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When you are faced with a lawsuit or have filed a lawsuit, do yourself a big favor, hire a Tennessee lawyer with trial experience (aka a “Tennessee trial lawyer”) at the outset of your legal matter.  Having practiced trial law and handled litigation and arbitration matters for nearly 25 years, I have seen people’s cases hurt because they waited to bring in a trial lawyer with the hope that things would just get worked out. I have also seen clients end up with bad results because they never retained a lawyer with trial experience.

I have a friend who is a successful businessman who does a substantial amount of business outside of Tennessee.  He was owed some money from a company in Louisiana, but the Louisiana company denied that he was owed anything.  He hired a lawyer in Louisiana. (I was not aware of his situation until well after the fact).

My friend paid the lawyer for many months as the case proceeded to trial.  My friend thought that his case was one of clear liability, and it sounded to me like it was.  For some reason, although he kept paying his lawyer and waiting for the other side to come to its senses and settle, the other side never made a settlement offer.

 

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Besides the statutes of limitations which have been enacted as laws by the Tennessee legislature, there is a second type of statutes of limitations.  Many insurance policies contain terms which require an insured or policy owner to file a lawsuit within a certain amount of time. Anyone with a breach of contract claim, or other claim, arising from an insurance policy must be very, very aware of the limitations periods for filing lawsuits which are contained in insurance policies and how they work.

In Tennessee, limitations periods clauses in insurance policies are valid and enforceable even though many such clauses will bar a lawsuit unless it is filed within a period of time which is substantially shorter than Tennessee law would otherwise require.  For example, in most insurance policy lawsuits, the main claim of the insured is that the insurance company is liable for breach of contract for not paying the claim.  Under Tennessee law, a person has a full six years to file a breach of contract lawsuit.  Many insurance policies, however, have provisions that essentially require a lawsuit to be filed within one year.

For either a statute of limitations made by state law or one made by an insurance company and placed in a policy, you need to know when the limitations period started.  The day when the limitations period started is referred to as the “accrual of the cause of action.” When courts and lawyers talk about the date the cause of action accrued, they are referring to the date that the limitations period began to run — the date when the clock began to tick.

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For any contract in Tennessee to be valid, it must be supported by mutual consideration.  What does mutual consideration mean?  Very generally speaking, it means that both parties to the contract must have agreed to pay something, give something, do something, refrain from doing something, or assumed some obligation.

The requirement of mutual consideration applies not only to original contracts, but also, to modifications of original contracts.  In Tennessee, if a contract is modified such that a new obligation is imposed on one of the parties, the modification will not be valid unless the other party also assumed some new obligation.  This rule is sometimes referred to as the preexisting duty rule.

Here is the quintessential example of a contract modification that would not be valid because of a lack of consideration on the part of one party.  Contractor agreed to remodel a structure for Owner.  Contractor and Owner entered into a written contract with a specified scope of work and price.  Three fourths of the way through the remodel, at a time the Contractor knows that Owner is vulnerable because Owner needs the remodel to be completed, Contractor informs Owner that he needs more money because the remodel was more work than he thought it would be.  Owner balks, but Contractor informs Owner that he will walk off the job leaving the work unfinished which, of course, would force Owner to find another contractor to complete the job and would delay completion.  Owner then agrees to pay ten percent (10%) more than he originally agreed to pay.

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If you are bringing or defending an undue influence case in Tennessee, including a will contest based on undue influence, the presence of a power of attorney may be a game changer for your case.  Why would a power of attorney matter so much in such a case?  Because a power of attorney alone may establish what the law refers to as a “confidential relationship.”

Once it is established that the person who benefitted from the will or other transfer or transaction had a confidential relationship with the maker of the will or transferor of the property, a huge shift takes place — the person who benefitted is presumed to have received the benefit because of undue influence and that person may overcome that presumption only by proving to the jury, by clear and convincing evidence no less, that the making of the will, the transfer, or the transaction was not the result of undue influence.

In Tennessee, if the person who benefitted from the will, the transfer or the transaction was granted an unrestricted power of attorney by the maker of the will or transferor, that fact alone will establish a confidential relationship between the two with one condition.  That one condition is that, before the making of the will or the transfer, the person who was granted the power of attorney must have actually used it.

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If you are a minority member of a Tennessee limited liability company (“LLC”) or a minority shareholder of a Tennessee corporation, you may, at some time, need to review financial information of the LLC or the corporation.  What financial records are you allowed to obtain?  On what grounds can the LLC or corporation refuse to produce financial records to you?  What do you do if the company will not supply you with the requested financial records?

The by-laws of the corporation of which you are a shareholder or the operating agreement of the LLC of which you are a member may specify the financial records to which you are entitled and may even require that the LLC or corporation provide you with certain financial information on an annual basis, or even more frequently.  As a shareholder or member of a Tennessee corporation or LLC, you are entitled to certain financial information, as a matter of law, under the provisions of the Tennessee Business Corporation Act and Tennessee Limited Liability Company Act even if the by-laws or operating agreement don’t contain provisions allowing you to have any financial records whatsoever.

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The Supreme Court of Tennessee recently clarified how to determine whether the three year statute of limitations for injuries to property or the six year statute of limitations for breach of contract applies to a case.   Which statute applies can be outcome determinative, so, understanding the Court’s holding in the case is a necessity for Tennessee lawyers who handle breach of contract cases and tort cases.

In the case, Benz-Elliott v. Barrett Enterprises, LP (Tenn. 2015), the Plaintiff filed a complaint containing a claim for breach of contract as well as tort claims for fraud and negligent misrepresentation.  The tort claims were dismissed at the trial court level; did not become an issue on appeal; and, are irrelevant for analysis of the case.

The Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim stemmed from a written agreement wherein the Plaintiff agreed to sell some land to the Defendant.  The Plaintiff owned ninety one acres of land which adjoined the Defendant’s land. The Defendant wanted to purchase four acres of the Plaintiff’s land.  The Plaintiff was agreeable to selling so long as she could reserve the ownership of some of the land so that she would have access to the land she was not selling.

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A recent breach of contract case decided by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee drives home two lessons.  One lesson is for sales representatives who earn their living by commissions: The other is for Tennessee lawyers who handle breach of contract cases.  The lesson for sales representatives is that, if they don’t obtain adequate protection for themselves in the written contract they sign before they start to work, they should not be surprised if they are not paid commissions for sales which they generated and should not be surprised if they cannot be helped by a court.  The lesson for lawyers who handle sales commission cases is that the duty of good faith, which is implied in every contract in Tennessee, cannot rescue a sales representative, even one who has been treated unfairly, from a bad bargain which they made on the front end.

In Schwartz v. Diagnostix Network Alliance, LLC (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014), Mr. Schwartz, a sales representative, signed an agreement with Diagnostix Network Alliance (“Diagnostix”) pursuant  to which he was to be paid commissions for each medical test which he sold.  That agreement (“Commission Agreement”) provided for the payment to Schwartz of commissions, but also stated that either party could terminate it “with or without cause” and could do so “immediately” upon providing notice.   Another clause in the Commission Agreement provided that Schwartz, the sales representative, had no rights to commissions once he was terminated.

For eight months after the Commission Agreement was signed, Schwartz traveled extensively and, the opinion seems to indicate, worked pretty hard and diligently to sell the medical tests offered by Diagnostix.   Schwartz made pitches to one particular organization which had a big network and which could potentially result in many sales.  Then, Diagnostix and that organization bypassed Schwartz by entering into an agreement for the purchase of the tests.  Then, Diagnostix terminated the Commission Agreement with Schwartz.  Although Diagnostix claimed that it had to terminate the agreement because the organization in question complained about Schwartz’s aggressive sales tactics, it is reasonable to assume that Diagnostix’s stated reason for terminating the agreement with Schwartz was pretextual and that it terminated him to avoid paying him commissions.

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In many, if not most, of the cases in which I am involved, I end up explaining to clients what a summary judgment motion is and how a summary judgment might affect their case.  The concept of a summary judgment is a pretty simple thing.  If a summary judgment is entered by the judge, then, barring a reversal of that ruling, the case will never go to trial before a judge or jury.  A summary judgment ends the case.

Summary judgments (and summary judgment motions) fall into two broad categories: (1) Summary judgments (which are entered as the result of motions for summary judgment); and (2) partial summary judgments (which are entered as the result of motions for partial summary judgment).  With some frequency, parties to a lawsuit will file motions for partial summary judgments.  A motion for partial summary judgment requests that the judge end the case just as to some of the claims or causes of action by dismissing them, but not as to all of the claims or causes of action.  For example, if a plaintiff has filed a complaint with three causes of action like breach of contract; fraud; and intentional interference with contract, the defendant may file a motion for partial summary judgment asking the judge to dismiss the fraud and intentional interference claims, but not the breach of contract claim.  If the judge grants the motion for partial summary judgment and dismisses the fraud and intentional interference with contract claims, then only the breach of contract claim will proceed to trial.

It happens frequently that a party will file a motion for summary judgment on all claims, and the court will dismiss only some of the claims.  In my practice, which is typical of most Tennessee trial lawyers with whom I have spoken, summary judgment motions are filed most of the time by defendants seeking to dismiss claims filed against them or some of the claims filed against them.  However, plaintiffs (the parties who file lawsuits) may also file motions for summary judgment. I have been involved in quite a few cases where I represented a plaintiff, filed a motion for summary judgment, and the judge ruled that my client should be granted a summary judgment.

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In Tennessee, certain kinds of contracts are not enforceable unless (1) they are in writing and (2) they are signed by the party against whom enforcement is sought (the defendant, typically).  Why? Because the Tennessee Statute of Frauds says so.  (Keep in mind that most contracts in Tennessee are enforceable even if they are not in writing and even if they are not signed.)

For those types of contracts which must be written, such as contracts to buy or to sale real estate, you should not assume that you cannot enforce a contract because of the statute of frauds just because you do not have a formal agreement which has been signed.   You may well be able to satisfy the statute of frauds if you have one or more different kinds of informal writings related to the sale, such as, for example, a signed check combined with an MLS Listing Sheet describing the property.

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Last month, I was in the hallway of the Wilson County Courthouse when I was told that the jury had reached a verdict in the will contest case which I and Jeremy Oliver, another lawyer in our firm, had been trying for four days.  During the trial, the jury had heard from eighteen witnesses, including: two treating doctors of the deceased; a caseworker from Adult Protective Services; and, the lawyer who had drafted the Will that my client and I were contesting.

The jury only had to make two decisions: (1) Was the Will the result of undue influence? and (2) was the Will the result of fraud?  If the jury determined that the Will was either the result of undue influence or fraud, it would be set aside (which is what we wanted and for what we had fought for a year and a half).

The trial, I thought, had gone very well for us, but I still wondered if the jury would get it —- that, as I had told the jury in my opening statement, this was a case about two greedy people who had isolated, lied to and manipulated a dying 87 year old woman in order to get her to change her Will to leave all of her assets to them.  The jury did get. The jurors found that the Will in question was the result of both undue influence and fraud.

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