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For the Protection of S.M.
Appellant, Julio Molinar, appeals from the trial court's denial of his motion to vacate an agreed protective order of which he is the subject. He claimed the agreed protective order should be declared void and unenforceable. We conclude Molinar's motion to vacate is an impermissible collateral attack on the agreed protective order and dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND 1
On February 17, 2011, an application for protective order was filed against Molinar on behalf of S.M., a child and family member. The El Paso County Attorney's Office provided representation to applicant, who was later identified as S.M.’s mother. The application alleged that applicant and respondent were residents of El Paso. As grounds, it further alleged that Molinar had committed acts of family violence, or sexual assault, against S.M. Applicant sought the protective order under Title 4 of the Texas Family Code or, alternatively, under Article 7A.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. After a hearing before an associate judge, at which Molinar was represented by counsel but did not attend, the parties entered an agreed protective order signed by the associate judge on April 11, 2011.2 S.M.’s mother signed as to form and substance, while the assistant county attorney and Molinar's attorney, respectively, signed as to form only.
In the agreed protective order, the trial court entered a finding that it had subject matter jurisdiction of the case. The court also made a finding that the parties had agreed to the terms of the protective order, evidenced by their signatures and subject to approval by the court, that the terms of the protective order were in the best interest of the member of the family or household, and the agreement was made a part of the protective order. The protective order was granted until April 7, 2024, S.M.’s eighteenth birthday. Following the court's rendering of the order, Molinar neither requested a de novo hearing before the referring court, nor filed a motion for new trial, nor appealed the agreed protective order to this Court. See Molinar v. S.M., No. 08-15-00083-CV, 2017 WL 511888, at *1 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2017, pet. denied).
Over a year later, in July 2012, Molinar moved to vacate the agreed protective order alleging several grounds including that he was no threat to S.M., that she had no fear of him, that he was not present at the hearing to present contrary evidence, that the termination date exceeded two years, that he had not been charged or arrested on any criminal allegations, and that applicant pursued the order as a means of harassment and for wrongful purposes. Id. After a hearing, the associate judge denied the motion to vacate. Id.
In July 2014, Molinar filed a second motion to vacate alleging grounds identical to those of the first motion. Id. at *2. At the hearing that followed, Molinar admitted he had agreed to the protective order on the advice of counsel, and he was aware his attorney had signed the protective order. Id. When he agreed to the protective order, Molinar had been under investigation for sexually abusing S.M., but ultimately, he was not charged. Id. He had then sought to resume contact with S.M. Id. The associate judge vacated the protective order, finding no continuing need for it. Id. After applicant requested a de novo hearing, the district court denied the second motion to vacate. Id. Molinar appealed, and this Court affirmed the denial of the motion to vacate the protective order. Id. We determined the motion was governed by Article 7A.07 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and that Molinar lacked standing to file a motion to vacate or rescind the agreed protective order. Id. Further, we found that if Molinar had standing to file his motion, he had otherwise failed to preserve the issues in the trial court that he had raised on appeal. Id. at *3 (citing Tex. R. App. P. 33.1(a)(1)(A)).
On September 23, 2020, Molinar filed a third motion to vacate the agreed protective order signed on April 11, 2011. Although he styled his motion as a motion to vacate the agreed protective order, he otherwise argued the order is void and could be attacked collaterally. Both the associate court and referring court denied his third motion to vacate, which forms the basis of this appeal.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW AND APPLICABLE LAW
We review a challenge to the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction de novo. Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 228 (Tex. 2004).
A judgment entered without subject matter jurisdiction is void. In re D.S., 602 S.W.3d 504, 520 (Tex. 2020). If the record establishes that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the suit, any judgment rendered by the court is void and subject to collateral attack. PNS Stores, Inc. v. Rivera, 379 S.W.3d 267, 273–74 (Tex. 2012). Only a void judgment may be collaterally attacked. Perez v. State, No. 08-15-00253-CR, 2017 WL 1955338, at *3 (Tex. App.—El Paso May 11, 2017, pet. ref'd) (not designated for publication) (analyzing a challenge to a protective order issued under Chapter 85 of the Texas Family Code and citing Browning v. Prostok, 165 S.W.3d 336, 346 (Tex. 2005)). “All errors other than jurisdictional deficiencies render the judgment merely voidable, and such errors must be corrected on direct attack.” Browning v. Placke, 698 S.W.2d 362, 363 (Tex. 1985).
A direct attack is an attempt to correct, amend, modify, or vacate a judgment and must be brought within definite time periods after the rendition of the judgment as dictated by procedural rules. PNS Stores, 379 S.W.3d at 271–72. Some examples of a direct attack are an appeal, a motion for new trial, and a bill of review. Id. at 271. A collateral attack, however, is an attempt “to avoid the binding effect of a judgment in order to obtain specific relief that the judgment currently impedes.” Id. at 272.
Void judgments can be collaterally attacked at any time. Id. “After the time to bring a direct attack has expired, a litigant may only attack a judgment collaterally.” Id.
In contrast, a protective order that is not void, only voidable, is only subject to direct attack. Robertson v. Emanuel-Johnson, No. 01-20-00198-CV, 2021 WL 5773880, at *3 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 7, 2021, pet. denied) (mem. op.).
Molinar raises one issue on appeal. He contends the referring court erred in refusing to vacate the purportedly void protective order, asserting the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter it when it was entered. He argues the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because it failed to make mandatory findings under the Code of Criminal Procedure. Appellee counters that the agreed protective order is valid and not subject to Molinar's collateral attack. We agree with Appellee.
The agreed protective order at issue was requested pursuant to Title 4 of the Texas Family Code, or, alternatively, under article 7A.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. The order was issued based on provisions then in effect. Section 7A.03 of the Code of Criminal Procedure required a court to make certain findings at the end of a hearing on an application for a protective order under that chapter, and, if the court found reasonable grounds to support issuance of a protective order under that section, the statute permitted the trial court to “issue a protective order that includes a statement of the required findings.” See Act of May 25, 2007, 80th Leg., R.S., ch. 882, § 1, 2007 Tex. Gen. Laws 1902, repealed by Act of May 21, 2019, 86th Leg., R.S., ch. 469, § 3.01(2), 2019 Tex. Gen. Laws 1065, 1151.
In a similar provision, the prior version of Section 85.001 of Texas Family Code provided, at the close of a hearing on an application for a protective order, the court shall make certain findings, and, depending on its determinations, shall issue a protective order. See Act of Apr. 27, 2001, 77th Leg., R.S., ch. 91, § 6, 2001 Tex. Gen. Laws 176, 177 (amended 2011) (current version at Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 85.001). The statute, however, did not require that the findings be recited in the protective order unless the first applicant is also a subject of the protective order, which is not the case here. See Act of Apr. 27, 2001, 77th Leg., R.S., ch. 91, § 6, 2001 Tex. Gen. Laws 176, 177 (amended 2011) (current version at Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 85.001).
Unlike the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Family Code specifically provided for the entry of an agreed protective order. Section 85.005 allowed the parties to a proceeding to agree in writing to the terms of a protective order applying to a person who committed family violence, subject to the approval of the court. See Act of Apr. 21, 1997, 75th Leg., R.S., ch. 34, § 1, 1997 Tex. Gen. Law 76, 83 (amended 2005) (current version at Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 85.005). That provision stated: “If the court approves an agreement between the parties, the court shall render an agreed protective order that is in the best interest of the applicant[.]” Id.
Although the Code of Criminal Procedure then in effect did not allow for an agreed protective order by its own terms, it otherwise provided: “[t]o the extent applicable, except as otherwise provided by this chapter, Title 4, Family Code, applies to a protective order issued under this chapter.” Act of May 20, 2003, 78th Leg., R.S., ch. 836, § 1, 2003 Tex. Gen. Laws 2622, 2623, repealed by Act of May 21, 2019, 86th Leg., R.S., ch. 469, § 3.01(2), 2019 Tex. Gen. Laws 1065, 1151. And we have previously stated: “[N]o part of Chapter 7A of the Code of Criminal Procedure prohibits agreed protective orders[.]” Torres v. State, No. 08-19-00209-CR, 2021 WL 3400598, at *4 (Tex. App.—El Paso Aug. 4, 2021, no pet.) (not designated for publication).
Like Molinar, the appellant in Perez v. State argued an agreed protective order was void because it lacked findings of family violence. See Perez, 2017 WL 1955338, at *2. Although the protective order in Perez was apparently based only on Chapter 85 of the Family Code, see id., we find it to be instructive, particularly because the Code of Criminal Procedure specifically states that this portion of the Family Code applies to protective orders issued under the Code of Criminal Procedure. See Act of May 20, 2003, 78th Leg., R.S., ch. 836, § 1, 2003 Tex. Gen. Laws 2622, 2623 (repealed 2019).
The appellant in Perez, the subject of the protective order, claimed language from Family Code section 85.022 stating to whom a protective order could apply, a “person found to have committed family violence,” required the court to make a finding of family violence, even in the case of an agreed protective order. See Perez, 2017 WL 1955338, at *2. Yet, this Court found the relevant issue to be more basic than statutory construction—the relevant issue being whether the trial court's failure to make such a finding would make the order void or voidable. See id.
Applying a different analysis, this Court came to the same conclusion regarding a challenge to an agreed protective order under the Code of Criminal Procedure. In Torres v. State, the appellant challenged his conviction for violation of a protective order on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to support the order. See Torres v. State, 2021 WL 3400598, at *4. We recognized that the Code of Criminal Procedure does not prohibit agreed protective orders but determined we did not have to decide the issue of whether it allows them. Id. We determined that the appellant's challenge of the underlying protective order challenged the original justification or continuing need for the protective order, and such a challenge is an impermissible collateral attack on the order itself. Id. We concluded that even if the order was not justified because there was insufficient evidence to support it, because no evidence was heard, or because the order was agreed, “such error would have made the Order voidable—not void[,]” and the appropriate remedy was a direct challenge rather than a collateral attack. Id.
As with the courts in both Perez and Torres, we do not need to resolve the specific issue raised by Appellant. We need only determine that the protective order is not void, but at most is only voidable, which we do. “[I]f the agreed protective order was improperly approved by the trial court because it lacked family violence findings, the error would make the order voidable, not void.” Perez, 2017 WL 19553388, at *3.
In analyzing the appeal before us, we cannot overstate the importance of the fact that Molinar agreed to the protective order. As we stated in Torres:
A person cannot choose to avoid the presentation of evidence at a hearing on an application for a protective order by agreeing to the terms of that order, and then, at a much later date, avoid the consequences of violating the order based on a claim that the applicant never proved a justification for the order.
Torres, 2021 WL 3400598, at *4. Molinar cannot now argue that the protective order is void for not including findings when he agreed to the order as it stands, without findings.
Based upon this precedent, we determine that even if the failure to include findings in the agreed protective order constituted error, this error would have made the protective order voidable and not void. Thus, the order is not subject to Molinar's collateral attack.
Having determined that the underlying protective order is not void, and thus, not subject to collateral attack, we dismiss Molinar's appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
2. Because the protective order was issued on April 11, 2011, we will reference the codes and statutes in effect at the time of its entry. Chapter 7A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, enacted in 2003, was titled, “Protective Order for Victim of Sexual Assault,” and article 7A.01 was titled, “Application for Protective Order.” Title 4 of the Texas Family Code, recodified in 1997, was titled, “Protective Orders and Family Violence.” Title 4 of that code encompassed chapters 71 through 92.
GINA M. PALAFOX, Justice
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Docket No: No. 08-21-00126-CV
Decided: December 16, 2022
Court: Court of Appeals of Texas, El Paso.
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