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.

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.

Tennessee law doesn’t require judgment creditors to collect in any particular order. Seriously.

Is a judgment creditor required to exhaust its collection efforts against personal property before executing on real property?

If you asked 100 lawyers over the age of 60 this question, 80 of them would get the answer wrong. And every single one of them would be absolutely positive that they were right.

I’d guess that I have a argument with opposing counsel on this legal issue at least once a month, and it usually ends with them being absolutely certain that I am wrong.

What’s crazy is the answer is simple:

Execution against personalty need not precede execution against realty.

Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69.02

So, there you have it.

If you’re wondering, however, whether you should ever start the collection process with efforts to sell real property…well, that’s another blog post entirely.

Time is On Your Side: 4 Tips for Collections in a Sinking Economy

Things are looking bad for the economy, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight. As we enter Month Two of the COVID pandemic, banks and others creditors are bracing themselves for a very long winter.

I’m telling my creditor clients to be patient. While this good news doesn’t put money into hands today, here are some things I said the last time around, i.e. in 2010, that any creditor should bear in mind while we wait to see what the economy does.

There’s time to be patient.  In Tennessee, the statute of limitations for collection on an unpaid debt is six (6) years, pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-109. Then, once you sue and obtain a judgment (within six years from the date of the default), your judgment is valid for ten years, pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-110.  Plus, if your judgment remains unpaid at the end of the ten years, Tennessee judgments can be renewed pursuant to § 28-3-110 for another ten year period.

Don’t wait to act.  In some instances, it may make sense to take no action on unpaid debt. Maybe the customer is a company that has gone out of business and has no remaining assets, or maybe they’ve filed a liquidation bankruptcy.  This is where you make the “don’t throw good money after bad” decision and possibly decide to write this debt off.

But, remember, the first creditor to obtain a judgment is the first in line to seize assets. Granted, you could be the first in line and discover there are no assets, but you should nevertheless record your judgment as lien in the real property records. For less than $25 in filing fees, a creditor can record a certified copy of its judgment in any and all Tennessee counties where the debtor owns real property, and that judgment becomes a lien on any real property owned by the debtor.

Even if they don’t have any equity in their property today, the situation could well be different in ten years (judgment liens remain valid as long as the underlying judgment is valid). What’s more, your lien’s reach will capture any real property they obtain during the life of the lien. In the end, sooner or later, your debtor will have to deal with you, whether it be as part of a purchase of new property, a sale, or a refinance.

Bend, don’t break. Sometimes, it’s important to recognize when a debtor truly lacks any assets to pay toward your debt. When this is the case, aggressive collections—whether it be seizing a work truck or all funds out of a bank account—may put that debtor out of business and, possibly, into a bankruptcy filing. A judgment creditor can take depositions and request financials from their debtor, and this information may assist you in determining whether they aren’t paying anybody…or just aren’t paying you.

Bankruptcy doesn’t mean the process is over.  If your debtor does file a bankruptcy case, there’s still a chance of monetary recovery. In addition to the benefits to the debtor, the secondary point of the bankruptcy process is to maximize return for creditors prior to granting the debtor a discharge of his or her debts. But, in most instances, a creditor in bankruptcy only receives pennies on the dollar in the process.

Keep in mind, however, the success rate in Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases (where debtors repay a percentage of their debts over 3 to 5 years) can be as low as 20%, meaning that most of those cases end with a dismissal. A dismissal is good for a creditor, because there is no discharge of the debt. Instead, the full amount remains due and owing. Debts are eliminated only when debtors receive a “discharge.” That’s an important distinction to know.

Finally, remember that a bankruptcy discharge only discharges “debts”—not “lien” rights. So, if you’ve already obtained a judgment and recorded it as a lien, then your lien on the debtor’s property survives the bankruptcy discharge. As a result, even though you can’t collect your debt, you can enforce your lien in the event of an attempted sale or refinance.

In the end, collection is a process that rewards the patient, especially in a struggling economy. But, a successful creditor must be prepared, and being prepared means having a valid judgment in place and exhausting all enforcement remedies before giving up. It may be a long road to recovery, but, if a creditor is smart and strategic now, the steps you take today will help make sure you’re paid in the future.

Davidson County Chancery Court has scheduled an actual trial that will be conducted via Zoom.

Mark your calendars: On April 28, 2020, Chancellor Lyle of the Davidson County Chancery Courts has scheduled a trial to be conducted via Zoom! (Full text: Lyle Order re Zoom trial).

For the past 5 weeks, Tennessee courts have been closed for most in-person proceedings, but, during that time, many courts have conducted telephonic or video “non-evidentiary” hearings. This is the first instance that I’m aware of that a civil court is conducting a real bench trial with witnesses and exhibits.

The underlying facts are interesting, from a creditor’s rights perspective.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration of the validity of a mechanic’s lien asserted on a Gulfstream GV  (a/k/a a “G5”) private jet, via both a recorded lien in the Davidson County Register of Deeds and with the Federal Aviation Administration Registry.  Per the Complaint, the plaintiff bought the jet from an actual Sheikh.

gulfstream g5(Note for the non-Sheikhs out there: Retail value for new G5s can be between $36MM and $48MM).

The Defendant / lien-claimant is a marketing firm in Kentucky that claimed a mechanic’s lien on the jet for sales marketing services provided to the Sheikh.

(I’ll reserve my thoughts on the validity of a mechanic’s lien when no actual physical improvements are provided, but I will note that, generally, the lien claimant has to show actual improvements to the property. Cases on aircraft liens have held that “gas for refueling” doesn’t even qualify, since gas doesn’t provide an actual improvement to the aircraft.)

This one will be really interesting, both substantively and procedurally.

 

 

Tennessee Legislature overreacted when they repealed Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108.

If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ve know all about Tennessee’s wrongful lien statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108.

It’s a fairly new statute, enacted on May 21, 2018, and I’ve called it the scariest statute I’ve seen. That’s because the statute imposes broad (and automatic) penalties on lien claimants who lose a lien challenge, with the penalties being so harsh that it could have a chilling effect on lien claims.

So, having said that, I was glad to see that the Tennessee Legislature was going to walk back some of those automatic penalties with some proposed amendments to the statute for 2019. Specially, the changes to 66-21-108 would impose a “malice” requirement and would change the “shall recover” language to “may recover.” These changes would protect the mechanic’s liens with justifiable claims, but would preserve claims against those creditors who are looking for undue (and illegal) advantage.

In the end, I was glad to see some correction to the statute, but, candidly, I also thought that the changes took basically all the teeth out of the statute. From my time fighting in Bankruptcy Court, I know that “malice” isn’t an easy concept to prove.

I also know that some creditors’ philosophy is “when in doubt, why not file a lien”? Under the old statute, if those creditors weren’t careful, they would definitely get hit with damages. I’ve seen a lot of bad liens in my time, and this statute provided a remedy that homeowners legitimately needed.

So, it was with a lot of disappointment that I’ve discovered that, rather than amending the statute, the 2019 Legislature just repealed the entire statute.

The statute was designed to solve a very real problem. As it stands right now, there are no real remedies for a property owner to recover costs and expenses when challenging a wrongful lien on their property. As a result, there’s no real disincentive to keep a creditor from recording a questionable lien.

At some point, the cost, expense, and hassle of fighting over an invalid lien isn’t worth the fight. Lien creditors know that they get incredible leverage when they record a lien, and, under now existing law, there’s not much risk to them.

Honestly, I’d rather have the original version of the statute (which made lien claimants really evaluate their claims and think twice before encumbering a person’s property) than no statute at all.

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””

Property Owners Can Bond Over Mechanic’s Liens under Tennessee Law

A mechanic’s / materialman’s lien on real property in Tennessee is a very powerful tool. When a contractor asserts a lien, that lien, effectively, ties up the property until the contractor’s claims are resolved.

It’s a huge bargaining chip: The property owner can’t sell, transfer, pledge, or, generally, do anything with the property until the contractor’s lien is released.

That’s likely why the Tennessee Legislature passed
Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108,  which imposes harsh penalties on people who file invalid liens on real property.

So, if you’re a property owner who wants to fight a mechanic’s lien, is there anything you can do to get it removed, in lieu of payment or litigation?

Yes, you can record a bond to indemnify against the lien and get it discharged. That bond process is described at Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-11-142. In essence, the bond replaces the lien and ensures payment to the contractor, in the event the lien is deemed valid.

With a bond in place, the property can be transferred, and the lien claimant proceeds against the bond for cash, which is all they wanted in the first place.

Construction Lawyers Rejoice! Tennessee Legislature Proposes Amendment to Fix the “Invalid” Lien Law

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108, a fairly new statute that I called the scariest statute I’ve seen in long time.

This statute imposes strict liability and double / triple / quadruple penalties upon lien claimants who lose a lien challenge. As enacted, the statute didn’t draw any distinctions between good faith lien claims and fraudulent claims.

In short, if you lose any lien challenge, you lose big.

My concern was that this would have a chilling effect on Tennessee lien claims. Honestly, I was going to be nervous every time I filed a future mechanic’s lien, no matter how good my factual and legal basis was. You just never know what can happen in Court.

So, it was no surprise when I saw that House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, introduced a bill this week that was drafted by the Tennessee Bar Association’s Construction Law Section to fix this.

This proposed legislation HB875/SB682 adds a “malice” requirement when imposing penalties. Specifically, the big change comes in subpart (a), which provides:

“…a real property owner who prevails in an action challenging the validity of a lien, and establishes, by clear and convincing evidence, that the person claiming the lien has acted with malice, including in a libel of title proceeding, may recover: …”

I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to use this statute on somebody, but it’s a small price to pay in order to avoid somebody using it on me.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108 is the Scariest Statute I’ve Seen in a While (and I can’t wait to use it)

On May 21, 2018, the Legislature enacted a law related to real property lien disputes with some real teeth. (When I say “teeth,” I’m picturing the movie poster for Jaws.)

That statute is Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108.

The law provides that, if a real property owner prevails in challenging a lien, the owner “shall recover” all of the following:

  1. The owner’s reasonable attorney’s fees; AND
  2. Reasonable costs incurred by the owner to challenge the validity of the lien; AND
  3. Liquidated damages in an amount equal to ten percent (10%) of the fair market value of the property not to exceed one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000); AND
  4. Any actual damages incurred by the owner.

What’s significant about this statute is all the punishments it awards a party losing a lien dispute. It creates a statutory basis for attorneys fees (remember, Tennessee is an “American Rule” state) and also creates a statutory basis for pretty hefty liquidated damages (remember, Tennessee courts don’t favor liquidated damages provisions).

And, in case that’s not enough, don’t overlook that this statute imposes these double penalties on a “strict liability” basis, meaning that there needs to be no showing of bad faith. Instead, all that the property owner needs to do is: (1) prevail; and (2) ask for all these damages.

So, if you’re the property owner, you’ll love this statute. If you’re a contractor or represent lien claimants, I suspect you’re going to think twice (and maybe more) about this statute every time you file a lien claim.