Mistitled motion can extend plenary power

Sometimes a short memorandum opinion in a small case can teach a big lesson. Experienced civil practitioners know that a trial court has 30 days of plenary power after signing a judgment. That time period can be extended (for up to 105 days after judgment) by filing a motion for new trial or motion to modify the judgment within 30 days after the judgment is signed. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 329b. But what happens if the motion is mistitled? As the Texarkana Court of Appeals recently ruled in $1608 v. State, the substance of the motion will govern over the title. In this case, the State obtained a default judgment of civil forfeiture against some cash and a car on July 22, 2014. The State apparently changed its mind, and filed a motion for new trial on September 3, 2014, which the trial court granted on the same day. The problem was that the State’s motion was untimely and, therefore, did not extend the trial court’s 30-day plenary power.Fortunately for the property owner, however, he had filed motions asking for relief from the default judgment during the 30-day plenary period. The Texarkana Court of Appeals ruled that the property owner’s motions had extended the plenary power, because the motions, although not labeled as motions for new trial, requested relief available in a motion for new trial. Construing the motions as motions for new trial, the appellate court held that the trial court still had plenary power when granting the State’s motion for new trial.It’s good news for movants that the courts will construe a motion according to its substance, not its title. This is particularly true when it comes to extending the trial court’s plenary period.Click here to read the opinion.– Scott Stolley, Thompson & Knight.