Photo: Shutterstock

Family always comes first, especially around Thanksgiving—a sentiment that is usually respected by Texas trial court judges in the form of continuances.

Yet a pair of Houston plaintiff attorneys recently had to pursue emergency appellate relief to stay an upcoming trial date on the Monday after the holiday after a Galveston trial judge denied them a continuance. One lawyer recently had a child in the hospital, and the other had a sister in hospice care.

However, defense counsel alleged the plaintiffs attorneys’ client has repeatedly used delay tactics by changing lawyers three times in a case that has already blown six different trial settings.

The two-year-old case was filed by Texas Construction Specialists (TCS) over a $450,000 contract dispute concerning alleged unpaid invoices for a commercial real estate project in League City. TCS’s lawyers, Houston solos Andrew Lemanski and Armando Lopez, made their first appearance for the company in the case Oct. 5, when the case had a Nov. 5 trial setting.

According to the plaintiff’s briefing in the case, Lemanski’s 8-year-old daughter fell ill two weeks later and was rushed to a hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, where she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Lemanski updated a continuance motion he had filed in the case, and during an Oct. 29 pretrial hearing he was in tears when he told 405th District Court Judge Michelle Slaughter he could not be ready for a Nov. 5 trial setting because of his daughter’s illness.

Slaughter, though sympathetic, declined to grant any “lengthy” trial continuance, and instead moved the trial back to Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Then, on Nov. 13, Lopez learned that his sister was going into hospice care after battling breast cancer, and moved for a continuance. Slaughter declined to schedule a hearing. On Nov. 16, Lopez’s sister died.

While Slaughter declined to grant any further continuances in the case, she set a hearing for a motion to dismiss the case for lack of prosecution.

After the denials, Lemanski and Lopez filed for a mandamus action with Houston’s First Court of Appeals. On Nov. 19, the First Court granted them an emergency stay in the case halting the litigation.

Lemanski and Lopez both said they were surprised the trial court wouldn’t postpone the case at least until the first quarter of 2019.

“The ruling was very unexpected to us. We believe that the mandamus has merit. And if there is ever a reason for a continuance, this is a reason,’’ Lemanski said. “I can understand that judges sometimes get frustrated because people may give reasons that are not justifiable. But if this is not a justifiable reason, we might was well get rid of the whole process.’’

“I was expecting a continuance, and the court said ‘No,’” Lopez said. “I’m on the way to a burial right now. It’s just horrible, I can’t believe it.”

Robert Booth, managing partner of Galveston’s Mills Shirley, who represents the defendants in the litigation, notes that Lemanski’s and Lopez’s clients have earned the title of “serial litigators” who have a reputation for filing claims, only to change counsel as trial dates approach, causing endless delays for litigation. He also noted that Lemanski and Lopez filed a motion to withdraw from the case Nov. 8, but Slaughter denied the motion.

“It’s nothing against the lawyers, it’s about TCS,” Booth said of his clients’ opposition to the continuance motions.

“It’s just abusive tactics up and down. There’s a whole slew of defense attorneys that have cases against Texas Construction and have to deal with their delay of the judicial system,” Booth added. “My thinking is that they will continue to stall and will never try to go to trial. That’s the history of the case.’’