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In Tennessee, it is not highly unusual for a buyer to discover, after buying a piece of property, that it contains less acreage than was represented in the deed.  For example, a buyer’s deed might state the property contains 22 acres “more or less” or 22 acres “approximately” after giving a legal description of the land in question.  After buying the property, our hypothetical buyer might have a survey done which reveals that the property described consisted of only 18 acres.

Under Tennessee law, what are the chances that our hypothetical buyer can recover part of the purchase price or rescind the contract altogether and recover the entire purchase price? In most cases, based on my experience and familiarity with Tennessee real estate cases, the answer is that the chances are not very good. This is certainly not to say that a buyer cannot be successful in receiving a partial refund or rescission. As well, that pessimistic opinion applies only to real estate transactions in which the sales of property were “in gross” and not by the acre.

In its simplest terms, a sale in gross occurs when the purchase price is not determined by an amount per acre, but by a lump sum for land, the location and boundaries of which are described. In my experience, sales in gross account for most all real estate transactions.

Where a sale is in gross, a seller is not liable for any deficiency in the quantity of land unless the buyer can show facts establishing that the seller acted fraudulently or that the seller made such a substantial mistake that fraud should be inferred.  The rationale for this rule is that, where the seller has described the boundaries of the property, the buyer is free to have his or her own survey done to verify the accuracy of the seller’s representations as to the acreage contained within those boundaries.

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What damages can a plaintiff recover under Tennessee law for construction defects? The answer is that a plaintiff can recover either the amount it will take to remedy or repair the defects or the difference in value between the structure had the work been done correctly and its value considering the defective work. The later method of damages is sometimes referred to as “diminution in value” or “diminution” damages.

Construction defect cases almost always are breach of contract cases where a project owner or homeowner has sued a contractor with which it had a written or verbal contract. Thus, although there are some unique considerations in construction defect cases, basic principles of Tennessee contract law apply to them. The purpose of breach of contract damages is, first and foremost, to attempt to put the plaintiff, as near as possible, in the same position in which he or she would have been had the defendant not breached.  The plaintiff should not receive a windfall nor should the plaintiff receive less than what it will take to be made whole.

A plaintiff in a breach of contract case with a contractor must be mindful that, under Tennessee law, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving damages. Practically speaking, lawyers representing plaintiffs in construction defect cases must be strategic and proactive from the very beginning of the case about the proof needed to ensure that their client receives a recovery.  More than a few construction defects cases have foundered at the damages stage after a plaintiff has proven liability.

Who determines, in a construction defect case, which of the above two methods of calculating damages applies? In Tennessee, the judge does. How does the judge decide which method to apply? Probably, the seminal and most informative Tennessee case addressing that question is GSB Contractors, Inc. v. Hess (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005).

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A member of a Tennessee Limited Liability Company (“LLC”) may, at some point, lose his or her membership interest, either voluntarily or involuntarily.  An Operating Agreement of an LLC may have provisions which address the conditions under which a member’s interest may be terminated. If the LLC does not have an Operating Agreement, or the Operating Agreement which it does have does not contain provisions dealing with the termination of a member’s interest, then, the provisions of Tennessee Revised Limited Liability Company (the “Act”) will apply by default. (The Act’s provisions always apply, by default, where an LLC does not have an Operating Agreement). Frequently, Operating Agreements contain provisions related to the voluntary and involuntary termination of a member’s interest in the LLC.

Under the Act, an LLC member may voluntarily terminate his or her interest in the LLC. (If the member does so in contravention of the terms of the LLC’s Operating Agreement, the member may be held liable for any damages caused by such voluntary termination).  As well, under the Act, a member’s interest may be terminated involuntarily by a Tennessee court under certain circumstances set forth in the Act at T.C.A § 48-249-503.

What does a member of an LLC receive under Tennessee law when his or her membership interest has been terminated, whether voluntarily or involuntarily?  If the Operating Agreement provides how the valuation and payment is to be made, then its terms will control. If the Operating Agreement does not provide for how a terminated member’s interest is to be valued, then the provisions of the Act, specifically T.C.A §48-249-505, will apply.

Under §505, a member is entitled to be paid “fair value” for his or her membership interest. That term, as explained by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in a recent decision, is not the same as “market value.”  In Raley v. Brinkman (Tenn. Ct. App. 2020), two members, Raley and Brinkman, owned 50% of the membership interests of the LLC at issue. Among several rulings arising from the dispute between the two, the trial court ruled that Raley’s interest should be involuntarily terminated because of his conduct.

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Tennessee recognizes a breach of contract cause of action for the breach of a contract as to how, and to whom, assets will be distributed at the death of the promisor. Most often, these claims arise where spouses have made mutual wills, but where the last deceased spouse has breached this contract by changing the terms of his or her will after his or her spouse predeceased.  While breach of contract cases related to wills most often arise in the context of mutual spousal wills, they can also arise in other contexts. For example, in Owens v. Church (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984), a breach of contract claim was successfully prosecuted by a niece and nephew whom were promised their aunt’s estate if they took care of her.

In whatever context a breach of contract case to make a will arises, to be enforceable, such a contract must meet the requirements of T.C.A. §32-3-107.  That statute is, essentially, statute of frauds for contracts to make wills.  Under the statute, a contract to make a will must be established in one of these three ways to be valid: (1) It must be contained in a will and it must include all material provisions of the contract; (2) the will must contain an express reference to the contract and an express reference to the agreement outside of the will which contains the terms of the contract; or (3) there must be a writing signed by the decedent evidencing the contract.  Notably, the last prong of the statute allows for the contract to be created wholly outside of the will and without the will making any mention of the contract.

What statute of limitations apply to a cause of action for breach of a contract to make a will? Three different statutes of limitations may apply. Which one applies will depend upon the way the breach of contract is being challenged. The Supreme Court of Tennessee has recognized that a breach of contract to make a will claim may be presented in three different ways.  First, it may be brought as a will contest. If so, the two- year statute of limitations for will contests will apply. (That statute begins running on the date of the entry of the order admitting the will to probate proceedings). Second, it may be brought as a claim against the estate of the deceased.  The outside limit for filing a claim against an estate is twelve months from the deceased’s death. Third, the cause of action may be brought as a claim for specific performance. In that event, the six-year statute of limitations applicable to breach of contract actions applies.

Claims for breach of a contract to make a will and bequeath assets to the persons or entities agreed almost always arise after the death of the person who is alleged to have breached the promise. However, they can be brought before that time, if the breach is discovered. For example, in the Owens v. Church case, the niece and nephew who agreed to take care of their aunt for life in exchange for her bequeathing all of her assets to them learned, while she was still alive, that she had changed her will and, then, brought suit against her while she was still alive.  Not only was this allowable, but also, the court constructed a remedy for them even before their aunt died.

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In evaluating the potential for personal liability of members or managers of limited liability companies under Tennessee law, it is first helpful to determine into which of two broad categories the conduct at issue falls. The first category is conduct of a member or manager that has harmed members of the LLC or the LLC, but not third parties. The second category is conduct of a member or manager that has harmed a third party who is not a member of the LLC.

  1. Conduct Affecting the LLC or LLC Members

If the manager’s or member’s conduct affected members of the LLC or the LLC, the liability of that manager or member will be determined by §48-249-403 of the Tennessee Revised Limited Liability Company Act (the “Act”) (this assumes the LLC in question was formed after January 1, 2006 and is, thus, governed by that Act). §48-249-403 limits the liability of managers and members by expressly limiting their duties to the LLC and to other members to the duties of care and loyalty.

  1. Duty of Care

The duty of care set forth in §48-249-403 incorporates the “Business Judgment Rule.” The Business Judgment Rule allows managers and members of LLCs to make decisions about the operation of the business without having to face liability if the decisions turn out to be bad.   That Rule, as reflected in §48-249-403, provides that managers and members are not liable for their conduct in operating the business except where it amounts to “grossly negligent or reckless conduct, intentional misconduct or knowing violation of law.” If a manager or member makes a risky investment that turns out poorly, but had some possibility of an upside, he or she will probably not be liable. On the other hand, if he or she wired all of the LLCs’ funds to an alleged Nigerian prince or paid a bribe to a government official, he or she will probably face liability.

  1. Duty of Loyalty

Broadly speaking, the duty of loyalty prohibits a member or manager from competing with the LLC or usurping an opportunity of the LLC. It also prohibits a manager or member from using LLC assets for his or her own benefit and from otherwise misappropriating LLC funds or assets. Continue reading →

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Under well-established Tennessee law regarding the partition of jointly owned real estate, there is a presumption that the proceeds of the sale of the property should be divided equally between the co-tenants (co-owners).  However, that is only a presumption and, quite often, the proceeds are not ultimately divided evenly because one or more owners have contributed more towards the down payment, loan payments, property taxes, or maintenance.

In some partition cases, there is another wrinkle, so to speak, besides the usual matter of how the proceeds should be divided.  In some cases, a co-owner may take the position that, regardless of the fact that the other owner may have contributed more towards the property, nevertheless, the proceeds should be divided equally because the other owner intended to gift half of the property to the co-owner who contributed less. In some cases, that position can be successful like it was in a recent case from the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Dicus, et. al. v. Smith (2020).   

Here are the key facts from that case:

  • Randy Dicus (‘Randy”) was diagnosed with a terminal disease
  • Randy was not married, but had a son, Jacob
  • Randy was very close with Jacob and his family
  • Randy asked an old high school girlfriend, Lisa, with whom he had maintained contact over the years, to take care of him
  • According to Lisa, Randy told her that, if she would take care of him, he would buy her a house where they could live together while she took care of him
  • Randy told Lisa to look for a house in the $250,000-300,000 range
  • Both Randy and Lisa signed the agency agreement with the realtor who Lisa located to assist in finding a house
  • The realtor testified that Randy had stated, that, as long as Lisa was happy with the house, he would buy it
  • Randy paid the down payment of $5,000 on the house Lisa had selected and he had approved
  • The purchase price of the house was $274,000
  • The deed to the house was put in the names of Lisa and Randy
  • The deed did not contain any right of survivorship provision
  • Randy financed the balance of the purchase price of the house with a balloon note that required him to make one payment, after one year, of $280,439
  • The balloon note was secured by a savings account owned by Randy
  • Two months after buying the house, Randy made a will whereby he left all of his assets to his son, Jacob
  • In his will, Randy directed his executor to pay all of his debts (which would have included the balloon note)
  • Lisa and Randy lived in the home for about three months before Randy passed, during which time, Lisa took care of him
  • After his father’s death, Jacob, as the executor of his estate, paid off the balloon note for the house

After Randy passed, Jacob filed a partition action and requested that the proceeds from the sale of the home be applied first towards repaying Randy’s estate for the down payment and balloon payment.  Lisa admitted that she had made no monetary contribution towards the property, but asserted that she was entitled to one-half of the proceeds of the sale because Randy had made a gift to her of one half of the house.

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Under Tennessee law, when a defendant has affirmatively made an untrue statement of material fact, a plaintiff may well be able to recover for intentional misrepresentation (also called “fraud”) or for negligent misrepresentation.  What if, instead of making an untrue statement of fact, the defendant failed to disclose an important fact or facts? In Tennessee, in proper cases, a plaintiff can recover for the defendant’s failure to disclose a material fact (sometimes called “fraudulent concealment”).

When considering a cause of action because a party has failed to disclose important facts, a good place to start your analysis is to recognize that, under Tennessee law, in most all transactions, a party does not have a duty to disclose material facts to the other party.  For that reason, among others, this cause of action is not at all easy to prove. However, in some cases, it can be successful.

There are four categories of exceptions to the rule that a party to a transaction generally does not have a duty to disclose facts to the other party to the transaction. The first exception exists where a “previous definite” fiduciary relationship existed between the parties.  Examples of definitive fiduciary relationships are attorneys and clients, and trustees and beneficiaries.

The second exception exists “where it appears one or each of the parties to the contract expressly reposes trust and confidence in the other.” I have not been able to find an example, in Tennessee case law, where this exception has been found to apply.  This exception would necessarily be very difficult to prove and would require something more than is present in almost all transactions, in my opinion. It might apply to a situation where, by the express language of the contract, one party acknowledged that it was in a superior position of knowledge and recognized that the other party was relying upon it and trusting it to fully disclose all relevant facts.

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When sales representatives, brokers, agencies, or other businesses are owed commissions, but are not paid, sometimes they have to retain an attorney to file a lawsuit to recover the unpaid commissions.  Our firm, over the years, has represented many commissioned sales representatives in such lawsuits.  Many times, not only have we had to prove that the defendant was contractually liable for unpaid commissions, but also, we have had to establish and to prove the amount of the commissions owed.

Defendants which owe commissions often deny that they owe the amount of commissions which they, in fact, owe.  Furthermore, they also often do not reveal, at least until they must, the full amount of revenue received or all of the sales on which the commissions are to be based.  By doing this, they attempt to reduce the amount of their liability.

Before a lawsuit is filed, which is when discovery procedures can be used to compel parties to produce information on pain of being sanctioned, parties who owe commissions may refuse to produce information to former sales representatives or agents which is needed to determine the exact amount of commissions owed.  Once a lawsuit is filed in a Tennessee state or federal court, however, a plaintiff can use the discovery procedures in the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure or the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as the case may be, to compel a defendant to produce information about sales, revenues, customer accounts, or claimed charge backs or refunds. For all practical purposes for this blog, the federal discovery rules and Tennessee discovery rules are the same. This blog gives an overview of the particular discovery rules that can be employed to determine the amount of commissions owed to a sales representative.

RULE 33:  INTERROGATORIES

Rule 33 allows a party to send interrogatories, or questions, to another party.  Unless an interrogatory is objectionable, a party must answer it and must do so under oath.  Interrogatories are a helpful method of obtaining information about sales, dates of sales, amounts of sales, and the status of customer accounts. They are also helpful in forcing a business to identify the persons with the most knowledge about matters that bear directly on the amount of commissions owed so that those persons may be deposed. Continue reading →

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A partnership can be created under Tennessee law without the partners ever having a written partnership agreement.  Even where parties have not expressly agreed, verbally, to operate a partnership, an implied partnership can be formed under Tennessee law where the parties involved intended the acts that give rise to a partnership.  The consequences, good and bad, of being in an implied partnership can be financially significant.

If you are in an implied partnership, that may be a good thing to establish in a Tennessee court as it may allow you successfully to recover money, property or profits another partner owes you or is withholding.  Being a partner in an implied partnership, however, can also result in your personal liability, not just to other partners, but to third parties. To boot, it can result in your being liable to a third party based on an act or omission of the person or persons with whom you are determined to be in an implied partnership.

This blog discusses two general topics about implied partnerships in Tennessee: (1) How Tennessee courts determine whether an implied partnership exists; and (2) the resulting advantages and disadvantages to partners in implied partnerships.

DOES AN IMPLIED PARTNERSHIP EXIST?

Under the Tennessee Revised Uniform Partnership Act (“TRUPA”), a partnership is formed “by the association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners of a business for profit … whether or not the persons intend to form a partnership.” Under TRUPA, a “person” includes business entities such as limited liability companies and corporations. Significantly, TRUPA provides that owning property together, in and of itself, even where profits from it are shared, does not establish a partnership.

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The contemporaneous exchange for new value defense, 11 U.S.C. §547(c)(1), is one of several defenses in the Bankruptcy Code that a creditor may be able to use successfully to defeat the claim of a bankruptcy trustee, or other plaintiff, that the creditor should have to repay money paid to it by the now bankrupt debtor before that debtor filed for bankruptcy.  This defense is applicable to all actions filed in bankruptcy courts located in Nashville or other cities in Tennessee.

This defense allows a creditor, which supplied goods or services, at or near the same time that the debtor paid for those services, to avoid liability for what would otherwise be a preferential payment. The purpose of the contemporaneous exchange for new value defense is to encourage a creditor to keep doing business with a customer which is having financial issues.

Although it is not a case decided by the federal circuit in which bankruptcy courts in Nashville and other parts of Tennessee are located (the 6th Circuit), the case of Payless Cashways, Inc. (8th Cir. 2004) provides a helpful analysis of the defense, and one that any Tennessee bankruptcy court would be expected to apply.

Here are the basic facts of the case:

  • The debtor which had filed bankruptcy (“Debtor”) was a business which sold home improvement products at retail
  • The creditor which was sued by the trustee for the recovery of preference payments (“Creditor”) was a lumber supplier
  • Creditor had supplied lumber to Debtor before it filed its first bankruptcy
  • After Debtor filed its first bankruptcy, Creditor required Debtor to pay for lumber on a cash-in-advance basis by Electronic Fund Transfer (“EFT”)
  • After a while, Creditor somewhat loosened its payment policy
  • Debtor filed a second bankruptcy
  • At the time of the preferential payments at issue, Creditor had agreed to ship all lumber via destination contracts, F.O.B. the Debtor’s facilities. The lumber was shipped via truck or rail, and Creditor’s invoice dates were always the date of shipment.
  • At the time of the preference payments at issue, the Creditor and Debtor had agreed to attempt to match the date the lumber shipments would arrive at Debtor’s facilities with its obligation to pay, and had agreed that all payments would be by EFT.
  • Payment terms were based on whether the lumber would be shipped by truck or rail. Lumber shipped by rail generally took 12-14 days, while lumber shipped by truck generally took 3-5 days.
  • During the relevant period, Debtor paid Creditor for rail shipments within 10.9 days after the date of the invoice, on average, and within 3.2 days, on average, for rail shipments
  • For all shipments, with minor exceptions, Debtor paid Creditor for specific shipments before, or at, the time they arrived at Debtor’s facilities
  • Neither Creditor nor Debtor kept regular records of when shipments arrived at Debtor’s facilities
  • The trustee brought a preference action seeking to recover four transfers made by Debtor

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