Court of Appeals Issues Friendly Ruling in Lawyer Malpractice Matters

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently tackled an interesting issue of when a client “discovers” a lawyer’s malpractice.

The opinion is Mark Thomas v. Richard Myers, No. W2016-02581-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. Apps., Oct. 19, 2017).

The most interesting aspect of the case is that the lawyer’s defense, basically, admitted malpractice:

Q: And you were aware that you had lost, for lack of a better term, big
time, a lot of money.
A: A great deal of money, yes.
Q: And you were aware that the evaluation by Richard Myers was
wrong.
A: Yes.
Q: And you were aware that Richard Myers’ deceptions as to what a
great case this was was wrong.
A: Yes. Yes.
Q: And you were aware that Richard Myers’ negligence and
misrepresenting to you what the law was, what the facts could be
presented as, and your great position in this lawsuit was wrong.
A: Yes.
Q: And you were aware on that day that he was not being truthful about
the odds of winning.
A: Yes.
Q: And you were aware on the day that whatever risk outline he had
given you, be it little, small, or none, was wrong, because the reality
was you’d had a judgment rendered against you, so you knew he had
misled you and deceived you.

A: Yes.

But, as a legal matter, the defense relied on the “discovery rule” to argue that, despite the lawyer “explaining away the loss” and saying that they’d ultimately win on appeal, the client “discovered” that he suffered an injury on the day that the adverse judgment was rendered at the trial court.

So, again, despite continued assurances from the lawyer that they’d win on appeal, the one-year statute of limitations for malpractice actions starts on the day of the adverse judgment. “At that point, the client is aware of the fact of injury.” Yikes.

This is an interesting decision, that clients will hate, but lawyers will love.

 

General Sessions Court is Weird, and Also Awesome

In General Sessions  today, I saw two funny things. One lawyer was walking around with a half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew in his suit jacket. Another lawyer had a can of snuf in his back-pocket as he made an argument to the Judge.

(Disclaimer: I love Mountain Dew, and I’ve praised  the A.A. Birch courthouse and others for keeping it fully stocked.)(Second Disclaimer: I’ve talked about Mountain Dew a lot on twitter.)

What I’m saying is that Davidson County General Sessions Court is a little bit different than the stuffy and formal proceedings in District Court.

That’s why a lot of the larger Nashville law firms don’t file anything in small claims court.  It can be a weird, fly-by-the-seat of your pants exercise in justice. Big firms and “fly-by-your-seat” don’t mix well.

But the following timeline shows how General Sessions Court is awesome:

  • October 18, 2017:   Filed Civil Warrant for $24,999.00.
  • October 19, 2017:  Obtained Personal Service on Defendant.
  • October 26, 2017:  Took a Judgment for $33,500.00 (base amount, but remember this old post–you can exceed that amount with attorney fees, expenses, etc.).

So, to be clear, after the 10 day appeal period expires on Monday, November 6, 2017, I’ll have a final judgment for $33,500.00 and can execute on it–in less than three weeks after filing the lawsuit.

If your creditor lawyers are filing collection lawsuits in Circuit Court or Chancery to collect debts that are less than $25,000.00, you’re paying too much and waiting too long for your Judgments.

Don’t Lose Your Next Default Judgment Hearing: Why Some Judges Ask for an Affidavit

Under Tenn. R. Civ. P 55 (governing “Default”), if a defendant does not answer or defend a lawsuit, then the plaintiff can take a default judgment against the defendant. If they don’t answer, the court grants the motion and enters a judgment. Easy, right?

Yes, but, sometimes, some courts make it more complicated than that.

In some counties, even when the defendant hasn’t responded and doesn’t appear at the hearing, the Judge will: (1) ask if I filed an Affidavit; or (2) set the matter for a “damages hearing,” which can be months in the future and could require a witness to attend.

Having seen this happen, I’ve scoured Rule 55 and the various counties’ Local Rules, but have no idea where this idiosyncrasy comes from. But, over time, I started filing affidavits along with my motion for default in non-Davidson County counties.

But, recently, I saw a Davidson County Chancellor ask about an affidavit as part of an uncontested motion for default. When the plaintiff didn’t have one, the judge set a damages hearing to occur in 90 days.

I never, ever want a non-responding defendant to get an extra 90 judgment-free days, so I now carry around this recent opinion from the Court of Appeals, Judith Husk v. Brandon Thompson, No. M2016-01481-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. Apps. Aug. 10, 2017).

That opinion covers a lot of ground, including bases to set aside a default judgment, but I want to focus on the “damages” analysis. The opinion lays out the law as follows:

Generally, the rule in Tennessee ‘is that the defendant, by suffering a default judgment to be entered against him, impliedly confesses all of the material allegations of fact contained in his complaint, except the amount of the plaintiff’s unliquidated damages.’ …Thus, a default judgment establishes the non-defaulting party’s right to maintain the action and recover some damages, but the amount of damages remains an open question to be determined by proof. … If the amount of the plaintiff’s damages is liquidated, however, a trial court may immediately enter a final judgment without a determination by proof.

(Citations Omitted/emphasis added).

So, the issue comes down to whether the claim is for “liquidated” or “unliquidated” damages.

The Court noted that unliquidated damages are uncertain and the type that require a “determination by proof” and are “damages that cannot be determined by a fixed formula…”

“Liquidated damages” are the type that are for “a set amount of money, or a or a certain formula, expressly stipulated in a contract as the amount of damages to be paid by a party that breaches the agreement. Liquidated damages can also be defined as the amount which has been ascertained by judgment or by specific agreement of the parties or which are susceptible of being made certain by mathematical calculation from known factors…”

Long story short, a lawsuit alleging breach of contract for amounts due under a promissory note plus interest using the “math” laid out in the note? Liquidated.

A lawsuit alleging damages “in an amount to be determined at trial” as a result of an auto accident? Unliquidated.

In the Davidson County matter I saw, the Chancellor expressly referenced the Husk opinion, even though the Court was faced with a breach of contract action with liquidated damages.

Having seen that happen, then, I think it’s a good practice to always include an affidavit in support of your motions for default, just so there’s no question. Plus, it’s probably good to get the facts supporting the existence of the contract, the damages, and showing the “math” into the record.

 

Collections in Probate: Some Pointers

Earlier this month, I taught a CLE seminar for the Probate & Estate Planning Section of the Memphis Bar Association.  The seminar was called “Collection After Death: Common Roadblocks and Strategies in Collection Before, After, and During Probate.”

As you probably know, Probate Law isn’t my focus, so I spent a good amount of time brushing up in preparation for this presentation in Memphis.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some of the info I learned.

Here’s a starter: Did you know that there’s an absolute bar to filing claims against a deceased person 12 months after the date of their death? Look at Tenn. Code Ann. § 30-2-310.

So, notwithstanding the Notice to Creditor requirements of Tenn. Code Ann. § 30-2-306 and the associated deadlines imposed under the Code, this absolute 12 month statute of limitation still applies and can bar a creditor’s claim, even if the the creditor didn’t know the debtor was dead and even if the creditor didn’t receive any sort of notice of death or notice to file claims.

In fact, as a result of this strict 12 month statute of limitations on the filing of claims, if the probate case isn’t actually filed in that 12 month period, the creditor is simply out of luck. To be clear, as an example, if the probate case isn’t filed until 13 months after the date of death, there is no reason to issue a notice to creditors, as all of the creditors’ claims are barred.

The law says that the remedy for a creditor dealing with a deceased borrower is to commence their own probate case for the borrower during that 12 month period and, in that case, file a claim. Yikes. Who knew probate law was so tricky?

 

Auto Masters files Large Bankruptcy Case in Middle District

Bankruptcy filings are down in the Middle District of Tennessee Bankruptcy Courts. In the busy years, this district could expect anywhere from 13,000 to 15,000 cases to be filed annually under Chapter 7, 11, and 13. So far for 2017, only 7,000 cases have been filed. It’s a slow time for Bankruptcy, both because the economy in middle Tennessee continues to hum along strong–and because most people who were going to file Bankruptcy did over the last 4-5 years.

Our case filings got a big boost last night, as local car dealer and financier, Auto Masters, LLC,  filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, along with 7 of their related entities.  This includes: Auto Masters of Franklin, LLC; Auto Masters of Clarksville, LLC; Auto Masters of Hermitage, LLC; Auto Masters of Madison, LLC; Auto Masters of Nashville, LLC; Auto Masters of Smyrna, LLC; and Auto Masters of West Nashville, LLC.

This is one of the largest debtor cases filed this year, and it’s no surprise to see the debtor is represented by Griffin Dunham, of Dunham Hildebrand, PLLC, one of Nashville’s more sophisticated (and litigious) debtor/creditor attorneys.

These filings closely follow the filing of a receivership lawsuit filed on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, by Capital One, NA, alleging default and requesting court review of Auto Masters’ business operations.

Expect a flurry of activity on these cases, since this case involves so many financial lenders, creditors, and impacted customers. This will be a big one.

 

 

Davidson County Circuit Court Judges Enter Order to Review Writs of Restitution in Detainer Appeals

I posted a few years ago that a losing defendant in a detainer action isn’t required to post the “possessory” bond provided at Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-130(b)(2) in order to have a valid appeal.

While courts were split for years on this issue, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s December 2013 decision in Johnson v. Hopkins answered this question for good.  In short, the defendant who fails to post the possessory bond still has a valid appeal, but the defendant has no protection from a Writ of Restitution while the appeal is pending.

In Davidson County Circuit Court, if a general sessions detainer judgment was appealed without that bond, the Court Clerk’s website actually had a form that would allow the landlord to immediately issue a Writ, no matter if the appeal was still under consideration.

And, as you might suspect, that’s a big deal, since what’s the point of fighting the landlord’s eviction if you’re not going to stay in the premises? My guess is that it wasn’t a matter of strategy, but, instead, an issue of ignorance by the litigants about how detainer appeals work.

I also know, from my experience, that it’s a quite a surprise when an appealing defendant discovers this mistake…which used to happen when the Sheriff showed up to execute on the Writ with movers in tow.

Potentially in response to this, the Judges of the Circuit Court recently entered an Order entered on February 24, 2017 that, for any Writ of Restitution filed with the Clerk while an appeal is pending, the Clerk must set a review hearing on the Writ before issuance of the Writ.

This is an interesting practice, that’s not based on the statutes or rules of procedure. I’d bet it’s based on the Judges getting sick of dealing with the frantic motions to quash filed after the Sheriff shows up at somebody’s door. All in all, it’s a good, practical procedure.