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Trespass to Try Title is the Exclusive Cause of Action to Establish Ownership in Texas

The recent Court of Appeals case of Lackey v. Templeton, 2018 WL 3384570 (Tex. Civ.App. — Beaumont, no pet.), provides another illustration of the legal principle that, in Texas, if you are challenging who owns certain real property, you MUST bring a trespass-to-try-title claim. No other cause of action — such as a declaratory judgment action — will suffice. This is in contrast to a recent Texas Supreme Court case — Lance v. Robinson, 543 S.W.3d 723 (Tex. 2018) — in which the Supreme Court held that a declaratory judgment action WAS allowable because the dispute in that case concerned easement rights — not ownership rights.

Texas Property Law: Challenging Ownership

In Texas, causes of action for challenging or asserting ownership of real property — including ownership of mineral estates — are governed by statute. In this regard, Section 22.001(a) of the Texas Property Code states that a “trespass to try title action is the method of determining title to lands, tenements, and other real property.” See Tex. Prop. Code § 22.001(a). Texas courts have interpreted this provision to mean that a trespass-to-try-title cause action is the exclusive remedy for resolving competing claims to ownership of real property.

The words used in a petition are not controlling. Rather, courts are to look at the substance of the claims. Any of the following disputes must be brought as a trespass-to-try-title action:

  • A claim of superior title
  • Rival ownership claims to a mineral estate
  • Any sort of title dispute or determination

Failure to file a trespass-to-try-title claim will result in dismissal of the plaintiff’s case on a filed special exception asserting that the wrong cause of action has been filed. Failure of the trial court to grant the special exception will be reversible error — as happened in Lackey v. Templeton.

Texas Property Law: Facts of Lackey v. Templeton

In Lackey, the dispute involved competing claims of ownership with respect to mineral estates under two tract of land in Jasper County, Texas. The plaintiffs (collectively “the Templetons”) sued more than a dozen defendants (including Lackey) seeking a declaratory judgment that they owned the mineral estates based on a 1992 deed of conveyance. In addition, the Templetons asserted various claims for damages against the collective defendants for trespassing on the property and producing minerals from the mineral estates without permission. The Templetons also sought to recover attorney’s fees. Certain other parties filed petitions to intervene seeking declarations that they were the owners of part or all of the mineral estates in dispute based on deeds executed by the Templeton parties after 1992.

Among their responses, the various defendants filed a special exception arguing that the Templetons and the intervenors filed the wrong cause of action — a declaratory judgment suit instead of a trespass-to-try-title actions.

The trial court overruled the defendants’ special exceptions and granted various partial motions for summary judgment. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. The Court of Appeals held that the special exceptions should have been granted by the trial court. The proper and exclusive cause of action that should have been filed was a trespass-to-try-title claim under the Texas Property Code. As such, the Court of Appeals rendered a take nothing judgment against Templetons and the intervenors on their declaratory judgment claim. The Court of Appeals added that such take nothing judgment was rendered “without prejudice to any trespass to try title claims.”

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