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.

How to Conduct a Sheriff’s Sale of Real Property in Tennessee: It Depends on Who You Ask

Many years ago, the Tennessee Bar Journal ran an article by Knoxville legal luminary Don Paine called “Practical Advice for Collecting a Judgment.”  Clearly, this article got my attention.

In it, Paine outlines how to obtain a judgment lien on real property and how to ultimately sell the property pursuant to that lien. His analysis begins and ends with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69, which provides that a judgment lien creditor shall file a motion requesting that the court order a sale. In fact, Rule 69.07(4) specifically says “[a]s long as a judgment lien is effective, no levy is necessary”–just file a Motion.

Rule 67.04 provides a specific procedure for a Sheriff’s Sale of real property (i.e. 30 days advance notice; 3 total publications; distribution of proceeds).

But, elsewhere in Tennessee statutes, there’s a different procedure for sheriff’s execution sales of real property. Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-5-101 lays out its own set of rules and requirements, which are differ in minor ways to Rule 69 (i.e. 20 days advance notice).

And, having done my own Sheriff’s Sale earlier this summer, I chuckled when I saw Paine’s article. After I had a Rule 69.07 Motion granted and asked the Clerk to initiate the sale process, the Clerk and Master on my case ignored my Order Granting Motion for Sale, telling me, instead, I need to accomplish the sale by levy and execution.

Side note: One of the things that makes collections interesting is that you’re not just dealing with a Judge anymore, you’re dealing with a Clerk, who may have their own opinions about how things are done.

So, how do you reconcile these differing procedures? And, trust me, these mechanical / procedural issues come up all the time.

Paine’s answer is simple: Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-3-406, when a Rule is in conflict with any other law, the Rule prevails.

But, as a practical matter, try telling that to the Clerk, when they say “You need to file a Levy.”

On my sale, here’s what I did: I did both. I had an Order and then issued a Levy on the real property, pursuant to my Order. When the requirements differed, I used the procedure that complied with both.

Sometimes, being right is less important than getting the job done.

Tennessee Law on Sheriff’s Sales Can be Confusing, but Worth the Work

A very long time ago, I wrote that judgment collections may require patience but that, fortunately, Tennessee judgments are valid for ten years.

So, while you may be dealing with a debtor without any money now, keep in mind that this economy can shift for the good, as quick as it went bad. In collections, patience can lead to money.

That was in July 2010, and, man-oh-man, has Nashville’s economy rebounded. If you’ve followed my other advice, way back when, you have already ordered a certified copy of your judgment and recorded it as a lien in the real property records.

So, fast-forward to 2017. If you take that old judgment lien and add in 7-8 years’ worth of property appreciation, maybe it’s time for you to consider conducting a sheriff’s sale of real property pursuant to your judgment lien.

In Tennessee, Sheriff’s Sales are governed by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 69.07(4) and Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-5-101, et. seq. At a recent seminar, I was asked which of the two lines of authority controlled the process: Rule 69; or the Tennessee Code?

The correct answer is, unfortunately, that nobody is entirely sure. So, I guess, the answer is that both control the process.

As a practical matter, when I’m conducting a sheriff’s sale of real property to enforce a judgment, I follow all of the requirements under Rule 69 and also under Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-5-101. Sure, that makes for a lot of “hoops” to jump through, but the hoops are never contradictory.

Given the appreciation in property values, sheriff’s sales can be a very effective collection method.