Tennessee Supreme Court Changes Rule 4 on Service of Process

The Tennessee Supreme Court has issued four orders adopting amendments to various rules of procedure that will go into effect on July 1, subject to approval from the Tennessee General Assembly.

These include changes to the rules of criminal procedure and evidence, but, today, I’m going to talk about how Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 4 has changed. Here is a link to the proposed changes. This includes changes to service of process, which is a critical step in any litigation.

On this issue, it’s Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.04 that is amended, where a plaintiff tries to serve a defendant via certified mail. Specifically, the amendments add a provision that allows for valid service where a defendant “refuse[s] to accept delivery” of the certified mail, as long as the record contains:

a return receipt stating that the addressee or the addressee’s agent refused to accept delivery, which is deemed to be personal acceptance by the defendant pursuant to Rule 4.04(11)

The Advisory Commission Comments provide a helpful warning for these situations. They state that “the Postal Service’s notation that a registered or certified letter is ‘unclaimed’ is no longer sufficient, by itself, to prove that service was ‘refused.’ ”

This comment clearly reminds plaintiffs to make sure that the return receipt states “refused” and not “unclaimed.” This distinction is important, since so many defendants simply never go to the post office to pick up their certified mail, because they assume it’s just a lawsuit, demand letter, or some other collection correspondence. This Comment makes clear that a lazy defendant does not submit itself to personal jurisdiction.

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Two Signatures Not Required: New Tennessee Supreme Court Decision Finds Personal Guarantees will be Enforced by Their Clear Text

Lately (i.e. in this economy), I’m constantly fighting over the enforceability of personal guarantees.

A personal guarantee is an agreement by which a third party agrees to personally repay another person’s/corporation’s debt. When a corporate entity doesn’t have a credit history or sufficient assets, a lender will generally ask for an individual to personally guarantee the debt. Creditors, obviously, want guarantees, because more parties obligated to repay your debt increases your chances for repayment. If a creditor files a lawsuit, it can obtain a judgment for the debt against all of the guarantors.

With the rise in defaults, guarantors are getting sued more than ever before. Their only defense is to attack the guarantee, and, as a result, the text of these agreements is constantly being tested. A common issue relates to the signature line(s): if a corporation’s president signs a contract that contains guarantee language, does the president need to sign twice, both as “Bob Smith, President” and then a second time as “Bob Smith?”

In the past, the overwhelming outcome was that there needed to be two signatures–one from the President and one from the Individual.

So, in that context, you’ll understand why I liked the recent Tennessee Supreme Court case of 84 Lumber Company v. Bryan Smith (Dec. 12, 2011). There, the Supreme Court looked only at the text of the contract. That text clearly said that the person signing the contract for the corporation was also personally obligating himself  to serve as the guarantor. When the text is crystal clear, it doesn’t matter that there is only one signature.

So, even though the only signature on the contract was by ““R. Bryan Smith, President,” the Court said “[t]he explicit and unambiguous language of the contract points to only one conclusion: Mr. Smith agreed to be personally responsible for the amounts due on the account.”

A good practice would still be to get two signatures, but, in light of this case, it’s certainly not fatal to only have one signature.