First Appellate Decision. In In re Troy S. Poe Trust, a co-trustee of a trust filed suit to modify the trust to increase the number of trustees and change the method for trustees to vote on issues as well as other modifications. No. 08-18-00074-CV, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 7838 (Tex. App.—El Paso August 28, 2019, no pet.). The trial court denied the defendant co-trustee’s request for a jury trial on underlying fact issues and held a two-day bench trial. After the trial court granted the plaintiff’s modifications, the defendant co-trustee appealed and argued that the trial court erred in refusing him a jury trial.
The court of appeals first looked at a party’s general right to a jury trial in Texas:
The Texas Constitution addresses the right to a jury trial in two distinct provisions. The first, found in the Bill of Rights, provides that the “right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” But this provision has been held to “maintain a right to trial by jury for those actions, or analogous actions, tried by jury when the Constitution was adopted in 1876.” And Richard has not shown that trust modifications were tried to a jury in 1876 or before. The Texas Constitution also contains another provision governing jury trials in its judiciary article: “In the trial of all causes in the District Courts, the plaintiff or defendant shall, upon application made in open court, have the right of trial by jury; but no jury shall be empaneled in any civil case unless demanded by a party to the case, and a jury fee be paid by the party demanding a jury, for such sum, and with such exceptions as may be prescribed by the Legislature.” This section is broader than the Section 15 right to jury in the sense that it does not depend on court practice in 1876 or before. It is narrower in the sense that it only applies to “causes.” But the Texas Supreme Court views the term “causes” expansively, and that court has only restricted the right to jury trial in specific contexts where “some special reason” made jury trials unsuitable, such civil contempt proceedings, election contests, suits to remove a sheriff, and appeals in administrative proceedings. The Texas Constitution also gives the legislature authority to regulate jury trials to maintain their “purity and efficiency.” In that regard, we look to the statutory framework to determine whether parties possess a right to a jury trial.
Id. (internal citation omitted). The court then held that Texas Property Code did not waive a party’s right to a jury trial regarding a claim to modify a trust, and that the defendant co-trustee had a right to a jury trial on underlying fact questions involved in a trust modification case:
Under Texas law, the right to a jury trial extends to disputed issues of fact in equitable, as well as legal proceedings. And as a general rule, “when contested fact issues must be resolved before equitable relief can be determined, a party is entitled to have that resolution made by a jury.” “Once any such necessary factual disputes have been resolved, the weighing of all equitable considerations . . . and the ultimate decision of how much, if any, equitable relief should be awarded, must be determined by the trial court.” The trial court, and not the jury, determines the “expediency, necessity, or propriety of equitable relief.” Based on these general principles, Richard complains that the predicate question of whether there were changed circumstances, or the purpose of the trust had become impossible to fulfill, were for a jury to resolve.
Id. (internal citations omitted). The court of appeals agreed with the defendant co-trustee and held that he had a right to a jury trial on those initial issues. The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
Second Appellate Decision. In In re Poe Trust, the Texas Supreme Court reversed and remanded the court of appeals. No. 20-0179, 2022 Tex. LEXIS 548 (Tex. June 17, 2022). The Court held that parties to trust modification proceedings were not entitled to a jury trial under the Texas Property Code:
The Trust Code’s incorporation of the Rules of Civil Procedure cannot be construed to create a jury right where one does not already exist. The procedures established by those rules are “not meant to alter the parties’ . . . right to a jury trial.” In short, no right to a jury trial in a judicial trust-modification proceeding was created by Trust Code Section 112.054, Trust Code Section 115.012, or the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, whether they are viewed alone or in combination.
Id. But the Court remanded for the court of appeals to consider whether the defendant co-trustee had a right to a jury trial under the Texas Constitution:
The Texas Constitution provides “two guarantees of the right to trial by jury” in civil proceedings. The Bill of Rights ensures that the “right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” Our cases have said, and the parties here do not dispute, that this provision maintains a jury right for the sorts of actions tried by jury when the Constitution was adopted and, thus, “only applies if, in 1876, a jury would have been allowed to try the action or an analogous action.”
At the time of the Constitution’s adoption, there was no common-law right to a jury trial in equitable actions and, consequently, our courts have held that the Bill of Rights did “not alter the common law tradition eschewing juries in equity.” However, to provide a jury right in equitable actions, “a special clause was introduced.” In our present Constitution, that guarantee is found in Article V, the Judiciary Article. It provides: “In the trial of all causes in the District Courts, the plaintiff or defendant shall, upon application made in open court, have the right of trial by jury; but no jury shall be empaneled in any civil case unless demanded by a party to the case, and a jury fee be paid by the party demanding a jury, for such sum, and with such exceptions as may be prescribed by the Legislature.” We have held, and no party here disputes, that the Judiciary Article “covers all ’causes’ regardless of whether a jury was available in 1876.”
The court of appeals confronted none of these constitutional arguments, which were first presented on rehearing. By that time, the court of appeals had concluded that the Trust Code’s incorporation of the Rules of Civil Procedure conferred a right to a jury trial. That holding made in-depth treatment of the constitutional arguments unnecessary. Our holding today, however, changes that… Following our preferred practice, we remand the case to the court of appeals to address petitioners’ constitutional arguments in the first instance. And we echo the concurrence’s view that amici input could greatly aid the court of appeals’ decisional process.
Third Appellate Decision. In In re Poe Trust, the court of appeals held that the co-trustee defendant did not have a constitutional right to a jury trial in a trust modification case, and then affirmed the trial court’s modification of the trust. No. 08-18-00074-CV, 2023 Tex. App. LEXIS 5598 (Tex. App.—El Paso July 28, 2023, pet. filed). The court held that there was no right to a jury trial under the Texas Bill of Rights:
First, the Bill of Rights states the “right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” This provision maintains a jury-trial right for the type of actions tried by jury when the Constitution was adopted and thus “only applies if, in 1876, a jury would have been allowed to try the action or an analogous action.” And in 1876, there was no right to a jury trial in equitable actions; consequently, the Bill of Rights did “not alter the common law tradition eschewing juries in equity.” Insofar as trust-deviation proceedings existed in 1876, they were considered equitable in nature, such that there would have been no jury-trial right at that time. Therefore, as the parties concede, there is no jury-trial right in a trust-modification proceeding under the Bill of Rights.
Id. The court then turned to the Judiciary Article and stated:
[T]he “Judiciary Article” states: “In the trial of all causes in the District Courts, the plaintiff or defendant shall, upon application made in open court, have the right of trial by jury; but no jury shall be empaneled in any civil case unless demanded by a party to the case, and a jury fee be paid by the party demanding a jury, for such sum, and with such exceptions as may be prescribed by the Legislature.” In contrast with the Bill of Rights, this provision expanded the jury-trial right to all “causes” in both law and equity, regardless of whether a jury trial was available for the same in 1876. However, there are differences in opinion regarding how the term “causes” in this provision should be defined.
Id. The court then held that a trust modification proceeding is not a “cause” as that term is used in the Judiciary Article:
Bock, on the other hand, argues that “cause” should include only “ordinary” causes of action, also referred to as “personal” actions, in which a plaintiff is seeking a personal judgment against a defendant based on the defendant’s breach of a duty or other wrongdoing. He posits that a plaintiff must be asserting some “personal right” for which he may obtain a remedy or enforceable judgment against the defendant. And he argues that a trust-modification proceeding lacks the attributes of an ordinary cause of action—it is not brought by a plaintiff seeking a judgment against a defendant, but instead is brought in the interest of the beneficiary and will not result in an enforceable judgment against any of the interested parties.
We conclude that Bock’s approach is the correct one, as it more closely aligns with the 1876 Constitution drafters’ intent in formulating the Judiciary Article’s jury-trial right and best comports with Texas jurisprudence over time.
Id. The court further explained:
Professor Harris later described the proceeding in which a plaintiff sues a defendant seeking a personal judgment against the defendant as the “ordinary cause of action,” which he contrasted with “special civil proceedings” that do not share this key attribute… This interpretation of the term cause as meaning the ordinary cause of action in which a plaintiff seeks recourse against a defendant further comports with the Judiciary Article’s “plaintiff” and “defendant” terminology. During the era in which the 1876 Constitution was adopted, Bouvier’s Law Dictionary defined a plaintiff as a person “who, in a personal action, seeks a remedy for an injury to his rights.” Plaintiff. It defined the term “defendant” in the opposing stance as a “party who is sued in a personal action.” And in turn, it defined a “personal action” as one “brought for the specific goods and chattels; or for damages or other redress for breach of contract or for injuries of every other description; the specific recovery of lands, tenements and hereditaments only excepted.” In other words, a personal action encompasses a situation in which a party seeks a judgment against a defendant as a remedy for a violation of a personal right… [W]e find the ordinary-cause-of-action framework to be the correct framework or test by which to determine whether a proceeding can be considered a Judicial Article cause versus a special proceeding that falls outside its scope.
Id. The court then held that a trust modification proceeding is more of a special proceeding and does not involve an ordinary cause of action:
Utilizing the ordinary-cause-of-action framework, we agree with Bock that a trust-modification proceeding does not have any of the attributes of a cause for which a Judicial Article jury-trial right exists; instead, its nature is that of a special proceeding for which no jury-trial right exists. As Bock points out, in a trust-modification proceeding, there is no plaintiff seeking a right of recovery or a judgment against a defendant who has committed some wrong.
Id. So, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the defendant co-trustee’s request for a jury trial. The court then looked at the merits of the trust modification and affirmed it as well. The court essentially rejected the unambiguous intent expressed by the settlor in the trust document and focused on other evidence to modify the trust.
There was a dissenting justice who found that the defendant co-trustee did have a constitutional right to a jury trial. The dissenting justice stated:
In the years when the 1875 Constitution was drafted, Texas law used “cause” broadly… In other words, “cause” was viewed comprehensively as encompassing contested questions before a court… Moreover, as this Court held in our prior decision in this case, the record here establishes that statutory prerequisites include disputed questions of fact. Specifically, this Court concluded that “the predicate questions of whether the trust needed to be modified was a fact question that should have been decided by a jury[.]”We observed in our earlier decision that, “as a general rule, ‘when contested fact issues must be resolved before equitable relief can be determined, a party is entitled to have that resolution made by a jury.'” Because this suit is based on a long recognized equitable cause of action, I would hold it falls squarely within the meaning of “all causes” as included in the Judiciary Article’s terms.
The majority views a material distinction between the term “cases,” as included in the Constitution of 1869, and the term “causes,” as currently included. Specifically, the majority describes the term “causes,” as “narrower language.” On that point, I disagree. Controlling authorities of the era inform that “all cases of law or equity,” as included in the 1869 version, essentially means the same thing as “all causes,” which was adopted in 1876. Given the historical use of these terms, I see no indication that the voters of that era drew back from the otherwise expanding guarantee of a right to a jury trial.
Additionally, the majority places heavy importance on the use of the terms, “plaintiff” and “defendant,” as appearing in the Judiciary Article. Based in part on these terms, the majority concludes that the term “cause” can only be interpretated as meaning an “ordinary cause of action.” Again, I disagree… First, these same terms, “plaintiff” and “defendant,” appear in the Constitution of 1845, where the jury-trial guarantee was otherwise provided in “all causes in equity.” Second, the terms “plaintiff” and “defendant” are not used as terms of limitation but rather to describe that a jury trial is guaranteed to all participants when “application [is] made in open court.” Third and lastly, I see no indication here of any special circumstance that would cause a jury trial to be prohibitive. On that score, Justice Busby’s concurring opinion in Poe, which is joined by Justice Devine and Justice Young, largely provides the analytical framework for making that determination. Because this modification suit is a statutory substitute for a cause in equity, I would classify it as falling into the second category of Justice Busby’s framework. To that extent, the jury-trial right would extend in part to the disputed issues of fact of this suit while questions of equitable discretion should be decided by the court. Unlike the majority, I would hold that a trust modification proceeding qualifies as “a cause” within the meaning of the Judiciary Article’s guarantee.
Fourth Appellate Decision? The defendant co-trustee has filed a petition for review in the Texas Supreme Court on both the jury trial right issue and on the trust modification issue. The first issue is one of great importance to Texas jurisprudence as it certainly impacts trust modifications and many other equitable proceedings under the Trust Code and Estate’s Code. The Texas Supreme Court should accept the petition in this case, again, and finally determine whether a party has a constitutional right to a jury trial on underlying fact disputes in these types of proceedings. Additionally, the trust modification issue is also important to Texas jurisprudence. The Texas Supreme Court has issued very little authority on what evidence a trial court can consider in modifying a trust and determining the settlor’s intent. The court of appeals’ broad opinion on this issue is in conflict with at least one other court of appeals.