In reviewing a Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c) motion for summary judgment, an appellate court must apply the established standards: (1) the movant for summary judgment has the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law; (2) in deciding whether there is a disputed material fact issue precluding summary judgment, evidence favorable to the non-movant will be taken as true; and (3) every reasonable inference must be indulged in favor of the non-movant and any doubts resolved in its favor.
The lessees transferred ownership of two parcels of land to a church. Contemporaneously, the church leased one of the parcels of land back to the lessees. The document stated that the lease would continue in effect until the date of death of the last of the lessees to die. Four years later, the church sold the property to the owners. Subsequently, the owners notified the lessees that it was terminating the lease. The lessees filed a declaratory judgment action against the owners, asking the trial court to declare the rights and responsibilities of all parties as to the property. The trial court granted the lessees' motion and denied the owner's, which decisions the owner now appeals.
Was the court correct in rendering judgment in favor of the appellees?
Although there is a dearth of authority to support the owner's position, it is bolstered by landlord-tenant law, which recognizes only four types of leases: the term of years, the periodic tenancy, the tenancy at will, and the tenancy at sufferance. Thus, a leasehold for life is not a recognized property right. Therefore, as a matter of law, the lease constitutes a tenancy at will. Consequently, the trial court erred when it granted the lessees' motion and denied the owner's motion on this issue. Accordingly, the court held that the owner owned the property in fee simple, encumbered only by a tenancy at will.
The owner also conclusively established the absence of any genuine question of material fact and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law that it was not liable for breach of contract. In response, the lessees asserted that they held a lease for life and that, consequently, the owner could not lawfully terminate the lease. They attached the lease as evidence that the owner had breached their contract when it terminated their lease. However, since the lease was a tenancy at will, and because the owner had the right to terminate the lease and it gave the lessees the requisite notice to do so, the lessees failed in their burden to show that there was a disputed material fact issue precluding summary judgment. Consequently, the trial court erred when it denied the owner's motion on the lessees' breach of contract claim.