Gutman v. Richard Wayne Wells and Real Estate Arbitrage Partners, Inc.

Justices Whitehill (Opinion, linked here), Partida-Kipness (Dissent, linked here), and Pedersen

In a split panel decision, the Dallas Court of Appeals held that a “petition alleging that a defendant has repeatedly harassed and threatened the plaintiff because he refuses to accede to the defendant’s unlawful demands presents” a judiciable controversy under the Declaratory Judgments Act.

The Court considered this issue in an appeal of the trial court’s dismissal under Rule 91a. In previous lengthy litigation, Greg Gutman had obtained a judgment against one defendant, Real Estate Arbitrage Partners, LLC (“Arbitrage”) but not against the other defendant, Richard Wayne Wells. After the judgment was affirmed, Arbitrage paid the judgment, and Gutman delivered to Arbitrage a fully executed release of judgment. But Defendants wanted more. According to the petition, they repeatedly demanded an executed release of judgment against Wells, and harassed and threatened Gutman for his refusal to do so.

The majority held there was a real and substantial dispute under the Declaratory Judgments Act: “This sets out a controversy—whether Gutman must provide the requested release—that is real and not hypothetical.” And a declaratory judgment resolving that issue “will serve a useful purpose of terminating the parties’ controversy and ending the harassment and threats.” The dismissal was therefore reversed.

Justice Partida-Kipness dissented. Gutman did not seek construction of a contract or any other written instrument. Justice Partida-Kipness construed Gutman’s petition as asserting a claim for civil harassment, which sounds in tort, and does not fall within the parameters of the Declaratory Judgments Act. She disagreed “with the majority’s expansion of the statute,” and would have affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.

So, this case is precedent that a dec action can be used to resolve all sorts of disputes, not just those involving contracts, deeds, wills, and other writings.