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Death Penalty Sanctions in a Texas Divorce

In a recent Texas divorce case, the lower court imposed so-called “death penalty sanctions” against the wife for litigation misconduct. The wife sued for divorce in 2016, and the husband counter-petitioned in the following month. In the counter-petition, the husband pled claims of misapplication of community property, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and forgery.

The wife didn’t cooperate with written or oral discovery, causing the husband to ask for sanctions. He also filed a motion to compel discovery, claiming she hadn’t responded to multiple requests for written discovery and had refused to answer questions at her deposition. The lower court set a hearing but, without holding the hearing, said it would consider the motion for sanctions. It ordered the wife to respond to the husband’s discovery requests. The husband and wife agreed to an order that addressed the motions for sanctions. It found the wife had again failed to answer the written discovery and ordered her to answer. She and her husband signed the agreed order.

Nonetheless, the wife didn’t answer the discovery requests, and he again moved for sanctions. He said she hadn’t provided answers to interrogatories. He claimed that she’d produced some documents, but they weren’t identified or categorized as responses to particular requests. He also claimed she hadn’t given an accounting she’d been ordered to give and hadn’t answered the deposition questions she’d previously refused to answer. He asked for severe sanctions, including a default judgment against her.

The wife didn’t appear at the hearing, and the court granted the motion. It sanctioned the wife by striking her pleadings and stopping her from conducting discovery. However, the court didn’t specify why lesser sanctions weren’t awarded and why death penalty sanctions were required.

Six days later, a default prove-up hearing was held without the wife. The husband’s attorney said the sanctions order was a key part of going forward, and the husband testified about their marriage, child rearing, litigation history, and property. The court signed a final divorce decree, and the husband was appointed sole managing conservator of the kids, while the wife was appointed possessory conservator. It determined the wife had committed conversion, fraud, and forgery and breached her fiduciary duty to the husband, and it ordered the wife to pay exemplary damages to him. She was permanently enjoined from acting in particular ways and also ordered to pay attorneys’ fees.

The wife hired a new attorney and moved the court to vacate the death penalty sanctions. When it didn’t, she appealed. She argued it was a mistake for the court to award death penalty sanctions without considering milder sanctions or explaining why the sanctions would promote compliance.

The husband argued that the court had considered milder sanctions in deferring ruling on the sanctions previously, which gave her a pass.

The appellate court explained a trial court doesn’t need to test the efficacy of every available milder sanction, but it does have to give a reasoned explanation about why the sanctions that are imposed are appropriate. In this case, there was no explanation given about why a milder sanction wouldn’t have worked, or why the death penalty sanctions were appropriate. The final divorce decree was reversed and sent back.

If you need to get a divorce, contact the Texas attorneys at the McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.

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