Austin lawyer Jason Snell worried that his client may have trouble convincing a jury to award damages in his fraud trial last week—after all, the defendant he was suing just happened to be a well-known sitting judge in the same Central Texas courthouse where the trial was taking place.
Yet Snell was able to convince a Bastrop County jury this week that Justice of the Peace Donna Thomson intentionally violated the Deceptive Trades Practices Act when she sold Snell’s client a house without disclosing that she still had a mortgage on the property, hitting the judge with nearly $1 million in damages.
“I feel like it really helped my case,” Snell said of Thomson’s position as a judge. “In my opening statements, I read the oath of office that she took. And in that oath of office, she swore to uphold the laws of the State of Texas. And I think that was really impactful to the jury. That was the first thing I said in my opening statements and it was also the last thing I said in my closing argument.”
Snell’s client, Raul Vasquez, owner of a Mexican restaurant in Bastrop, bought a home from Thomson in 2016 in a “contract for deed” lease-to-own arrangement, according to the petition in the case. Such contracts traditionally give tremendous advantages to sellers, who retain legal title to the property while the buyer’s equity in the home remains at risk until the loan is repaid.
Under the terms of the contract, Vasquez alleged, he agreed to pay Thomson $150,000 for the house, paying her $30,000 up front followed by monthly installments of $1,300 until the property was paid off in full.
But by the summer of 2017, the suit claimed, Thomson began telling Vasquez that if he could not close on the property and pay off the loan in full by July 29, 2017, he was going to lose all the money he had paid prior, and that she would evict him from the property.
Vasquez then sued Thomson for breach of contract and deceptive trade practices, among other causes of action, alleging that Thomson failed to disclose to Vasquez that she didn’t actually own the house outright, and still had a mortgage on the property.
“She did a number of things wrong, but the main thing she did was she did not disclose to my client that she had a sizable mortgage on the property. She told my client she owned it free and clear. And when my client walked into the property, he owed her less than what she owed the bank,” Snell said. “He was never going to be able to own the property because she was always going to owe the bank. She was upside down on it, and he didn’t know that.’’
Before submitting the case to a jury, the trial court judge ruled as a matter of law that Thomson violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in her transaction with Vazquez, awarding him $57,300, representing the sum he’d already paid Thomson.
At trial, the jury was asked to consider whether Thomson acted “knowingly and intentionally” against Vasquez.
Thomson’s lawyer argued that his client had not done anything intentionally wrong, and the dispute was the result of sloppy paperwork. To counter that argument, Snell found a 29-year-old Austin school teacher who had fallen victim to Thomson’s deception with the same house as Vasquez, and the teacher testified at his trial, according to Snell.
“She moved out of the house when she found out she had been scammed and realized she’d never owned the house. And she didn’t have the money for an attorney to go after Donna Thomson,’’ Snell said of the witness. “And when we put on that testimony of the prior homeowner, it was a no-brainer for the jury. They were able to see that [Thomson] did this knowingly and intentionally.’’
On May 1, the jury awarded Vasquez another $94,000 in actual damages and hit Thomson with $750,000 more in exemplary damages.
“I asked the jury to send a message to her and other public officials as well that when you’re in a position of public trust and you don’t honor it, there are harsh consequences,” Snell said. “The jury listened and sent that message.’’
Thomson did not return a call for comment. Thomson’s attorney, Phillip N. Slaughter of Smithville, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Vasquez is still in the house that Thomson sold him, but because she still has a mortgage on the property, Vasquez may never own it, Snell said.
“He’s at a real loss. We have to find her assets,” Snell said of the defendant judge. “And with respect to the house, the only way he’s going to be made whole on that is through the post-collection process.’’