The Texas Court of Appeals has ruled that the losing party in a multimillion-dollar estate dispute can challenge the final judgment in that case based on allegations that the Dallas probate judge who presided over it had an “undisclosed personal relationship” with an opposing lawyer during the litigation.
The case was handled by John Peyton Jr., a former Dallas associate probate judge who entered into a voluntary agreement resigning from office earlier this year in lieu of discipline from State Commission on Judicial Conduct. According to the February agreement, Peyton resigned after the publication of an article in the April 2017 edition of D Magazine called “Ardor in the Court,” which detailed Peyton’s alleged affair with Dallas probate attorney Mary Burdette.
Peyton in his resignation denied the allegations.
After a final judgment was signed in Thomas v. 462 Thomas Family Properties, lawyers for Robert Thomas filed a bill of review before the trial court alleging that Peyton had had a personal relationship with the opposing lawyer during the pendency of the trial, which he did not disclose, that “destroyed the integrity of the proceedings.”
The bill of review seeks to set aside Peyton’s rulings in the case and claims the judge’s alleged misconduct could not have been discovered before the case was resolved in his court. Following a hearing, another Dallas probate court judge dismissed Thomas’ bill of review with prejudice—a decision he appealed to Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals.
In its Aug. 2 decision, the Fifth Court ultimately concluded that the trial court erred by dismissing Thomas’ bill of review, noting he couldn’t have known about Peyton’s alleged misconduct conduct in time to file a pretrial motion to recuse the judge within statutory deadlines.
“Assuming appellant’s allegations, as well as reasonable inferences drawn from them, are true, appellant neither knew nor reasonably should have known that the grounds for recusal existed. Thus, a motion to recuse filed after the tenth day before trial would not have been untimely,” wrote Justice Craig Stoddart.
“Applying the notice pleading standard and liberally construing appellant’s petition according to his intent, we conclude the trial court erred by dismissing his petition for equitable bill of review as lacking any basis in law at this early stage,” Stoddart wrote, remanding the case back to the trial court for further rulings consistent with the opinion.
“We believe the allegations of a close personal relationship between the trial judge and opposing counsel during trial justifies a new trial,’’ Gilbreath said.
Robert Dubose and Doug Alexander, partners in Alexander DuBose Jefferson & Townsend who represent appellees 462 Thomas Family Properties, both did not return calls for comment.
Peyton, who now works as the director of probate operations for the Dallas County probate courts, did not return a call for comment.
According to his voluntary agreement to resign from office, Peyton denied the allegations against him in their entirety. The commission initiated an investigation into Peyton’s conduct in February 2017 after receiving a letter from his attorney, Randy Johnston, detailing a “series of events” that he believed would be made public in the D Magazine article.
Johnston did not return a call for comment.
Burdette, whom according to pleadings in the case has not appeared as counsel for the defendants in the bill of review proceedings, also did not return a call for comment.