Promises, Promises: Oral Promises to Pay Another’s Debt are not Enforceable in Tennessee

One of the most common collections questions I get is “I loaned X some money, but didn’t make them sign anything. Can I sue them?”  The simple answer is yes.

As long as the person making the promises is also the borrower, you’re safe. Issues arise, though, when you’re enforcing a promise by a third party to pay the debts of another. This is called a “Guaranty” (or, depending on how old a lawyer you are, a “Guarantee”).

However you spell it, a guaranty has to be in writing to be enforceable.

Under Tennessee’s version of the Statute of Frauds, no party may file a lawsuit “[t]o charge the defendant upon any special promise to answer for the debt, default, or miscarriage of another person….  unless the promise or agreement, upon which such action shall be brought, or some memorandum or note thereof, [is] in writing, and signed by the party to be charged therewith, or some other person lawfully authorized by such part  ” See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-2-101(a)(2).

So, then the question becomes, how formal does a writing have to be? Can it be hand-written? Can it be an email?

Guaranty agreements are strictly construed and, in order find a guaranty, the language must contain the clear and unambiguous intent that the guarantor is agreeing to be liable. For more on guaranties (or guarantees), be sure to check out the Tennessee Supreme Court in 84 Lumber Co. v. Smith, 356 S.W.3d 380, 384 (Tenn. 2011).

In the case of an email, I’d ask “Is the email’s language clear and unambiguous in stating that Y is willing to pay the debts of X?” If so, I think it satisfies the Statute of Frauds.

Don’t Sue the Messenger: Trustees Aren’t Necessary Parties in Foreclosure Injunction Lawsuits and can be Dismissed under Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-116

All my clients hate being sued. You know who else hates to be sued? My law firm.

With the economy going bad, I’ve seen more desperate debtors doing anything they can to fight off foreclosures, evictions, and collections, including filing a lawsuit against the creditor…and the bank’s lawyers.

This is most common in foreclosures, when the debtor tries to stop the foreclosure sale by filing a lawsuit. There are very limited bases by which a foreclosure can be stopped in Tennessee (See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-23-202 ).

Of course, that doesn’t mean that a borrower won’t  fire off a quick lawsuit, trying to gum up the process by creating a little smoke screen diversion.

But, a borrower or borrower’s lawyer who is trying to enjoin a foreclosure doesn’t need to add the attorneys for the creditor as defendant. Generally, the bank’s lawyers are serving only as “Substitute Trustees” under the Deed of Trust, and the caselaw has consistently held that trustees under a mortgage aren’t necessary parties to such an action.

In response to repeated lawsuits filed by “over-zealous” debtors or “less educated” lawyers, the Tennessee legislature passed Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-116 in 2006.

That statute allows a trustee named in a lawsuit to file a verified answer, pleading that the trustee is not a necessary party “stating the basis for the trustee’s reasonable belief that the trustee was named as a party solely in the capacity as a trustee under a deed of trust, contract lien, or security instrument.”

In response, the plaintiff must then filed a “verified response” within 30 days setting forth all factual and legal basis to rebut the trustee’s denial.
The statute also provides a good faith savings clause, under which the trustee “shall not be liable for any good faith error resulting from reliance on any information in law or fact provided by the borrower or secured party or their respective attorney, agent, or representative or other third party.” See Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-116 (f).
Of course, this statute will not stop a borrower from suing everybody; most borrowers would sue the mailman  who delivers the foreclosure notice if they thought it would delay the sale. But, the statute provides a relatively efficient way for the trustees to have themselves dismissed from the lawsuit.

New Davidson County Chancery Court Ruling: Certified Copies are Good Enough to Support a Foreign Judgment Domestication

Last October, I talked about how failure to get a properly “authenticated” copy of a judgment would be fatal to a creditor’s action under the Uniform Foreign Judgment Enforcement Act.

So, here I am, in March, and I’m writing about how a Davidson County Chancery Court has now ruled that a simple “certified copy” of the judgment would suffice. Five months is a pretty quick turnaround, even by my standards.

The reasoning of the Chancellor is this:

  • The purpose of the Full Faith and Credit Clause was to make it easy to enroll and domesticate judgments granted in other jurisdictions;
  • As you know, the requirements for filing a foreign judgment in Tennessee are “few and straightforward.” See Boardwalk Regency Corp. v. Patterson, No. M1999-02805-COA-R3-CV, 2001 WL 1613892, at * 4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 18, 2001).
  • As I’ve written about before, there are essentially three “defenses” to a filing under the Act.  Those are: (1) if the judgment is “void due to a lack of personal or subject matter jurisdiction;” (2) if it was “based upon fraud;” or (3) where its enforcement “would violate public policy of the forum state.”  Guseinov v. Synergy Ventures, Inc., 467 S.W.3d 920, 924 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014).
  • Per Guseinov, a party seeking to prevent the enrollment of a foreign judgment carries “a stern and heavy burden” in Tennessee.
  • So, if the only defense is that the judgment wasn’t authenticated consistent with the Acts of Congress/triple certification process/exemplified, the creditor hasn’t met a “stern and heavy burden.”
  • If there is no indication or argument that the simple certification on the certified judgment is invalid or not the Clerk’s signature, then a certified copy will suffice.

Today isn’t the day that I argue against the ruling; instead, this is just me, warning you.

But, this hasn’t always been the practice in Tennessee or other jurisdictions interpreting the Foreign Judgment domestication Act, so, if you want to be 100% safe, go with the authenticated copy.

Tune back in 4 months to see if I have reversed course again.

 

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.