All Those Great Recession Judgments May be Expiring Soon

Depending on who you ask, the “Great Recession” resulting from the subprime mortgage crisis began in December 2007 and lasted about two years. So, about ten years ago, I was spending most of my work days working on loan documents for third, fourth, and sometimes fifth mortgages for a local bank who was really, really late to the mortgage boom.

Of course, the impact of this past recession was felt for years afterwards, meaning my spring 2007 HELOCS didn’t go bad until 2010 or 2012. As a result, just a few years later, I was suing and taking judgments against those same borrowers. From 2008 to 2014, I estimate that I obtained at least 500 judgments, ranging in amounts from $2,500 to $5,000,000.

As I like to say, if you were hearing from me, it was bad news.

So, with a drawer full of judgments, this is what keeps me up at night: Those judgments are only valid for ten years, and, if I haven’t collected on them, they expire.

I’m taking about Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-110(a)(2), which provides that actions on judgments are only valid for ten years.

So, a good rule of thumb is that, if you received a judgment against someone you haven’t been able to collect in the last ten years, go back and confirm when you were awarded that judgment. If you’re getting close to the ten year mark, you might be running out of time.

(But, not to be too dramatic, I’m going to talk about how to extend that time period soon.)

 

 

Tennessee Courts will give Pro Se Litigants “Some Leeway,” But Not Much

Some of the hardest trials to handle aren’t when there’s a good attorney on the other side. Instead, the toughest cases can be when there’s a non-attorney on the other side, meaning the other party is representing himself.  In the legal world, this is called “pro se” representation.

With a lawyer on the other side, there’s an expectation that they know the rules of civil procedure, the local rules, and the relevant law. As a result, you can expect that you will be able to cut to the chase and narrow the issues.

With a pro se litigant, everything could be at issue and, worse, a pro se party probably doesn’t know the rules of the court, meaning objection deadlines will be missed and all other types of procedural missteps can occur. This places the lawyer and the Judge in a strange situation–do you hold the pro se litigant to same standards as a party who goes to the trouble of hiring a lawyer? Shouldn’t they  be held to that standard?

A fairly recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case (click here to review) considered that issue in a dispute where a property owner was fighting a foreclosing creditor. The Court noted that “there are a multitude of problems with Defendant’s brief,” including a complete failure to comply with the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure.  The Court called the pro se filing “a rambling and, at times, incoherent brief.”

The Court went on to say it “must not excuse pro se litigants from complying with the same substantive and procedural rules that represented parties are expected to observe.” Young v. Barrow, 130 S.W.3d 59, 63 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003). “It is well-settled that, ‘[w]hile a party who chooses to represent himself or herself is entitled to the fair and equal treatment of the courts, [p]ro se litigants are not . . . entitled to shift the burden of litigating their case[s] to the courts.’” Chiozza v. Chiozza, 315 S.W.3d 482, 487 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2009). However, “[t]he courts give pro se litigants who are untrained in the law a certain amount of leeway in drafting their pleadings and briefs.” Young, 130 S.W.3d at 63.

This is good text to remember the next time a person appears on their own behalf in a matter. This frequently happens in debt collection cases for the obvious reason: if a person can’t pay their bills, then how can they afford to hire a lawyer.

General Sessions Court Refresher

One of the great things about blogging about esoteric issues that come up in my law practice is that, sometimes, I get to consult myself when a legal issue arises.

Like, right now, when I’m preparing for a Davidson County General Sessions trial that starts in an hour, and I’m trying to remember what Tennessee statute allows you to exceed the $25,000 jurisdictional limit in small claims court.

It’s Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-501, which allows you to exceed $25,000 in calculating a judgment, where the excess amount is comprised of attorneys fees (and/or court costs and/or discretionary costs).

So, thanks a lot, Creditor Rights 101.

Exceptions to the Automatic Stay Exist to Allow Enforcement of Some Materialmen’s Liens

When a borrower files bankruptcy, a good rule of thumb is that the automatic stay of 11 U.S.C. § 362 applies to stay any and all acts against the borrower or his property related to pre-petition causes of action and debts.

But, 11 U.S.C. § 362(b) provides some exceptions, include the exception found at § 362(b)(3), which provides that the automatic stay does not stay

…any act to perfect, or to maintain or continue the perfection of, an interest in property to the extent that the trustee’s rights and powers are subject to such perfection under section 546(b) of this title or to the extent that such act is accomplished within the period provided under section 547(e)(2)(A) of this title…
This section is most important to creditors who hold some lien interest in the debtor’s property, but the bankruptcy was filed during the time that the creditor was allowed to perfect them (or maintain them).
A Bankruptcy Court  in North Carolina recently issued an opinion that clearly shows how this exception should apply in Branch Banking & Trust Co. v. Construction Supervision Services, Inc. (In re Construction Supervision Services, Inc).
In that case, a subcontractor held valid but unperfected materialman’s lien rights on a property, which remained valid and enforceable, but for the bankruptcy filing. Because of the 362(b)(3) exception (i.e. the rights were valid and timely, except for the fact that a bankruptcy was filed), the contractor was able to assert those rights post-petition.
Again, the general rule is that a bankruptcy operates to stay all activity, but there are exceptions.

Advice for New Lawyers: Always be Prepared, Even for the Easy Arguments

I’m not going to use this post to complain about millennials. Instead, I’m going to complain a little bit about lawyers who are lazy and don’t think for themselves. But, sometimes, this means younger lawyers who happen to be born in the “millennial footprint” (defined as being born from 1982 to 2004).

In the not so recent past, another lawyer agreed to announce a foreclosure continuance for me. This is one of the easiest tasks a degreed lawyer can handle. In fact, some firms send people in Harley Davidson t-shirts to do this, so it’s not quite rocket science.

So, I told the lawyer that the sale was at the Register of Deeds and started to walk away. Then, he asked, “where is that?” I’ll save you the annoying details, but it involved ten minutes of my time showing him how awesome google is for answering questions.

So, recently, I was headed to General Sessions Court with the intent of asking for a “free” continuance in a matter that was set for the first time. If you read this blog, you know that I got to Sessions Court all the time. And, without a doubt, the Court will grant you a free continuance on the first setting of a matter.

But, instead of just going to court and citing “this is what you Judges always do,” I thought I’d be prepared with, you know, the actual legal authority for this. So, I followed my own advice and looked at the Local Rules for General Sessions Court. And, I made the request with complete confidence that it would be granted.

Of course, when I asked for the continuance, the Judge gave it to me without question, but I was prepared for the worst case scenario.

Ok, this blog post doesn’t have a specific point, other than to note that I–having appeared in Sessions Court at least 500 times–took the time to be prepared with legal authority for a very routine request.

So, maybe that’s the point. Lawyering is hard, and so is being a Judge. Always be prepared for the worst case scenario, and take the time on your own initiative to be prepared.

 

Interpleaders: The Only Time People Like to Hear from Me

When people ask me what kind of law that I do, I always end my answer with “Generally, it’s bad news if you’re hearing from me.” In fact, if you’re reading this right now on a computer, look at my bio over to the right.

If you’re on a phone, I’ll help. It says: “It’s probably bad news if you’re hearing from him.

Recently, though, I’ve been spreading good news, because I’m filing a bunch of interpleader lawsuits.

Interpleader actions are filed by plaintiffs who are asking for court direction as to who to send cash or other property to. The typical situation arises after a foreclosure, when the foreclosure attorney sells the property for more than the debt owed, and there are multiple parties who can make a claim for those excess proceeds.

Generally, the deed of trust is pretty clear as to who gets the money, but, sometimes, it’s not clear or the situation is contentious. To be safe, you file an Complaint for Interpleader under Rule 22, name all the parties who have, or may have, a claim to the proceeds, and ask the Court to decide. This way, the judge gets to make the hard decision, and the foreclosure attorney (often the substitute trustee) isn’t exposed to future lawsuits alleging he paid the money to the wrong party.

Under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 22.02, the attorney files the lawsuit, later deposits the money with the Court, and, then, the filing attorney can be dismissed while the remaining parties fight over the money.

So, back to my phone calls this week. I was calling my “Defendants” to tell them that I was getting ready to sue them, but, “don’t worry, it’s a good lawsuit.”

 

The Law is All Paperwork: An Improperly Authenticated Judgment may Result in Dismissal of Foreign Judgment Action

On my Facebook page, I describe myself as “The Garth Brooks of Paperwork.” Which is a way of poking fun at lots of things about me and my job.

But, law students, please know that success as a lawyer is basically 65% being really good at paperwork.

Thankfully, for the other 35% of us, you can generally amend pleadings to correct mistakes or errors. I’ve recently found a situation where you can’t amend a court filing, such that the entire case might be dismissed.

It’s when there’s an error in your initial filing of a Notice of a Foreign Judgment under the the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (the “Act”), found in Tennessee at Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-101 et.seq.

If a judgment creditor fails to attach a proper exhibit, i.e. a properly authenticated copy of the out-of-state judgment to be enforced, there is a line of cases in Tennessee that say the entire lawsuit is defective because the failure to follow the statutory procedure for authenticating a foreign judgment is fatal as a matter of law.

What’s scary about this line of cases is that there appears to be no ability to file a Motion to Amend Pleadings under Rule 15. Those types of requests are generally granted and would usually allow the plaintiff to correct the error and move on.

Not in proceedings under the Act, Tennessee Courts have said. A recent trial court decision found that a Notice of Filing was not one of the expressly provided list of “pleadings” in Rule 7.01 and, therefore, not subject to amendment under Rule 15.01.

Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.01 allows parties to amend their pleadings, and leave to amend pleadings is freely granted by the courts when justice demands. Tenn. Rule 7.01 defines “pleading” as a complaint, answer, counter-complaint, answer to a cross-claim, a third-party complaint and third-party answer and states that “no other pleading shall be allowed.’ The Notice of Filing required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-6-104 is not one of the pleadings listed in Rule 7.01.

Apparently, then, the judgment creditor’s only recourse when the foreign judgment notice is defective is to dismiss the domestication action, and then re-file a corrected, new proceeding. Yikes.