Bankers: Tennessee Court of Appeals issues opinion on safe practices on handling bank levies.

A few weeks ago, I went to Chancery Court on a conditional judgment motion and part of my presentation to the Judge was to acknowledge how rare it is to be in court on conditional judgment proceedings.

Under Tennessee law, a creditor can get a “conditional judgment” against a non-debtor garnishee (usually an employer or a bank) when the creditor issues a garnishment and the garnishee fails to respond. This conditional judgment is then made a final judgment if the garnishee never responds.

As you can imagine, asking that a bank or an employer be made 100% liable for a debtor’s judgment (regardless of whether the debtor actually works or banks there) tends to get the garnishee’s attention, thus eliminating the need for a hearing. In practice, most banks instantly respond to a conditional judgment.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screenshot-2021-07-13-061918.png

A few weeks ago, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued an opinion detailing a conditional judgment fight between a judgment creditor and a garnishee bank over an allegedly inaccurate response, at Tullahoma Industries, LLC v. Navajo Air, LLC (No. M2019-02036-COA-R3-CV)(Tenn. Crt. Apps., June 29, 2021).

In that case, US Bank was served with a garnishment and immediately froze all accounts that might be relevant, including accounts in the name of a non-debtor entity, but that was clearly related (same principals, same address) to the debtor and with a very similar name. While the accounts were frozen, the third party’s lawyer sent a demand that the funds be released, pointing out the different entities’ names and different EINs.

After verifying that the debtor and the account holder entity had different tax identification numbers, US Bank released the funds back into the account and answered “no accounts.” In response, the judgment creditor challenged US Bank’s response by filing a Motion to Show Cause (i.e. asking for a conditional judgment for failure to provide an accurate/correct response). The trial court agreed with US Bank, and the Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.

A recap of the analysis:

  • A judgment creditor’s remedy in response to an inaccurate garnishment response will be to examine the garnishee under Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-204.
  • There is some suggestion that moving directly into a “Show Cause” / conditional judgment proceeding is procedurally improper.
  • Instead, the creditor starts with an examination (i.e. discovery) to vet the garnishee’s answer, with the purpose to determine whether the garnishee actually holds (or held) money or property of the judgment debtor.
  • The judgment creditor has the burden of proof that the garnishee holds the debtor’s property.
  • As to bank accounts, a court will not go beyond an analysis of account ownership (i.e. the account name, the tax identification number of the owner). The Bank does not need to inquire into the source of the funds or equitable ownership claims.
  • Even though the Court questioned the procedural path, it appears that the conditional judgment process is appropriate, but only after the examination takes place.

I note that this opinion was authored by Judge Neal McBrayer, a former debtor/creditor lawyer, who does a great job on commercial and real property cases.

This case provides important guidance to all parties. To creditors, it shows the value in naming the correct party-defendant, as well as any related entities, in your original proceeding.

To banks, it provides a great outline in how to process bank levies, including what to do when it’s not entirely clear that the judgment debtor is your account customer. That’s why I get all those calls asking for social security or tax id numbers, dates of birth, and other information like that. Smart banks avoid conditional judgments.

Don’t Forget This Blog Post (I did): A local court can order an out of county Sheriff to conduct a sheriff’s sale of real property.

I need to pay more attention to this blog. (And not just posting to it.)

A few weeks ago, I had a pretty deep legal discussion with a lawyer for a nearby county on a complex creditor rights question. And, after a few days of comparing research, she sent me a link to my own blog post on the exact same topic.

The bad news is that I spent many hours re-researching the issue. The good news is that I came to the same conclusion.

The issue was whether a Chancery Court in County A can issue an order and a levy to the Sheriff in County B to sell real property located in County B. And this wasn’t just a theoretical discussion–this was my own levy seeking to collect on a judgment.

The issue doesn’t come up much, and my concern was a lingering recollection that, in fact, some actions related to real property *are* limited to the county where the real property is located. That’s the “local action rule,” which requires those actions with a direct and undeniable connection to the land to be brought in that county (examples: title dispute / quiet title actions; detainer actions affecting possession of land; actions seeking money damages for trespass or injury to land). The way that Tennessee cases apply it, however, the local action rule speaks more to a “cause of action” that relates to the specific land at issue, not a general execution against the land.

In the end, here’s why Sheriff B can do it: 

(1)          Execution Sales of Realty are governed by Rule 69.07 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-5-101, and neither contains any county limitations.  My review of Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-1-101 (and all around those statutes) did not reveal any limitation of the Sheriff’s ability to sell real property. We know that a local sheriff can enforce an out-of-county judgment on all other assets (wages/personal property like cars/bank accounts)—if there were a distinction as to real property, wouldn’t it be in those same statutes?

In fact, not only does Rule 69 not contain any exclusions, but it lumps real property in there with the other categories. For instance, in setting what can be levied against, Rule 69.05(1) says that “Property includes a judgment debtor’s realty, personalty, money, wages, corporate stock, choses in action (whether due or not), and court judgments.” (Note that there’s no distinction between the different types of assets.)

For personal property (which we know an out of county Sheriff can do), Rule 69.06 makes no distinction or exception as to the sheriff’s powers (or identification of which county’s sheriff can act).

For real property, Rule 69.07 (the separate rule for “Execution on Realty”) makes no distinction or exception related to which sheriff can take action. Instead, that Rule creates a system by which the creditor “may move” for an order of sale and then, “the sheriff” conducts the sale.

(2)          The Jones v. Helms I wrote about last year remains valid.

In Jones, the creditor held a judgment from Gibson County and filed a Rule 69.07 motion in Gibson County for a sale order, and the Gibson County Court granted the request and ordered the Weakley County Sheriff to sell the land to pay the Sessions judgment.  Rather than recite all the opinion, I’ll just direct you to last year’s post. (And, also, check out: Jones v. Helms, 2020 Tenn. App. LEXIS 517, *8-12, 2020 WL 6806372.)

One of the reasons that I maintain this blog to curate a list of useful opinions for my own practice. Next time, I’ll be sure to check in here first.

Does Post-Judgment Interest change every six months? (Probably not)

I had an “in-person” court appearance yesterday morning, renewing and extending a judgment from 2011. As a creditor, old judgments can be a gold-mine, as home values have soared in Middle Tennessee, and a well placed judgment lien might have some equity.

Plus, it’s sort of nice to take a trip down memory lane, back to when creditors automatically got 10% interest on their judgments.

As long time readers know, in 2013, they revised the post-judgment interest rate statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121, and switched to a variable (and lower) rate, subject to change every six months.

Yesterday, in my proposed Order Renewing Judgment that I handed up to the Judge, I included language that the renewed judgment would accrue interest “as provided in the original judgment, at the then applicable rate of interest under state law.”

The Judge asked me if that meant that interest was 10% over all of this time (and into the future) or, instead, was it a variable rate, changing each time the rate changes.

Well, Judge, that’s a legal question that drives hundreds of visitors to my creditor rights law blog every year.

The Judge asked me if I had a case or other authority to show whether or not the rate fluctuates. I hadn’t researched it (because it wasn’t really an issue on this unopposed Motion), so the Judge simply crossed out “then existing rate” and wrote in “applicable rate,” which punted the issue down the road.

But, we sort of have an answer, thanks to a local lawyer’s comment on this blog post from early last year:

From the TNCourts.gov website: “Beginning July 1, 2012, any judgment entered will have the interest set at two percent below the formula rate published by the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions as set in Public Chapter 1043. The rate does not fluctuate and remains in effect when judgment is entered.”

And, no, that’s not a case or a statutory cite. It’s just an introductory paragraph on the Administrative Office of the Courts website. But, it’s something. And, it’s as good as we’ve got for right now. “The rate does not fluctuate and remains in effect when judgment is entered.”

As a practical matter, the best practice would be to always use a specific interest rate in any judgments. Instead of saying post-judgment interest “as provided under Tennessee law” or at the “applicable post-judgment interest rate,” always just say the a specific rate, whether it’s 5.25% or 7.45%. This text would create a presumption of a specific, certain rate of interest going forward.

As more of these Great Recession era judgments come up for renewal and lenders are dusting off these pre-2013 judgments for execution against houses and defendants with drastically changed circumstances, I’m betting that, very soon, this is going to be an issue that a creditor is going to need briefed.

Tennessee is set to increase homestead exemption in 2021

The Tennessee Legislature is, again, considering debtor-friendly changes to the homestead exemption statute.

The one most likely to pass is House Bill 1185, which seeks to increase Tennessee’s homestead exemption from the existing $5,000 to $35,000 for single homeowners and from $7,500 to $52,500 for jointly owned property.

Before you complain too much about that proposal, consider Senate Bill 566, which provides an unlimited exemption for a judgment debtor’s residential real property (and, after the debtor’s death, it passes to the heirs).

Similar proposals were made in 2019, in 2020, and also in 2012 (and a number of times in between). So far, all such efforts have failed, but I believe this is the year that the Tennessee homestead exemption is increased.

Back in 2019, I talked about the importance of exemptions for debtors, since exemptions can preserve and protect a basic necessity level of assets for debtors (picture the clothes on their back, a few thousand dollars in the bank, a car, tools).

As I wrote in 2019, though, “if this new law passes, the downfallen debtor can keep 100% of the equity in his $750,000 house entirely out of the reach of creditors.” I then said:

Wait a second. Is this law designed to protect downtrodden debtors seeking a fresh start in life (who very probably do not have high value real property at all) or, maybe, is it designed to protect high income individuals whose businesses fail?

Because that’s all this proposed law does. It grants fairly absolute protection to the high value real property owned by judgment debtors in Tennessee, and all the garnishments, levies, liens, and bankruptcies will never touch a penny of that equity.

I feel the same way about these new proposals. If we’re talking about protecting the working poor and preserving the necessities of life from garnishment, let’s start somewhere other than $750k of equity in a mansion. Let’s talk about debt relief measures, eviction support, access to justice, etc.

But, these new laws aren’t about basic necessities of life for poor people. Most poor people don’t live in lien-free mansions. Instead, these new measures are being lobbied for by the construction industry.

These are bad proposals. Unless you’re a debtors with big, lien-free McMansion. Then, sure, it’s a great new law.

Bankers: Are your Judgments expiring?

Tennessee judgments expire after ten years.

All those judgments you took during the Great Recession are coming up for renewal. If you don’t affirmatively ask the court for an extension, they just go away.

And, all those builders, contractors, investors, and so many others who were broke in 2010/2011 but who turned things around when Nashville real estate, business, and construction boomed in 2015 (and beyond)?

They’ve been waiting. Hoping that you’d forget about them. Hoping that you’d do nothing to renew your judgment.

Part of what makes this Creditors Rights blog so popular is that I keep it an objective discussion of the law. You don’t see me use it to solicit business. (Well, overtly.)

But, for today, I’ll say this: If you have a box of judgments that you haven’t touched for years…Call or e-mail me immediately. There may still be time.

I’m seeing it happen every day. Big judgments are expiring, and debtors are ridding themselves of millions dollars’ worth of judgment liens.

Once upon a time, the creditor probably got frustrated by the dead-ends (or maybe the expensive lawyers spinning their wheels while billing by the hour). Those old files got put in a file cabinet. Maybe the banker switched banks. Maybe the bank got sold.

But, if you don’t dust off those old files, you are probably leaving money on the table. If you haven’t looked at those old files lately, it may be too late.

There’s no stay in judgment appeals (unless you ask for one)

There’s a bit of confusion about appellate bonds, particularly when it comes to money judgments from a court of record.

“Is what I’ve filed good enough to protect my client from an immediate garnishment?” That’s not a legal question that any attorney wants to learn after a client’s bank account gets hit.

In every appeal, the Appellate Court Clerk’s office charges certain filing fees for the Notice of Appeal. At the same time, the appellant must file an Appeal Bond for Costs, which is a bond (generally signed by the attorney) to cover the court costs in the appeal (generally, a nominal amount).

Judgment enforcement is automatically stayed for thirty days after entry pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 62.01. But, here’s the key: The filing of an appeal and posting that initial “cost bond” do not automatically stay enforcement of a creditor’s rights under a judgment.

You’ve got a valid appeal, but you don’t have any stay on enforcement.

In order to obtain a stay of collections after the appeal is filed, the appellant must file a motion with the trial court. Ultimately, this is done by filing a “stay bond,” but, until the trial court grants such a motion and approves the amount of the bond, there is no stay of judgment enforcement. See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 62.04. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 62.05 requires that the bond be in an amount sufficient to pay “the judgment in full, interest, damages for delay, and costs on appeal.”

In short, just filing an appeal and posting a cost bond does not stay the enforcement of a judgment. Bank levies, wage garnishments, all of that can still happen.

And, if you’re a litigant or attorney who doesn’t understand this issue, then there’s a good chance that you’re in for an unpleasant surprise during your appeal. Don’t be that lawyer.



Judgment Creditors can cross county lines in execution sales of real property, says TN Court of Appeals

Yesterday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals answered another longstanding creditor question: Whether a Court can order an execution sale on a debtor’s real property in a different county.

I get asked that all the time, and I’ve generally said you can. Now, I can cite the new opinion from the Court of Appeals in Ronald L. Jones v. Louise Helms, No. W2019-00864-COA-R3-CV, 2020 WL 6806372 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 19, 2020).

The legal issue is whether the first county court has “subject matter jurisdiction” to order the sale of real property in another county. The Court looked first to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69.07, which gives the judgment creditor a lien (per Rule 69.07(2) and provides that a creditor “may move for an order of sale. (per Rule 69.07(3)).” But, Rule 69.07 doesn’t provide any guidance on the process, procedure, or venue.

So, the question remains: In which county does the creditor make this request?

The Court wrote:

Rule 69.07(3) does not mandate which court or county a judgment creditor must file the motion in for the order of sale. Furthermore, circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction, meaning that they have broad, rather than limited jurisdiction. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-10-101 (“The circuit court is a court of general jurisdiction, and the judge of the circuit court shall administer right and justice according to law, in all cases where the jurisdiction is not conferred upon another tribunal.”). Therefore, it would appear that under the terms of the rule and the broad nature of the jurisdiction conferred upon circuit courts, Appellee was entitled to move for the order of sale in the circuit court for Gibson County. Indeed, it appears to be an accepted practice to file Rule 69.07 motions in circuit courts…. Moreover, Tennessee law generally provides that, with regard to sale of land for the payment of debts by decedents, courts of record “may decree a sale of lands lying in any part of the state.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-1-107.

The opinion makes fairly short order of this long-standing legal issue, and the certainty and procedure is good for creditors.

In the past, after my review of the chancery court statutes, I’d often wondered whether a court had jurisdiction to order and approve a sale of real property in a different county. I still have some lingering doubts whether a better challenge and legal argument in response could cast some doubt on this issue, particularly under the chancery jurisdiction statutes.

But, until then, save this opinion. It may save you having to file a Petition for Sheriff’s Sale in a different county to enforce your judgment.

Davidson County General Sessions Caps Dockets at 25 Cases: This is a Big Problem

Last week, the Davidson County General Sessions Court entered an Administrative Order that limited the number of cases that can be set on the civil dockets in Courtrooms 1A & 1B, with a cap of 25 cases per day (effective October 5, 2020).

That sounds like a lot of cases. It is not.

A typical General Sessions civil docket might have 50 to 100 cases on the docket. Davidson County has civil dockets every day of the week.

By my math, this represents a minimum 75% cut in capacity.

Granted, when I first heard about the 25 case limit, it didn’t sound like too much of a problem, since I don’t have a high volume consumer or residential eviction practice. The high volume lawyers who routinely have 25 of their own cases on each docket would be the ones with the problem, right?

Then, I got a call from a commercial landlord whose tenant hasn’t paid rent since March and has “gone dark.” The landlord asked me to get a judgment for possession as soon as possible.

Spoiler-alert: The 25 case limit is a problem.

Continue reading “Davidson County General Sessions Caps Dockets at 25 Cases: This is a Big Problem”

New Associates: These recent Tennessee Appellate Opinions can save you some research time.

Over the past few weeks, the Tennessee appellate courts have issued some really useful opinions on creditor-specific issues of law.

As you’ll remember from this post (from 2013!), these opinions have great recaps of the law and can save valuable research time. I’ve literally been sitting at counsel table, furiously researching this site for a citation (this one, about slow pay motions. And also this one about Rule 69.02.)

Some quick hits from the past week:

Statute of Limitations; when a breach of contract cause of action accrues; and the standard of review for a 12.02(6) motion. This case from yesterday, In re Estate of Donald Cowan, No. M2019-01597-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 25, 2020) has a great statement of the law on statutes of limitation, when the clock starts ticking on a claim, and a good recap of the standards in granting a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6).

It’s a well written opinion, and a litigant with those issues can literally cut and paste those sections into a brief.

Motions to Intervene under Tenn. Riv. Civ. P. 24. Regions Bank v. The Blumberg Trust, et. al., No. E202000051COAR3CV, 2020 WL 4919783 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 21, 2020). This opinion, issued on Friday, has a great summary of the statutes and case law on Intervention as of Right and Permissive Intervention in Tennessee under Rule 24.

In that case, the party seeking to intervene was an assignee of the debt and was really only trying to substitute itself as a party, so it’s strange that intervention was even an issue.

In an even stranger twist, the prevailing party (appellee) most definitely submitted the Order Denying the Motion, and the submitted (and entered) trial court order was entirely devoid of factual or legal analysis. As a result, the Court of Appeals refused to rule on the issues on appeal and remanded the case for further proceedings.

My question is this: It was clearly a deficient bare-bones trial court order, but doesn’t the appellant share the responsibility of curating the record? Shouldn’t the appellant have submitted a competing order that had enough substantive details to properly present the issue on appeal?

Just a strange case.

Prejudgment Interest under Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-123. The Court of Appeals revisited the case of 101 Constr. Co. v. Hammet, No. M201801321COAR3CV, 2019 WL 5606610, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2019), appeal denied (Mar. 26, 2020), and I can’t tell exactly why, but I appreciated the reminder about this case’s very detailed lesson about the importance of detailed communication in legal fee arrangements.

Also, it has a nearly “cut and paste” perfect discussion of the standards in Tennessee for awarding prejudgment interest under Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-123.

Spoiler: Tennessee Courts should always be awarding pre-judgment interest.

Elements to Determine Value of Damages under Quantum Meruit Claims (and who can testify). This is an issue that doesn’t show up in appellate cases often: what type of proof is required to establish the amount of damages in a quantum meruit claim.

The Court of Appeals provided a really good road map last Tuesday, in Blount Mem’l Hosp. v. Glasgow, No. E201900776COAR3CV, 2020 WL 4809951, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2020).

The Plaintiff had an awful contract, so it had to rely on unjust enrichment/quantum meruit to recover the value of the hospital services provided to the Defendant. The Plaintiff presented proof from the “hospital’s financial representative” (not a doctor or service provider) that “she was familiar with the customary charges in the medical industry and that the hospital’s charges for the services were reasonable and customary.”

This knowledge wasn’t gleaned from a survey of the industry or by first hand knowledge of what other hospitals were charging; instead, it was based solely on what Medicare allowed hospitals to pay. (As an added note, though, the Court mentioned that the mere fact that “this is what the hospital usually charges” isn’t good enough proof.)

But, because the proof presented, i.e. that the “medical services were comparable to all hospitals in the area that accepted Medicare patients…,” was presented by a “hospital representative who is familiar with what is reasonable and customary,” the Court found that it was “sufficient to make [a] prima facie case for the reasonable value of the services rendered.” Id. at *3.

Keep this case for those situations where your witness is the controller / bookkeeper, but has no idea how to perform the underlying services. This comes up alot.

Last One: Setting Aside a Judgment Under Rule 60.03. Reese v. Amari, No. M201900329COAR3CV, 2020 WL 4342734 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 28, 2020).

This one is really interesting. A judgment debtor attacked a decades old judgment, arguing that it was a default judgment.

In denying the attack, the Court noted that, even though it was called a “default” judgment, the trial court actually entered the judgment at a trial, which the defendant didn’t attend. So, it wasn’t technically a default judgment, as that is defined under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 55, and wasn’t entitled to the more generous standards to set aside default judgments.

Separately, though, Judge Dinkins’ opinion has a very precise presentation of when a court will set aside a final judgment under Rule 60.02(3).

And, new associates, this comes up far more than you’d imagine.

Tennessee Court of Appeals issues opinion that resolves another obscure issue under Foreign Judgment Act.

Last year, I wrote a post called Judgment Creditors are Limited to the terms of their Foreign Judgments, which cited a Tennessee Court of Appeals case styled The Wolf Organization, Inc. v. TNG Contractors, LLC.

The point of that opinion was that a judgment creditor seeking to domesticate a foreign judgment under the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 26-6-101 to-108) would be limited to the actual amount of the foreign judgment. In Wolf, the issue was that the creditor was asking for the judgment amount plus more post-judgment attorney fees to be allowed. The Wolf Court said that the claim for additional attorney’s fees was a separate claim.

I appreciated this case, since it provided resolution of an obscure, but common, issue under the Tennessee Foreign Judgment Act.

Well, a little more than a year later, the Wolf litigants are back at it, with another interesting issue. The latest is Friday’s opinion, The Wolf Organization, Inc. v. TNG Contractors, LLC, M202000093COAR3CV (Tenn. App. Aug. 21, 2020).

The new issue? If the foreign judgment provides for a specific post-judgment rate of interest, but the Order enrolling the foreign judgment doesn’t mention interest, what happens?

The Court makes two useful observations:

  1. Regardless of whether the new Order says anything about post-judgment interest, all judgments are automatically entitled to post-judgment interest.
  2. But, in the absence of a specific statement or order about the amount of post-judgment interest in the enrollment Order, the rate of interest is just the Tennessee statutory rate, found at Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121.

My take-aways from this opinion:

  1. Details matter. If you think you will need it in the future, include it in the text of the Order. An order from a court will always be the most important pleading you’ll draft, and a smart lawyer will think about all the things she will need from this order and work backwards.
  2. Are Orders always required? Under the Foreign Judgment statute, an order is not expressly required. Instead, under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 3A.04, the Clerk simply “enrolls” the original judgment after 30 days after service.

Sure, the Wolf creditor could have avoided all of this with a more detailed Order; could they have avoided all this by not filing any order? Maybe.

Also, following the first Wolf opinion, the creditor needed to go back to the other state to get an award of attorneys fees. Couldn’t the creditor also get a judgment for post-petition interest at the higher rate and then come back to Tennessee?

Either way, it’s an interesting case on a rarely litigated statutory scheme.