In re Fort Apache Energy, Inc.

Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-15-01159-CV (December 16, 2015)

Justices Lang-Miers, Evans (Opinion), and Whitehill (Dissent)

When a disagreement erupted between the operator and a participant in a Louisiana oil well, the operator sued in Kendall County, Texas. The participant answered, but also filed a parallel lawsuit in Dallas. The second-filed Dallas case was then set for trial a few weeks before the original Kendall County case. When the operator filed a plea in abatement, seeking to ensure the Kendall County cased was tried first, the Dallas trial court denied that plea. Without addressing whether the Dallas trial court had abused its discretion, a majority of the Dallas Court of Appeals denied mandamus relief to the operator, concluding it had not shown the requisite absence of an adequate remedy on appeal. More specifically, the Court said, “[R]ulings [such as this] with regard to dominant jurisdiction … are incidental rulings which can be corrected on appeal.” The Dallas trial court’s “Initial Trial Setting,” it went on to say, did not amount to a “direct interference with the jurisdiction of the Kendall County Court.”

Justice Whitehill dissented. First, he explained there was little doubt the Dallas trial court abused its discretion in denying the plea in abatement so that trial could proceed first in Kendall County, the “dominant” jurisdiction. He then disagreed that the operator had an adequate remedy on appeal. Under the Texas Supreme Court’s decisions in Curtis v. Gibbs and Abor v. Black, he explained, mandamus should be granted in a “dominant jurisdiction” case when a trial court “refuses to sustain a proper plea in abatement” and “actively interferes” with the dominant court’s jurisdiction. By setting its case for trial before the case in Kendall County, and then maintaining that earlier setting when notified of the conflict, the Dallas court “actively interfered” with the Kendall County Court’s dominant jurisdiction, Whitehill argued. And allowing the Dallas trial court’s ruling to stand presented “the strong likelihood of wasted public and private resources” that justified mandamus relief under the more flexible standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Prudential.