For the first time in nearly a decade, the post-judgment interest rate has decreased

It has been nearly 8 years since Tennessee changed the post-judgment interest rate by amending Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121.

For years, the rate was set in stone–at 10%–and the new statute created a variable interest rate tied to the formula rate published by the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions.

After starting at a very judgment-debtor friendly 5.25%, the rate has steadily increased over the past few years. Last year, it hit a new high of 7.5%.

But, effective January 1, 2020, the rate is heading in the opposite direction: The rate dropped to 6.75%.

Honestly, I don’t even care about the 0.75% drop. What drives me crazy is the constant changes in the post-judgment interest rate. It’s made calculating post-interest nearly impossible, since you have to constantly adjust the per diem.

In this robust Tennessee economy, I get weekly phone calls from closing companies, who discover one of my old judgments (and related judgment lien). And, yes, computing payoffs on old judgments is a wonderful task that I gleefully undertake, but it really used to be a lot simpler (and, also, this was one of my earliest reactions to the new statute).

I love collecting money for clients, but, holy smokes, I don’t always love math.

A Service of Process challenge may not overcome your Judgment

Service of process is a hot issue in Tennessee law. The reason is obvious: Without proper service of process, any subsequent action taken in a case is void.

Part of the reason service issues are coming up so frequently lately is the comparison between the 2009 economy and the 2019 economy. Judgment debtors have more money (and reason) to fight now, including more money to fight old judgments.

A new appellate decision considered a service of process last week, in Warren Brothers Sash & Door Company v. Santoro Custom Builders, Inc., et. al., M2019-00374-COA-R3-CV, 2020 WL 91635 (Tenn. App. Jan. 8, 2020), where an individual defendant opposed a judgment creditor’s efforts to renew a judgment rendered in 2008 by contesting service of process.

Looking at the returned Summonses, the individual had a pretty good argument, since both the corporate and individual defendants were served at the business address, when the Sheriff served both Summonses at the corporate address, by serving the person at the front desk.

Under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.04, an individual defendant shall be served “personally” or, if she evades, by leaving the copies at her “dwelling house or usual place of abode with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing there…”

Long story short, the Sheriff didn’t serve Santoro personally and the business address wasn’t his house, and, as a result, Santoro had a really good argument on paper.

But, Plaintiff had some really good lawyers. Instead of stopping their work on the face of the Summons, they really dug in on who accepted service. They deposed the person, and they also found at other lawsuits where this person was authorized to accept service for the individual. And, they took care to get all this information properly introduced into the record.

With all this background proof in the record, the trial court found that the agent had implied authority to accept service. In affirming, the Court of Appeals wrote:

An individual may appoint an agent for the purpose of receiving service of process, giving that agent either actual or implied authority. Implied authority “embraces all powers which are necessary to carry into effect the granted power, in order to make effectual the purposes of the agency.” Implied authority can be “circumstantially established through conduct or a course of dealing between the principal and agent.’ ”  However, the existence of implied authority is determined by the “ ‘act or acquiescence of the principal,’ ” rather than the actions of the agent.” With respect to service of process, “the record must contain ‘evidence that the defendant intended to confer upon [the] agent the specific authority to receive and accept service of process for the defendant.’ ” 

Id. at * 5 (internal citations omitted).

In the end, Plaintiff’s counsel’s thorough analysis of the facts and getting those facts into the record carried the day.

It’s telling that this opinion was written by a fairly new appellate judge, Judge Carma McGee, who spent years as a trial judge. This is a smart, well-reasoned opinion, and all credit goes to the trial counsel, who gave the Judge the proper facts.

Judgment Renewal is Easy; Calendaring the Deadline can be Hard

Nearly ten years ago, I preached about the virtues of patience and perseverance in collection of judgments. Specifically, I discussed Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-110, which says that judgments are good for ten years. For judgment creditors, a lot can change for your judgment debtors in ten years.

I constantly tell my clients that. For example, that Nashville property contractor who was dead broke in 2010 could be on top of the world in 2018 Nashville. Just be patient.

But, don’t be too patient. As you approach the ten year mark, remember that judgments can be renewed for another ten years, using a pretty easy, straight-forward process under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69.04.

Under new(-ish) Rule 69.04, this can be done via Motion, but the Motion itself must be filed prior to the expiration of the judgment. So, Tennessee creditor rights attorneys, the burden is on you to make sure you’re making a list and checking it twice, looking for judgments that are nine years old, right?

Creditors: Make a Judgment List and check it. Twice, if necessary.

What happens if your law firm gets the judgment for a client but fails to renew the judgment?

Like many issues, it depends, but a brand new opinion from the Tennessee Court of Appeals discusses this issue. The case is Linda Rozen v. Wolff Ardis, P.C., W201900396COAR3CV, 2019 WL 6876769 (Tenn. App. Dec. 17, 2019).

In that case, the law firm obtained a judgment, generally discussed the 10 year requirement with the client, and, years later, no renewal request was made; the clients sued for malpractice.

There’s a lot to unpack in this case, but here’s my quick take-away:

When you get a judgment for a client, tell them that it will expire in ten years. As part of that message, remind them that people change firms, lawyers die, files get closed, files get dormant and sent to storage, things change, but, no matter what happens, if they want you to renew the judgment in ten years, they have to call you and specifically ask you to do it. Your representation does not necessarily include this renewal request, unless you and the client agree it does.

That was a decisive fact here, that the law firm had put the client on notice that specific action was needed to renew this judgment before ten years passed. As that ten year mark approached and passed, the client didn’t raise the issue, either by confirming that the firm did it or, alternatively, suing them for malpractice within one year of the failure to renew it.

So, in a perfect world, we calendar up all our judgments for renewal and we discuss the action with our clients in advance and mutually agree on an engagement for a renewal.

But, in reality, a lot of things can change in ten years. A good practice is to make sure that the client understands that it has a responsibility in ten years to notify you that it wants you to take this action.

New Tennessee Law Allows Judgments from Foreign Countries to be Enforced in State

A few years ago, I asked the question “How ‘Foreign’ can a foreign judgment be and still be entitled to domestication?

In that post, I considered whether a a truly foreign judgment, i.e. one entered by a different country, could be domesticated and enforced in a state court, whether under state law (i.e. the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgment Act) or under federal law. In the end, I thought it would, citing the Uniform Foreign Money-Judgments Recognition Act, a federal statute that can be found at 13 U.L.A. 261.

To my surprise, I just discovered that the Tennessee Legislature passed a brand new set of statutes on this issue, effective on July 1, 2019.

Found at Tenn. Code Ann § 26-6-201, et. seq., these statutes are titled the “Uniform Foreign Money-Judgments Recognition Act.” Per Tenn. Code Ann § 26-6-202 and -203, this Act expressly applies to judgment issued in a court of a foreign country that “[g]rants or denies recovery of a sum of money” and is “final, conclusive, and enforceable.” Interestingly, the Act doesn’t apply to a foreign judgment for taxes or fines/penalties.

Nothing beats actually reading the statutes, so I’ll just recap some highlights.

Be sure to read Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-204, which recites the various standards for recognition. Most importantly, check out subpart (b), which provides examples of matters in which a Tennessee court “may not” recognize the foreign judgment (where the court lacks “impartial tribunals or procedures”; no personal jurisdiction; no subject matter jurisdiction). Also, see subpart (c), which provides the examples for when a Tennessee “need not” recognize the foreign judgment (insufficient notice; fraud; repugnant policy; inconvenient forum; conflicting venue provisions).

Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-205(a) provides some examples of where a Tennessee court can pretty easily find personal jurisdiction (i.e. the defendant was actually served in that country; made a voluntary appearance in the proceeding; a car accident in that country).

Pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-204(c), “[a] party resisting recognition of a foreign-country judgment has the burden of establishing that a ground for nonrecognition stated in subsection (b) or (c) exists.”

Some quick thoughts:

  • With all the legislative fights in Tennessee over this past summer, I’m surprised that there was no mention of this new Act;
  • This is a fairly obscure issue, and I’m honestly impressed that Tennessee has such a fair process for recognition of foreign judgments;
  • I think the statutory text of the Act has some language that will be difficult to navigate, including the “may not recognize” and “need not recognize” phrases in Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-204 (b) and (c).
  • If a party digs in on the “need not” criteria, including whether a cause of action is “repugnant to the public policy of this state,” we’re going to be having some really interesting arguments in Davidson County Chancery Court.

In short, I’m glad that Tennessee has adopted a version of the Act and that we have clarity as to whether a judgment from a foreign country will be enforceable and domesticated in Tennessee.

For years, I’ve handled a number of these, generally shoe-horning these judgments into the existing Tennessee Foreign Judgments Act.

Tennessee Supreme Court provides deep analysis on elements of “novation”

The Tennessee Supreme Court issued a new opinion today, which is notable for a few different reasons.

First, it discusses a legal dispute over The Braxton, which was a luxury high-rise condo building in Ashland City, Tennessee, and which is considered by some to be one of the first big development “fails” of Great Recession Nashville.

Second, the case provides a comprehensive analysis of the law on novation.

The case is TWB Architects, Inc. v.  The Braxton, LLC  No. M2017-00423-SC-R11-CV (Tenn., July 22, 2019).

At its most basic, “novation” is when a party substitutes a new obligation for an existing obligation, such that, after the novation, the second obligation is the only legally binding remaining obligation. Continue reading “Tennessee Supreme Court provides deep analysis on elements of “novation””

Judgment Creditors are Limited to the terms of their Foreign Judgments

Last week, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a decision on an action to enforce a default judgment under the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, found at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 26-6-101 to -108.

The case has a few interesting twists and turns, and the full text can be found at The Wolf Organization, Inc. v. TNG Contractors, LLC, M201800073COAR3CV, 2019 WL 2883813 (Tenn. App. July 3, 2019).

Today, I’m looking at only one issue: Whether the Judgment Creditor in a Foreign Judgment Enforcement action can get additional attorney’s fees for its efforts to domesticate the judgment.

Continue reading “Judgment Creditors are Limited to the terms of their Foreign Judgments”

Courts will enforce deeds on their express text and will not reform deeds lightly

A funny thing sometimes happens when I’m really close to taking a judgment against somebody.

At some point after the initial demand letter goes out and usually before I take my judgment, they start transferring all their assets out of their name.

We’ve talked about this before. Tennessee has a 4 year statute of limitations for fraudulent conveyances, and so a creditor has the ability to “undo” these “eve of judgment” transactions.

But, nevertheless, when finances get bad and creditors are knocking at the door, debtors still transfer property out of their names.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently looked at a matter like this in Scott Trent, et. al. v. Mountain Commerce Bank, et. al., E201801874COAR3CV, 2019 WL 2575010 (Tenn. App. June 24, 2019).

In that case, two individuals owned a piece of real property and, in 2010, one of them quitclaimed all interest over to a third-party limited partnership. In 2012, creditors started taking judgments against the individuals and, in 2013, a judgment lien was recorded.

After another sale to some innocent third party buyers, the issue came to light: When only one of the individuals signed the 2010 quitclaim, was all the ownership interest transferred, i.e. did the 2013 judgment lien attach to that remaining interest?

The non-creditor parties argued that the clear intent of the 2010 quitclaim was to transfer all interests to the new owner. They even recorded a Deed of Correction to fix the omission of the other individual’s signature.

The argument was based on the concept of reformation of deeds.

“Reformation is an equitable doctrine by which courts may correct a mistake in a writing ‘so that it fully and accurately reflects the agreement of the parties.’” Lane v. Spriggs, 71 S.W.3d 286, 289 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001).

“A court of chancery in Tennessee has the power to reform and correct errors in deeds produced by fraud or mistake. To be the subject of reformation, a mistake in a deed must have been mutual or there must have been a unilateral mistake coupled with fraud by the other party, such that the deed does not embody the actual intention of the parties.” Wallace v. Chase, No. W1999-01987-COA-R3-CV, 2001 WL 394872, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 17, 2001) (internal citations omitted).

“Still, we have also held that reformation on the basis of mistake is only appropriate where the intent of both parties is clear and is the same.” Hunt v. Twisdale, No. M2006-01870-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 2827051, at *8 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2007). “And, mistake must be shown by “clear, cogent, convincing evidence.” Lane, 71 S.W.3d 289-90 (quoting Dixon v. Manier, 545 S.W.2d 948, 950 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1976)); see also Sikora v. Vanderploeg, 212 S.W.3d 277, 287 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006) (“Because the law strongly favors the validity of written instruments, a person seeking to reform a written contract must do more than prove a mistake by a preponderance of the evidence. Instead, the evidence of mistake must be clear and convincing.”). Sipes v. Sipes, No. W2015-01329-COA-R3-CV, 2017 WL 417222, at *3-4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 31, 2017).

The present opinion turned on the fact that the second owner didn’t sign the 2010 quitclaim. ” Tennessee law allows reformation of a deed when the instrument does not “reflect the true intent of the parties.” Holiday Hosp. Franchising, Inc. v. States Res., Inc., 232 S.W.3d 41, 51 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006). Because only one owner signed the 2010 quitclaim, the text of the deed was clear, and a party not listed or referenced on the deed can’t assert a mistake or be added.

I’d guess that the parties absolutely intended that 100% ownership was to transfer in that 2010 quitclaim, and it’s not as easy as a decision as the Court makes it seem to be. In the end, the Court may have balanced the equities here.