A Reminder About Collection on Unpaid Legal Invoices: Wait a Year

This is an issue I’ve written about before, in Collection on Unpaid Invoices: One Really Good Reason to Wait a Year.  

But, I mention it again because the Tennessee Court of Appeals revisited the issue recently, in Scott Ostendorf, et. al. v. R. Stephen Fox, et. al. (Tenn. Ct. Apps.,  No. E2013-01978-COA-R3-CV, July 16, 2014).

In that case, the law firm committed possible malpractice regarding the perfection of a client’s lien security interest rights. The issue came to light in November 2008, and the client sued for malpractice in March 2012. Clearly, the lawsuit was filed more than one year after the facts alleged to be malpractice. 

This was a pretty easy one for the Court, which cited the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion at Kohl & Co., P.C. v. Dearborn & Ewing, 977 S.W.2d 528, 532 (Tenn. 1998):

“The statute of limitations for legal malpractice is one year from the time the cause of action accrues. Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2). When the cause of action accrues is determined by applying the discovery rule. Under this rule, a cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knows or in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence should know that an injury has been sustained as a result of wrongful or tortious conduct by the defendant. Shadrick v. Coker, 963 S.W.2d 726, 733 (Tenn. 1998).” 

As I said in my prior post, I’m not condoning legal malpractice, nor suggesting that you should play hard-ball in collection of unpaid invoices for services that involved malpractice. But, as I said in my last post, if you sue a client for unpaid bills, it’s more than likely going to result in that client claiming malpractice, whether it’s merited or not. 

If you think that such a claim will be raised from vindictiveness or tactic planning, then any lawyer should sit on the unpaid bills for services for at least a year. It’s an easy summary judgment / failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted issue. 

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Attorneys Fees Can be Recovered in a Tennessee Lawsuit, but only if the contract or statute allows them

Sometimes, clients ask “Why didn’t my Judgment include your attorney fees?”

(Note: Actually, I don’t get that question very much, since I spend a good deal of time on the front end, explaining the process and rights to clients, so they know if they can’t recover fees.)

Here’s why: Tennessee follows the “American Rule” on awarding attorney’s fees which states that “a party in a civil action may recover attorney fees only if: (1) a contractual or statutory provision creates a right to recover attorney fees; or (2) some other recognized exception” applies. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. v. Epperson, 284 S.W.3d 303, 308 (Tenn. 2009).

The contract provision allowing attorney fees to be recovered has to be very specific. In the Cracker Barrel case, the contract at issue provided that the prevailing party should recover “all costs and expenses of any suit or proceeding.” The Tennessee Supreme Court held that this language was not specific enough to award attorney fees (instead, it allowed recovery of court costs and litigation expenses). 

This is an important issue, as the ability to recover your expenses and costs as part of your action will be a big consideration in any decision to file a lawsuit. Lawyers are expensive. Keep that in mind on the front end, when you’re preparing a contract or agreement, and get very specific text allowing for recovery of attorney fees. 

New Tennessee Opinion on Foreclosure Deficiency Follows Creditor-Friendly Precedent

One of my greatest victories was the favorable opinion I obtained for a client in GreenBank v. Sterling Ventures, et. al. , decided on December 7, 2012.

I blogged about it here, but to recap: That case was the first consideration of a foreclosure deficiency attack under Tenn. Code Ann. §35-5- 118(c). Under that statute, a borrower can argue that a foreclosed property sold for “materially less” than fair market value and, under §35-5- 118(c), a court can deny a deficiency judgment to the foreclosing creditor.

In an opinion issued this past Friday, the Court of Appeals revisited the statute in Capital Bank v. Oscar Brock, No. E2013-01140-COA-R3-CV – Filed June 30, 2014 (see full text here).  The case followed the established precedent of Sterling Ventures and its progeny.

This new case is notable in two respects:

  1. Courts can and will resolve §35-5- 118(c) issues at the Summary Judgment level,  where it is only a matter of applying the valuations against the foreclosure bid price. In fact, this new opinion weighs some of the evidence, in finding that the defendants valuations were were “formed
    months or even years before or after the time the Property was sold at foreclosure.” This was a major victory in the original Sterling Ventures case, since borrowers want to make these issues a “fact” question, forcing a trial and delay of judgent.
  2. Courts continue to look at percentages when determining what “materially less” means. Sterling  Ventures and the later opinions all say the courts want to avoid setting a “bright-line percentage, above or below which the statutory presumption is rebutted.” That has basis in the legistlative history of the statute, where the lawmakers used “material” based on its usage in child custody cases. Nevertheless, the courts continue to apply a percentage test; in this case, spread was 15.8% and the sale was upheld.

This Court shot down a number of other arguments, including: those based on the amounts of several post-foreclosure appraisals; based on the Bank’s ultimate sale-listing price; and an argument that the Bank committed “fraud” by bidding a lower amount when it planned  to market the property at a higher amount.

The ultimate take-away on this remains the same as in the past.

  • Get an appraisal at or near the time of the proposed sale.
  • Bid an amount that is reasonably tied to the amount of your appraisal (or other reliable/admissible valuation).
  • Summary Judgment is a proper way to proceed, provided the foreclosing creditor was cautious and acted with this statute in mind.

 

Tennessee Courts will not find a ‘Paid in Full’ Check to be Conclusive Release of Debt

Every once in a while, one of my clients will receive a random check with a note in the Memo line that says “Paid In Full.”

If the creditor accepts that check, the borrower’s argument goes, the creditor also accepts the payment as a settlement…that the account was paid in full. This overlooks (or counts on) the fact that most big creditors process payments by machine or without watching for sneaky notes in the Memo section.

Fortunately, however, the general rule in Tennessee is that a note on a check may be an indication that the account was settled, but it isn’t the only and final proof of settlement.  On this exact issue, the Tennessee Supreme Court has said “Something more is required.” Quality Care Nursing Servs., Inc. v. Coleman, 728 S.W.2d 1, 4 (Tenn. 1987).

Generally, Tennessee courts will look at whether there was any other evidence of a payment dispute and “meeting of the minds” that this payment was tendered as a settlement and a proposal to resolve the disputed account. Was there a cover letter explaining a dispute and that acceptance of the payment was truly a settlement of the debt?

The Supreme Court noted: “It would be unrealistic in the modern business world for a debtor to send an installment payment to a creditor, which may be receiving hundreds or thousands of such checks, and to have the balance of his debt deemed discharged as a matter of law simply because of a legend the debtor placed thereon, absent any other proof of a compromise or settlement.”

So, what do you do if you are faced with a “Paid in Full” check? Well, as a initial matter, be careful.

If you receive one and you notice it, you may well be opening yourself up to an “accord and satisfaction” defense under Tennessee law. The best practice would be to refuse any such payment and return it to the borrower, with a demand that the check be replaced.
The risk in accepting the payment is clear. One court has noted ” a creditor’s action of cashing the check speaks louder than its words, have held that by accepting and cashing a check marked ‘paid in full,’ a creditor has agreed to accept the amount of the check as full payment of a disputed amount.” Ideal Stencil Mach. Co. v. Can-Do, Inc., 85-81-II, 1985 WL 4041 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 4, 1985).

 

If you like this Blog, You’ll LOVE this Social Media CLE!

On Thursday, July 10, 2014, I’l be presenting a Seminar called “The Attorney’s Online Marketing Essentials: Using Websites and Social Media to Promote Your Practice.”

This one hour CLE is will provide an overview of the options available for online marketing for lawyers, with a discussion of the advantages of the various platforms, disadvantages of some others, and some war stories related to my long-time foray in social media and legal marketing.

Generally, I’ll cover:

  • What is social media and who wants to be Facebook friends with their lawyers?
    • Introduction
    • Popularity of social media
    • How clients are using social media to find and engage with lawyers
  • Law firm website essentials
    • Why you need a website
    • What your website should say (a/k/a What your clients are looking for on your website)
    • Examples of good/bad/ugly
  • Lawyer blogs
    • Why a lawyer would blog
    • Types of blogs available for lawyers
    • What to blog about]
    • How to measure results
    • How to increase results (a/k/a think like your ideal client)
    • Examples
  • Other online marketing options (advantages/disadvantages of each)
    • LinkedIn
    • Facebook
    • Avvo
    • Twitter
    • YouTube
    • Google +
    • YouTube
    • Martindale Hubbell listings
    • Bar association listings

Employers Who Provide False Garnishment Answers May End Up Owing the Money Themselves

I got a judgment a few months ago, and, having found out where the judgment debtor works, I issued a wage garnishment against the debtor’s wages.

And, oh man, did I ever have that guy. Not only did he work there, but he was listed (and pictured) on their website as an executive. It was only a matter of days until I got my money, right?

Well, not exactly. The employer filed a response that said “Terminated.” That was a surprise. I checked the website. The guy was gone.   Did my garnishment get him fired?  Strange.

So, out of curiosity, I called the employer and got the company directory. The debtor was still listed. So, I waited a few weeks, and they were still listed. I tried the extension and, within seconds, I had the debtor on the phone.

Long story short, I think this employer is lying. What do you do?

Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-204 requires garnishment responses to be under oath. The law even anticipates that an employer might lie: “The answer of the garnishee is not conclusive.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-205. To that end, Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-206 allows a creditor to get a judgment against the employer if they actually have assets of the debtor in their possession.

So, in the end, a creditor has rights against a dishonest employer, but there are hoops to jump through. Though the statutes don’t lay this out, the procedure would be to subpoena the payroll records or otherwise get testimony from the employer to establish the veracity of the response. Then, the creditor must take the employer back to Court under § 26-2-206 to get a judgment.

It’s a hassle. But, if you lie, employers, I’m happy to take a judgment against you.

General Sessions Appeals are Cheap and Easy, But Detainer Judgment Appeals are Expensive and Tricky

In some law review article I’ve read (I’ll find you a citation later), the author said that the right to appeal a detainer action is really no right at all, because it’s so expensive to appeal in that scenario.

This is a reference to the detainer judgment appeal bond contained in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-130(b)(2).

That section says in part that:

…if the defendant prays an appeal, the defendant shall execute bond, or post either a cash deposit or irrevocable letter of credit from a regulated financial institution, or provide two (2) good personal sureties with good and sufficient security in the amount of one (1) year’s rent of the premises, conditioned to pay all costs and damages accruing from the failure of the appeal, including rent and interest on the judgment as provided for herein, and to abide by and perform whatever judgment may be rendered by the appellate court in the final hearing of the cause. …

So, where the tenant (or other person in possession of the real property) loses in General Sessions Court and the Plaintiff/Landlord/Property owner wins a detainer judgment for possession, sure, that tenant has the right to appeal. But, they have to post a bond equal to one year’s rental value of the property.

That’s a pretty tall order. Of course, if they don’t have the money or credit to post a cash bond, they can always try to find some dummy to sign on as a surety on the bond.

So, in short, this  isn’t the typical $250 Appeal Bond that you see in most other Sessions appeals.  That’s a quick and easy way to buy more time. This detainer bond could be $10,000 or it could be $150,000 (for fancy Belle Meade mansions or commercial properties).

Keep in mind, a losing defendant can still file an Appeal without complying with this bond requirement.

A detainer appeal without the “one year rent” bond is still an effective appeal, but it doesn’t help the defendant in any way in keeping the property (See what the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled in December 2013 in Johnson v. Hopkins).