To Renew a Tennessee Judgment, the Motion Must be Filed Within the Ten Year Period

A quick follow-up to my discussion of Rule 69.04 and renewal of judgments in Tennessee.

A few of you e-mailed me to ask about the timing of filing a motion to extend the judgment for another ten years. Specifically, does the motion have to be granted in the ten year period, or is it enough to simply file the motion during the ten year period?

The answer is contained in Rule 69.04.

As long as a motion to extend is filed “[w]ithin ten years from entry of a judgment,”  a judgment creditor may “avoid having the judgment become unenforceable by operation of Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-110(a)(2).” See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69.04 Advisory Comm. cmt. to 2016 revision.

Also, look at In re Hunt, 323 B.R. 665, 669 (Bankr. W.D. Tenn. 2005), which says “it is not essential that the debtor receive these pleadings within the ten-year period, only that the renewal pleading be filed within that time.”

To be clear, it’s my interpretation that Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69.04 does not require the order extending the judgment for the additional ten-year period to be entered within ten years from the entry of the old judgment. But you have to file that Motion to Renew before the ten years expires.

New Version of Rule 69.04 Makes Renewing a Tennessee Judgment Easier

A few months ago, I warned you all that Tennessee judgments are only enforceable for ten years and, if you have a file of uncollected judgments, you might need to check your drawers.  If you do a lot of creditors rights law work (like me), then you have about ten drawers full of unpaid judgments, so this is a big deal.

The Tennessee legislature may saw this issue coming, because, in 2016, they simplified the process by which a judgment creditor can renew (extend) the life-span of a judgment. The revisions to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69.04 provide that the creditor:

Within ten years from the entry of a judgment, the creditor whose judgment remains unsatisfied may file a motion to extend the judgment for another ten years. A copy of the motion shall be mailed by the judgment creditor to the last known address of the judgment debtor. If no response is filed by the judgment debtor within thirty days of the date the motion is filed with the clerk of court, the motion shall be granted without further notice or hearing, and an order extending the judgment shall be entered by the court. If a response is filed within thirty days of the filing date of the motion, the burden is on the judgment debtor to show why the judgment should not be extended for an additional ten years. The same procedure can be repeated within any additional ten-year period.

So, long story short, now, it’s done by Motion and without the prior “show cause” process used in the past (and, notably, in the same case docket as the original action).

The Tennessee Court of Appeals discussed this new process in a recent opinion, at Trina Scott v. Sharfyne L’Nell White, No. M2015-02488-COA-R3-CV, July 14, 2017).  You’ll note that the underlying matter in this case was decided prior to 2016, but Judge McBrayer (himself, once a well known debtor-creditor lawyer) discusses both the new and old laws in issuing the opinion.

 

 

 

Read The Rules. Know The Rules. Start with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 54.02

When I first started practicing law, my mentor was a procedure savant. He knew the Rules of Procedure inside and out. In turn, I eventually learned the Rules.

That’s my single biggest piece of advice for any litigation attorney: Know the Rules of Procedure. If you’re in state court, read the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. Before you go to court, read that county’s Local Rules.

The key to success at anything is knowing the rules. Sports. Checkers. The practice of law. A strong, working knowledge of the rules of procedure puts you ahead of 85% of your fellow lawyers.

Recently, while reading a  Tennessee Court of Appeals opinion about final judgments and appeals, I was reminded of a lesson my old boss taught me about Tenn. R. Civ. P. 54.02.

Rule 54.02 applies in cases where are multiple parties and multiple claims for relief, but a party is able to resolve its claims as to part of the litigation. In that circumstance, Rule 54.02 allows the trial court deem the judgment as to that part of the case “final,” which means that the party’s appeal deadlines start to run and, more importantly, the plaintiff can proceed with collection on the judgment as to that party.

But, you don’t get Rule 54.02 relief unless you think to ask for it. Under the Rule, you have to (1) specifically request that the judgment be “final” and (2) use magic language by which the Court makes an “express determination that there is no just reason for delay” and an “express direction for the entry of judgment.”

The case I cite above is interesting, because the Judgment that was appealed included the Rule 54.02 magic language, but the Court of Appeals denied the appeal as premature, because there was still one loose end (the assessment of attorney fees). It’s interesting (and re-assuring) to see the appellate court look at substance over form.

Even though Rule 54.02 led this attorney astray, don’t forget to include that text in your Judgments. It’s most powerful when you have the chance to take a judgment against one liable party early in the case, but one of the other defendants shows up and contests his own liability. In that scenario, while you’re litigating the matter against one defendant, you can commence execution and collections on the other, without waiting until getting all the claims resolved.

Quantum Meruit: How You (Sort of) Sue for Breach of Contract in Tennessee, When There’s No Written Contract

When you’re buying, selling, lending, or anything else in between, take the time to prepare a written agreement, spelling out the terms of what you’re agreeing to do and of what the other side is agreeing to do in exchange.  Get it in writing and get it signed.

Everybody knows this, but, regardless, sometimes you don’t get it in writing. Maybe the deal is rushed. Maybe you think it’s such a clean transaction that it doesn’t need to be complicated by a written agreement. (By the way, this advice applies for lawyers and engagement letters–oh boy, have I learned that lesson.)

Where there’s not a written agreement, you don’t have a “contract” claim against the other side; you have what is called a “quasi-contract” claim. Instead of suing under a contract, you’re suing under equity–it’s not fair for the other side to benefit from your performance.

The theory is referred to as “quantum meruit” or “unjust enrichment.” The Tennessee Court of Appeals very recently revisited the elements of a Tennessee quantum meruit claim. The Court stated:

Under a quantum meruit theory, a party may recover the reasonable value of goods and services provided to another if it demonstrates that:

(1) There is no existing, enforceable contract between the parties covering the same subject matter;

(2) The party seeking recovery proves that it provided valuable goods or services;

(3) The party to be charged received the goods or services;

(4) The circumstances indicate that the parties to the transaction should have reasonably understood that the person providing the goods or services expected to be compensated; and

(5) The circumstances demonstrate that it would be unjust for a party to retain the goods or services without payment.

In the end, even without a written agreement, equity will dictate that a party should recover the value of the goods or services from a non-paying party.

Because there’s no contract, however, you lose the typical “contract” protections, like attorney fees, interest, and, frankly, the certainty of being in control over the terms of your deal. Take the time on the front end to document your deals; as a result, you’ll save time and money on the back end, arguing over what each party claims the terms of the deal were.

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

I always tell clients that Tennessee is a creditor friendly state, and it is. But, just because it’s fair to creditors, that doesn’t mean a Tennessee Court will give a plaintiff everything.

I’m talking today about attorney fees. The general rule in Tennessee is that, unless you have an agreement in writing that you are entitled to recover your attorney fees, a court will not award those fees to you.

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.

Promises, Promises: Oral Promises to Pay Another’s Debt are not Enforceable in Tennessee

One of the most common collections questions I get is “I loaned X some money, but didn’t make them sign anything. Can I sue them?”  The simple answer is yes.

As long as the person making the promises is also the borrower, you’re safe. Issues arise, though, when you’re enforcing a promise by a third party to pay the debts of another. This is called a “Guaranty” (or, depending on how old a lawyer you are, a “Guarantee”).

However you spell it, a guaranty has to be in writing to be enforceable.

Under Tennessee’s version of the Statute of Frauds, no party may file a lawsuit “[t]o charge the defendant upon any special promise to answer for the debt, default, or miscarriage of another person….  unless the promise or agreement, upon which such action shall be brought, or some memorandum or note thereof, [is] in writing, and signed by the party to be charged therewith, or some other person lawfully authorized by such part  ” See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-2-101(a)(2).

So, then the question becomes, how formal does a writing have to be? Can it be hand-written? Can it be an email?

Guaranty agreements are strictly construed and, in order find a guaranty, the language must contain the clear and unambiguous intent that the guarantor is agreeing to be liable. For more on guaranties (or guarantees), be sure to check out the Tennessee Supreme Court in 84 Lumber Co. v. Smith, 356 S.W.3d 380, 384 (Tenn. 2011).

In the case of an email, I’d ask “Is the email’s language clear and unambiguous in stating that Y is willing to pay the debts of X?” If so, I think it satisfies the Statute of Frauds.

Don’t Sue the Messenger: Trustees Aren’t Necessary Parties in Foreclosure Injunction Lawsuits and can be Dismissed under Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-116

All my clients hate being sued. You know who else hates to be sued? My law firm.

With the economy going bad, I’ve seen more desperate debtors doing anything they can to fight off foreclosures, evictions, and collections, including filing a lawsuit against the creditor…and the bank’s lawyers.

This is most common in foreclosures, when the debtor tries to stop the foreclosure sale by filing a lawsuit. There are very limited bases by which a foreclosure can be stopped in Tennessee (See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-23-202 ).

Of course, that doesn’t mean that a borrower won’t  fire off a quick lawsuit, trying to gum up the process by creating a little smoke screen diversion.

But, a borrower or borrower’s lawyer who is trying to enjoin a foreclosure doesn’t need to add the attorneys for the creditor as defendant. Generally, the bank’s lawyers are serving only as “Substitute Trustees” under the Deed of Trust, and the caselaw has consistently held that trustees under a mortgage aren’t necessary parties to such an action.

In response to repeated lawsuits filed by “over-zealous” debtors or “less educated” lawyers, the Tennessee legislature passed Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-116 in 2006.

That statute allows a trustee named in a lawsuit to file a verified answer, pleading that the trustee is not a necessary party “stating the basis for the trustee’s reasonable belief that the trustee was named as a party solely in the capacity as a trustee under a deed of trust, contract lien, or security instrument.”

In response, the plaintiff must then filed a “verified response” within 30 days setting forth all factual and legal basis to rebut the trustee’s denial.
The statute also provides a good faith savings clause, under which the trustee “shall not be liable for any good faith error resulting from reliance on any information in law or fact provided by the borrower or secured party or their respective attorney, agent, or representative or other third party.” See Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-116 (f).
Of course, this statute will not stop a borrower from suing everybody; most borrowers would sue the mailman  who delivers the foreclosure notice if they thought it would delay the sale. But, the statute provides a relatively efficient way for the trustees to have themselves dismissed from the lawsuit.