Tennessee Detainer Actions: Not Just for Tenants and Landlords

What if you own real property, but someone else has possession of the property, and you want them gone? You evict them. But, as you’ll see under Tennessee statutes, they don’t call it an “eviction” lawsuit; they call it a “detainer” lawsuit.

The statute in Tennessee is Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-104, titled “Unlawful Detainer.” That statute provides:

Unlawful detainer is where the defendant enters by contract, either as tenant or as assignee of a tenant, or as personal representative of a tenant, or as subtenant, or by collusion with a tenant, and, in either case, willfully and without force, holds over the possession from the landlord, or the assignee of the remainder or reversion.”

These detainer actions are generally brought in general sessions court, where, as I’ve noted before, you can exceed the $25,000 jurisdictional limit. Also, even though general sessions appeals are very easy on most matters, they are complicated and expensive in general sessions court.

So, if you’re a landlord, you’re probably reading that statute and thinking it’s exactly what you need, right? But, what about if you’ve purchased the property, either by a typical sale or a foreclosure? In that case, you’re not a landlord, and the defendant isn’t entering by contract (i.e. lease). Does a different statute apply?

No, said the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Federal National Mortgage Association v. Danny O. Daniels, W2015-00999-COA-R3-CV (Dec. 21, 2015).  There, the Court noted that the Deed of Trust will create “a landlord/tenant relationship … between the foreclosure sale purchaser and the mortgagor in possession of the property,” and, as a result, “constructive possession is conferred on the foreclosure sale purchaser upon the passing of title; that constructive possession provides the basis for maintaining the unlawful detainer.”

In such a case, a plaintiff must prove: (1) its constructive possession of the property (i.e. ownership of the property); and (2) its loss of possession by the other party’s act of unlawful detainer.

In short, the detainer statutes in Tennessee aren’t well crafted. Sometimes they reference landlords and tenants; sometimes they don’t. Courts have a tendency to construe statutes as written and to assume that the legislature means what it says when it uses specific words. That’s bad news for the foreclosure sale purchaser, who isn’t a landlord and who isn’t dealing with a tenant.

Here, however, it’s clear that the legislature should have proofread the statutes a few more times. Fortunately, Tennessee courts have applied the statutes in a broader sense.

 

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