In a recent case involving a property dispute over the ownership of a miniature Schnauzer (the Canine), between two people that briefly dated, Alysse Barlow and Kendall Richardson, the court partially upheld and partially reversed the trial court decision. At trial, Richardson was awarded sole ownership of the Canine and attorney’s fees in the amount of $12,000, and ordered to pay Barlow $600 as consideration for her 50% ownership interest in the Canine. On appeal, Barlow asserted three issues, stating that the trial court erred (1) in awarding the Canine to Richardson because Barlow is the sole owner of same, (2) in awarding Richardson attorney’s fees, and (3) in awarding her less than the fair market value of the Canine. The appellate court reversed the award of attorney’s fees and rendered a take-nothing judgment on the request for attorney’s fees. The appellate court affirmed the remained of the trial court judgment.
Facts of the Case
According to the opinion, the two parties were in a dating relationship for a short period of time. After their relationship ended, a dispute arose regarding the Canine, who was acquired from Barlow’s employer, Petland, during the relationship. Richardson initiated a suit claiming a 50% ownership interest in the Canine, seeking to partition her interest in the same under Chapter 23 of the Texas Property Code. Barlow answered, denying Richardson’s claim of ownership, and asserted claims against Richardson for conversion, trespass to chattels, and fraud. At trial, both Richardson and Barlow testified, as did Richardson’s mother and several Petland employees. The trial court rendered judgment awarding Richardson sole ownership of the Canine and attorney’s fees amounting to $12,000 and ordered Richardson to pay Barlow $600 as consideration for her 50% ownership interest in the Canine. Barlow filed an appeal following the decision.
On appeal, Barlow asserted three issues, stating that the trial court erred (1) in awarding the Canine to Richardson because Barlow is the sole owner of same, (2) in awarding Richardson attorney’s fees, and (3) in awarding her less than the fair market value of the Canine. On Barlow’s first and third issues, she challenged the legal sufficiency of the evidence to support the trial court’s finding of Richardson’s ownership interest in the Canine and the amount that the court awarded Barlow as compensation for her ownership interest. Here, as the Canine was not able to be divided-in-kind, the court found that it was appropriate to award the property to one party, and require them to compensate the other party financially for their ownership interest.
While the appellate court found that there was conflicting evidence regarding the ownership of the Canine, the trial court was the final arbiter of the credibility of the witnesses, and the appellate decision deferred to the trial court findings. Accordingly, the appeals court opinion overruled Barlow’s first issue. Regarding Barlow’s third issue, the appellate court again deferred to the trial court findings, concluding that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the $600 award by the trial court was appropriate, overruling Barlow’s third issue. In her second issue, Barlow challenged the award of attorney’s fees by the trial court. The appellate opinion found that while the issue of attorney’s fees may be tried by consent, there must also be a statute or contract authorizing the award of same. Therefore, consent, standing alone, does not provide the legal basis for such an award. Accordingly, the appeals court found that the trial court erred in awarding Richardson her attorney’s fees, sustaining Barlow’s second issue.
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