections 132.001-.003 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code; (2) the affidavit of Virginia E. Douglas, his mother, who stated and described details pertaining to having assisted with Balawajder's correspondence and payments to respondents Rucker and Linda Wells; and (3) declared and sworn copies of certified-mail receipts that reflect acknowledgments of receipt of documents by officers of the 12th District Court of Grimes County.

See TEX. CIV. PRAC. REM. CODE ANN. § 132.001-.003 (Vernon 1997).

The clerk's record before us in Cause No. 01-04-00820-CV unequivocally indicates, and TDCJ does not dispute, (1) that the trial court dismissed Balawajder's claims and rendered a take-nothing summary judgment on October 15, 2002 and (2) that Balawajder filed motions to vacate or modify the summary judgment order and for new trial on November 13, 2002. Given the October 15, 2002, judgment of dismissal, Balawajder timely filed his postjudgment motions and was therefore entitled to an extended, 90-day appellate deadline by which to perfect an appeal by filing his notice of appeal. See TEX. R. CIV. P. 324, 329b(a), (d), (e), (h); Tex.R.App.P. 25.1(a), 26.1(a). Under this extended appellate timetable, Balawajder's notice of appeal was due to be filed by January 13, 2003.

In the record provided to support his contention, in seeking mandamus relief, that he properly perfected his appeal by filing the requisite notice, Balawajder provided this Court with copies of the notice of appeal that he executed on December 20, 2002, and served on the TDCJ on December 31, 2002, along with his designation of the record on appeal and a check in the amount of $278.00, made payable to the District Clerk of Grimes County in payment for the record on appeal. Balawajder also contends that a deputy clerk for Grimes County, L. Thompson, acknowledged receipt of Balawajder's notice of appeal on January 3, 2003. Balawajder has provided a declared copy of a receipt signed by "L. Thompson" that acknowledges receipt of certified mail directed to respondent Rucker on January 3, 2003. The certified-mail number on that receipt is the same as the certified-mail receipt number stated in Balawajder's mother's affidavit, in which she avers that she mailed his notice of appeal and accompanying document and check to respondent Rucker on December 31, 2002.

Balawajder has also provided a copy of correspondence, dated January 20, 2003, by which he forwarded a copy of his notice of appeal to the clerk of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, as well as copies of certified mail receipts that indicate receipt of that correspondence by the Fourteenth Court of Appeals on January 22, 2003. In addition, the record provided in support of Balawajder's mandamus petition contains copies of documents showing acknowledged receipt of a March 30, 2003 letter from Balawajder to respondent Rucker, in which Balawajder referred first to acknowledged receipt of his notice of appeal and check for $278.00 by respondent Rucker's office, and then stated that the check remained uncashed, that he had heard nothing from the court of appeals, and that he therefore inquired about the status of his appeal and his requested appellate record.

In responding to Balawajder's petition for a writ of mandamus against respondent Rucker, counsel for the TDCJ neither denied nor acknowledged receipt of service of Balawajder's notice of appeal. Instead, counsel acknowledged that he learned, after contacting the office of the Grimes County District Clerk, that Balawajder "did indeed file something on December 31, 2002[,]" but surmises that "what [Balawajder] filed was not deemed a notice of appeal by the Grimes County District Clerk and therefore no action was taken on it."

TDCJ's surmise is at odds, however, with correspondence that respondent Rucker directed to the clerk of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals on July 20, 2004, which was filed in that court on July 23, 2004, and subsequently forwarded to this Court. In that correspondence, respondent Rucker referred to documents pertaining to this case that were never file-marked because they had been handled by a since-terminated clerk who had also failed to file-mark documents in other matters.

Moreover, we have examined the document that Balawajder provided to show that he filed his notice of appeal, and thus perfected his appeal, and conclude that the document complies with rule 25.1(d) and (e). See TEX. R. APP. P. 25.1(d), (e). Balawajder entitled his document "Plaintiff's Notice of Appeal" and stated in the notice that the "clerk and all parties" were to "[p]lease take notice" that Balawajder intended to appeal the order signed on October 15, 2002 to either the First or the Fourteenth Court of Appeals and that he had filed postjudgment motions. The notice is verified, by statutory prisoner's declaration, and contains a certificate of service reciting timely service on TDCJ through its counsel of record on December 31, 2002. The surmise suggested by counsel for TDCJ is, therefore, incorrect. But, even if it were correct, the clerk of the trial court would have had a ministerial duty to file a document presented in a bona fide attempt to perfect an appeal. See Verburgt, 959 S.W.2d at 616-17.

See TEX. CIV. PRAC. REM. CODE ANN. § 132.001-.003 (Vernon 1997).

Balawajder also complied with rule 25.1(e) by providing a copy of the notice to the court of appeals to which he understood that his appeal had been assigned, in this case the Fourteenth Court of Appeals.

The records before us, in both the appeal and the mandamus proceedings, thus demand resolution of whether the document that Balawajder contends is his notice of appeal was timely presented to the District Clerk of Grimes County and therefore sufficed to perfect his appeal to this Court in Cause No. 01-04-00840-CV. As we have concluded, in rejecting TDCJ's surmise, Balawajder's "Notice of Appeal" conforms to the requirements of rule 26.1 for notices of appeal.

The sole issues that remain, therefore, are whether Balawajder actually delivered the notice of appeal to the Grimes County District Clerk and whether his delivery was timely. These questions might ordinarily present disputed questions of fact, see Warner, 135 S.W.3d at 686, which we may not decide in a mandamus proceeding. See Brady v. Fourteenth Court of Appeals, 795 S.W.2d 712, 714 (Tex. 1990). The records in the cases before us, however, do not present a material dispute concerning these issues, for the following reasons: (1) TDCJ agreed, even before respondent Rucker had prepared, certified, and filed the clerk's record in this Court's Cause No. 01-04-00840-CV, that Balawajder filed "something" within the timeframe in which to perfect an appeal; (2) neither respondent Rucker nor TDCJ otherwise disputes Balawajder's contentions; (3) December 31, 2002, the date on which Balawajder contends that his notice of appeal, designation of his record for appeal, and payment for the appellate record were mailed and served, is within the 90-day timeframe in which he could perfect his appeal, which expired on January 13, 2003; (4) "L. Thompson," as representative of respondent Rucker, signed the certified-mail receipt on January 3, 2003, also within the 90-day timeframe in which Balawajder could perfect his appeal; (5) the certified-mail number of the receipt signed by L. Thompson corresponds to the certified-mail number of the receipt that Balawajder's mother avers she used when she mailed the notice of appeal on December 31, 2002; and (6) respondent Rucker has acknowledged that a since-terminated deputy clerk had not file-marked documents pertaining to this matter and others.

Because we may properly exercise our appellate jurisdiction to decide whether we have jurisdiction, see In re Washington, 7 S.W.3d at 182, we conclude, under the records presented here, that Balawajder invoked our appellate jurisdiction over his appeal in Cause No. 01-04-00840-CV because it is undisputed that a representative of respondent Rucker, the District Clerk of Grimes County, received Balawajder's notice of appeal on January 3, 2003. Because appellate jurisdiction vested upon receipt on that date, despite the deputy clerk's failure to mark the instrument "filed," see Warner, 135 S.W.3d at 680, and because both the clerk's and reporter's records have already been filed, Cause No. 01-04-00840-CV shall now proceed, with the date of issuance of this opinion as the starting date, under the applicable briefing schedule, for filing Balawajder's appellant's brief, the TDCJ's appellee's brief, and any reply brief by Balawajder. See generally TEX. R. APP. P. 38.6 ("Time to File Briefs").

Conclusion

Because we have concluded that this Court acquired appellate jurisdiction over Balawajder's appeal on January 3, 2003, the date on which the deputy clerk for Grimes County received Balawajder's notice of appeal, we may now dismiss, as moot, Balawajder's petition for a writ of mandamus to compel respondent Rucker to file Balawajder's notice of appeal. In addition, we deny Balawajder's motion for sanctions against respondent Rucker. Balawajder's appellant's brief is due within 30 days of the date of this opinion.