What Happens to Stale, Unserved General Sessions Lawsuits? Some Get Dismissed.

I was doing some general sessions legal research today. And, no, that isn’t a mis-print.

There are some really interesting legal issues that come up in small claims court.

Today, I found a corollary to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 3, which I blogged about a few years back. Rule 3 says that un-issued and un-served Summonses may not preserve the statute of limitations.

The similar rule in sessions court is Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-710, which provides:

The suing out of a warrant is the commencement of a civil action within the meaning of this title, whether it is served or not; but if the process is returned unserved, plaintiff, if plaintiff wishes to rely on the original commencement as a bar to the running of a statute of limitations, must either prosecute and continue the action by applying for and obtaining new process from time to time, each new process to be obtained within nine (9) months from return unserved of the previous process, or plaintiff must recommence the action within one (1) year after the return of the initial process not served.

So, in short, if you want to rely on the date you filed your lawsuit, then you have to make sure you get a new Alias Summons issued within 9 months of your last, unserved warrant.

If you don’t, you may have to re-file your entire lawsuit. Yikes.

Leases Can be Assigned in Bankruptcy Court, No Matter What the Lease Says

If you’re a smart commercial landlord (or you have smart drafting counsel), you’ll include a provision in your commercial lease agreement that prohibits transfers or assignments of the lease without the landlord’s consent.

The reasoning is obvious: Not all tenants are created equal, and it should be the landlord who gets to pick the tenants, not the tenants.

Despite an otherwise valid “anti-assignment” provision in a lease, a lease can be assigned by a bankruptcy debtor-in-possession or trustee under the Bankruptcy Code.

Specifically, 11 U.S.C. § 365(f) provides that:

(1) Except as provided in subsections (b) and (c) of this section, notwithstanding a provision in an executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor, or in applicable law, that prohibits, restricts, or conditions the assignment of such contract or lease, the trustee may assign such contract or lease under paragraph (2) of this subsection.

(2) The trustee may assign an executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor only if–

(A) the trustee assumes such contract or lease in accordance with the provisions of this section; and

(B) adequate assurance of future performance by the assignee of such contract or lease is provided, whether or not there has been a default in such contract or lease.

This will most likely come up in an Section 363 sale of the assets of the debtor, where a buyer gets the assets, along with certain court ordered benefits and protections (this subsection included).

No matter how well crafted certain documents are (whether it’s a note, deed of trust, or lease), there are certain situations in which a Bankruptcy Court will pre-empt state law. This is one of them.

 

Judicial Estoppel Prevents Litigants from Contradicting Themselves

When I’m involved in litigation, I always look for recent cases involving my opposing party, to mine those cases for similar issues, useful facts, and relevant admissions to use in my case.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a recent opinion, at Polly Spann Kershaw v. Jeffrey Levy  (Tenn. Ct. Apps, Mar. 28, 2018, No. M2017-01129-COA-R3-CV), that reminds me that this is a good idea.

In that case, a former client sued her lawyer, alleging that, as a result of his alleged bad advice and malpractice, she entered into an unfair and generally bad divorce settlement after he withdrew from the case.

But, as part of her divorce settlement, she signed a sworn Marital Dissolution Agreement, which included the affirmation that “the Agreement is fair and equitable and that it is being entered into voluntarily…”

In response to the client’s claims that she was forced into an “unfair” divorce settlement, the lawyer filed for summary judgment, citing those sworn statements in the divorce pleadings and arguing, under the concept of “judicial estoppel,” that she can’t change her position.

The Court of Appeals agreed, saying that “[t]he sworn statement is not merely evidence against the litigant, but (unless explained) precludes him from denying its truth. It is not merely an admission but an absolute bar.” Further, judicial estoppel “seeks to ensure that parties do not ‘play fast and loose with the courts’ by contradicting a previous sworn statement or testimony.”

A litigant may have different incentives in front of different courts, and this is certainly useful when an opposing party has filed Bankruptcy or divorce–both settings where it may be beneficial to understate their income or the value of their assets.  I’ve specifically used it where a litigant affirms a debt or lien in Bankruptcy Schedules, which are signed under oath, and then, later in state court, tries to contest my bank’s claims.

New Opinion Provides Clear Summary of the Unpredictable Enforceability of Non-Compete Agreements

This is how competitive the market for tourist entertainment dollars in Nashville is right now: our horse-drawn carriage companies are suing each other for poaching each other’s drivers, with those disputes going all the way to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

All kidding (and weird facts) aside, this opinion (Sugar Creek Carriages v. Hat Creek Carriages, et. al.;, Feb. 13, 2018) has a really good analysis of issues on the enforceability of non-compete agreements in Tennessee.

The opinion cites extensively from the Tennessee Supreme Court in Murfreesboro Medical Clinic, P.A. v. Udom, 166 S.W.3d 674, 678 (Tenn. 2005), which states:

In general, covenants not to compete are disfavored in Tennessee. These covenants are viewed as a restraint of trade, and as such, are construed strictly in favor of the employee. However, if there is a legitimate business interest to be protected and the time and territorial limitations are reasonable then non-compete agreements are enforceable.  Factors relevant to whether a covenant is reasonable include: (1) the consideration supporting the covenant; (2) the threatened danger to the employer in the absence of the covenant; (3) the economic hardship imposed on the employee by the covenant; and (4) whether the covenant is inimical to the public interest. Also, the time and territorial limits must be no greater than necessary to protect the business interest of the employer.

Where the employee receives “specialized training,” the Court will look to see if the employer conferred a “protectable business interest.” Two big factors in this analysis are:

1. Whether the employee is given access to trade or business secrets or other confidential information; and

2. Whether the employer’s customers tend to associate the employer’s business with the employee due to the employee’s repeated contacts with the customers on behalf of the employer.

Where “specialized training” is claimed, that training had better be really unique and confer advanced skills that would be unfair for the employee to use elsewhere. In pondering all this, the Court notes that there is “no simple rule” and the analysis is “fact-driven.”

So, in the end, this new opinion presents a clear, concise statement of the law related to non-compete agreements, but, rest assured, there’s no easy way to predict how a trial courts will apply this law to actual disputes.

The best answer you’ll get out of a lawyer will be “It depends.”

Advice from a Creditor Rights Lawyer

My law firm doesn’t have associate attorneys. We’re all “Members,” meaning that the typical angry partner/terrified associate relationship doesn’t really exist.

That is great for many reasons, but it stinks for a few others. For instance, I don’t always have a set of hands ready, willing, and waiting to do my overflow legal work. Also, I don’t really have a mentee or protege.

At this point in my career, I really expected to have a mentee.

So, blog readers, over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my wisdom on the practice of law here.  Follow along if you’d like to learn from my 18 years of hassling debtors, opposing counsel, and court clerks.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Super Lawyer

I’m generally pretty skeptical of awards and law-honors. Except, you know, when I receive them.

Accordingly, I’m super proud to let you know that I’ve been named a Mid-South Super Lawyer for Creditor-Debtor Rights, Business Litigation, Banking, and Real Estate.

According to Super Lawyers, Mid-South Super Lawyers are selected through a multi-phased process, which includes independent research, peer nominations and peer evaluations. The list is produced by Super Lawyers, a national rating service that includes more than 70 practice areas.

They also name “Rising Stars,” which is an honor for younger attorneys who have the best years of their career ahead of them.

Honestly, while it’s great to receive any honor, I sort of which I still qualified for the young lawyer awards. Oh well. Up, up and away to the Courthouse.

 

Small Interpleader Actions are Allowed in General Sessions Court

A few years ago, I said that Interpleader lawsuits are the only times people like to hear from me. My lawyer marketing materials, literally, say “It’s bad news if you’re hearing from David Anthony.”

In that blog post, I talked about why interpleader lawsuits are good news. Well, sort of good news. I mean, it’s still a lawsuit and still a hassle to deal with.

Here’s a little bit better news. There’s a statute that allows a party to file an interpleader lawsuit in General Sessions Court, which means that the parties will: (a) get the money quicker; and (b) with less legal fees.

The statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-731(a), provides in part that:

Notwithstanding any rule of court or any law to the contrary, actions in the nature of interpleader, in which the value of the money that is the subject of the action does not exceed the jurisdictional limit of the general sessions court, may be filed in general sessions court under this part. …

So, if the amount is less than $25,000, and the matter is filed in General Sessions Court, you should be really happy to hear from me.