Articles Posted in Real Estate Litigation

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In 1977, the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act was enacted. In 2011, the legislature of Tennessee modified it significantly. Here are some basic points to remember with respect to potential Tennessee Consumer Protection Act lawsuits:

  1. Since 2011, a party cannot bring a private cause of action for acts and practices which fall under the catch-all provision of T.C.A. §47-18-104(27).  The TCPA contains a laundry list of fairly specific acts or practices which are per se unfair and deceptive.  It also contains a catch-all subdivision which declares that “any other act or practice which is deceptive” is actionable.  In many cases, in my experience, it is difficult to shoe horn the conduct at issue into one of the defined unfair acts and practices.  In such cases, the catch-all provision may be the only avenue for a client to achieve the relief provided by the TCPA.  In 2011, however, the TCPA was revised to prohibit a private cause of action under the catch-all provision.  There are still other provisions for which a private cause of action is available, which are somewhat broad and which may fit a client’s case, particularly, T.C.A. §47-18-104(5)(7) and (19).
  2. The statute of limitations for lawsuits under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act is one year. The one year period begins running from “a person’s discovery of the unlawful act or practice.”  Beware that a defendant can argue that the statute began running when a person had constructive knowledge of the act or practice. A plaintiff has constructive knowledge when the plaintiff is aware of facts which would put a reasonable person on notice that the plaintiff has suffered an injury because of the wrongful conduct and knows the identity of the entity or person who engaged in that conduct.  When a plaintiff had constructive knowledge is a question of fact to be decided by the jury, if a jury has been demanded.  There is an absolute outer limit, or statute of repose, for the filing of TCPA claims of 5 years after the date of the transaction which is the basis of the lawsuit.
  3. To recover under the Tennessee Consumer Act, a plaintiff has to show more than just an unfair or deceptive act or practice: A plaintiff must show that he or she suffered an ascertainable loss as the result of the act or practice. In other words, consistent with the common law tort claims for fraud and negligent misrepresentation, a plaintiff in a consumer protection lawsuit must show that the conduct at issue caused him or her damages.  The question of whether or not there has been an ascertainable loss, and the amount thereof, is a question of fact for the jury where a jury has been demanded.
  4. The Tennessee Consumer Protection Act can no longer be used as a cause of action against an insurance company.  In 2011, T.C.A. §56-8-113 became effective and it prohibits the use of the TCPA against insurance companies.
  5. A plaintiff cannot recover both treble damages under the TCPA and punitive damages for a common law claim which relates to the same conduct. Plaintiffs typically combine a TCPA cause of action with a common law cause of action like fraud.  Punitive damages are not available under the TCPA, but a court may treble the amount of any damages awarded by the jury under the TCPA.  If a plaintiff recovers punitive damages under a common law claim and treble damages under the TCPA, the plaintiff must then elect which award to take (which is a no brainer decision).
  6. The TCPA cannot be used against someone who has been engaged in the isolated sale of real estate. If you buy a home or other real estate from someone who you believe made a misrepresentation or who failed to disclose a material defect, and that person is not in the real estate business and does not frequently sell real estate, you may have common law causes of action and other statutory causes of action against that person, but it is unlikely you have a viable TCPA claim against them.  (The same cannot be said for real estate agents and agencies.)
  7. The TCPA applies to acts or practices in connection with the marketing or sale of securities.
  8. Under the TCPA, a court may award a successful plaintiff attorney’s fees.  

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In a recent Tennessee partition case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reversed the trial court’s finding that the plaintiff did not have an interest in the farm which he sought to partition by sale. The trial court held that, even though the plaintiff was listed as a joint tenant on the deed to the property, he had no interest based on the theories of title by prescription, and unjust enrichment and based on Tenn. Code Annotated §28-2-110 (the statute which prevents someone from bringing an action to assert title to property if that person has not paid property taxes for more than 20 years).

Here are the key facts:

  • Defendants, the parents of the plaintiff (“Parents”), owned several separate tracts of farmland as joint tenants in common (also sometimes referred to as “co-tenants”) with their sons — Plaintiff and his brother
  • Plaintiff sought to partition several tracts of the farmland
  • The tract known as the McLemoresville Farm (the “Farm”) was the subject of the appeal
  • In 1979, Parents had executed a deed transferring to Plaintiff and his brother a one-fourth interest each in the Farm
  • The purchase of the Farm had been financed, and Parents, Plaintiff and his brother had all signed the deed of trust which secured the loan
  • Only parents signed the note for the Farm, and they paid all of the payments
  • In addition to the loan payments, Parents paid all property taxes and other expenses related to the Farm for nearly 30 years
  • All parties agreed that Parents, Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s brother farmed harmoniously on the Farm, and on other jointly owned tracts, for years and until Plaintiff filed the partition lawsuit

The trial court held that Plaintiff could not partition the Farm because only parents had an ownership interest in the Farm for three reasons: (1) Tenn. Code Ann. §28-2-110 barred Plaintiff from asserting any ownership in the Farm; (2) Parents had obtained title by prescription to all interest in the Farm; and (3) Parents were entitled to exclusive ownership of the Farm based on the theory of unjust enrichment. The court of appeals reversed the trial court on all three holdings.

Tenn. Code Ann. §28-2-110 provides that no one may bring an action to claim title to land if that person has failed to pay property taxes for more than 20 years. The court of appeals held that the statute did not apply to Plaintiff because the Supreme Court of Tennessee has held that the statute does not bar a lawsuit by one joint tenant against another unless the plaintiff in such a lawsuit was ousted by the other joint tenant.  Because Plaintiff and Parents had cooperatively farmed the Farm for many years, there was no ouster and, therefore, the statute did not apply.

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The Tennessee Statute of Frauds requires several types of contracts to be memorialized in a writing (or combination of writings) and signed in order to be enforceable. The three most important types of contracts covered by the Statute of Frauds, at least from a commercial standpoint, are contracts for the sale of land and leases longer than one year; agreements to pay the debts of another; and contracts that cannot possibly be performed within one year.

If a contract is covered by the Statute, does a modification of that contract also have to meet the requirements of the Statute? There is Tennessee case law to support that argument.  The case of Davidson v. Wilson is such a case, and one that demonstrates the ability of the Statute of Frauds to cause what many would describe as an inequitable result in a breach of contract case.

Here are the key facts of that case:

  • Buyer and Seller entered into a written contract providing that Seller would sell a specific 50 acre tract to Buyers for $124,750
  • The closing date for the sale in the written contract was December 5, 2005
  • On the closing date of December 5, the Seller sent, by U.S. mail, a warranty deed to the Buyers
  • The warranty deed recited that the tract was 50 acres “more or less”
  • The warranty deed also provided that the legal description of the tract was provided “without the benefit of a survey”
  • Buyers were concerned, as they should have been, about the deed
  • According to Buyers, after they received the deed, they had numerous conversations with the Seller which resulted in an oral modification of the terms of the written contract
  • According to Buyers, the oral modification was an agreement to extend the closing date until the Buyers had obtained a survey
  • The Seller denied that any such agreement modifying the written contract had been reached
  • The facts of the case strongly compelled the conclusion reached by the trial court: That the Seller’s version of events was not credible and that he had taken the position that the Buyers had breached by not closing on time only after he was able to obtain a contract for a significantly higher price for the tract from a third party

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee reversed the trial court. It did not challenge the trial court’s findings about the respective testimony of the litigants. It held that, since the alleged oral agreement changed the “essential terms” of the contract, it had to be in a writing which complied with the Statute of Frauds.

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In condemnation cases, it is understandable that a landowner would want a jury to be able to consider the value of the landowner’s property based on its highest and best use. For example, if the landowner’s property is uniquely situated such that a party wanting to construct a hotel on it would likely pay significantly more for it than any other buyer, the landowner would probably do better at trial if an expert appraiser was able to base his or her valuation on the amount that a buyer wanting to construct a hotel on it would pay for the property.  While such an approach to valuation would certainly favor a landowner in many cases, under Tennessee condemnation law, such an approach is not allowed. That has long been the rule in Tennessee eminent domain cases.

To see how this rule can play out to the detriment of a landowner, consider the recent case of Ocoee Utility District of Bradley and Polk Counties v. The Wildwood Company, Inc. (Sept. 2016).  Here are the key facts:

  • The Landowners owned land with springs which could provide a water source for the condemning authority, the Utility District
  • The Utility District’s appraiser had appraised the property being taken at $21,500
  • The Utility District offered to buy the property for $35,000
  • The Landowners retained, as an expert witness, a commercial appraiser who valued the property at $417,000
  • To arrive at the $417,000 figure, the appraiser testified, in his deposition, that the highest and best use of the property was for the sale of water and that his valuation involved an analysis of the income which could be generated from the sale of water from the property
  • The expert appraiser testified that he based his valuation of fair market value on the rental income that the Landowners could generate by leasing the water rights and acknowledged that his “rental rate is based on water.”
  • The appraiser also testified that his value was based on what rate the Utility District was willing to pay for the water rights
  • The jury returned a verdict for the Landowners in the amount of $417,000

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee set aside the jury verdict. It held that the testimony of the Landowners’ appraiser should have been excluded at trial.

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Last week’s blog dealt with the role of the Statute of Frauds in Tennessee real estate litigation.  The statute of frauds requires that contracts for the sale of real estate be memorialized by a writing or by a combination of writings which the court determines sufficiently describe the property conveyed.

Here are some cases, and a brief summary of their facts, where Tennessee courts have held that the writing(s) at issue was insufficient to comply with the statute of frauds:

Gorbics v. Close, 722 S.W.2d 672 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1986): A writing which described the property to be conveyed as follows: “a one acre tract of land on the northwest corner of my land. . . .”

Baliles v. Cities Service Co., 578 S.W.2d 621 (Tenn. 1979): A writing which described the property as “lots 99 and 100 in Cherokee Hills” was insufficient.

Massey v. Hardcastle, 753 S.W.2d 127 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1988): Seller had paper with address of the property to be sold at the top of the paper which purported to memorialize agreement for sale of real estate. At the bottom, the paper stated that “seller will transfer its tenantcy [sic] to the buyer,” but did not further identify the tenancy to be transferred.

Here are some cases, and a brief summary of their facts, where Tennessee courts have held that the writing(s) at issue was sufficient to comply with the statute of frauds:

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In Tennessee, most contracts are just as legally effective and valid if they are verbal as opposed to written. However, many real estate contracts and agreements, under Tennessee law, may be held invalid if not memorialized by a written document or documents which the court determines sufficiently set forth the essential terms of the agreement.  Moreover, such real estate contracts may be held invalid if the documents memorializing them are not signed by the parties against whom enforcement is sought.

The Tennessee the statute of frauds, Tenn. Code Ann. §29-2-101(a)(4), can potentially invalidate any real estate contract that is not adequately memorialized and signed by the party against whom enforcement is sought. The Tennessee statute of frauds does not automatically void real estate agreements which fail to meet its requirements: It makes such transactions voidable.

The statute of frauds covers real estate option contracts as well as garden variety real estate sales contracts. It does not cover agreements about boundary line disputes; real estate agents’ agreements to list and sell real estate; or real estate brokerage agreements.

The statute of frauds does not apply to some agreements which are collateral to the transfer of real estate. For example, in one Tennessee case, in addition to transferring a lot, the seller agreed to build a certain type of home. The parties’ in that case had no written contract about the specifications for the home or the quality or type of materials to be used in building the home.  The seller argued that the contract to build the home was unenforceable under the statute of frauds, but the Court of Appeals of Tennessee disagreed.

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In a recent construction law case decided by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Beacon4, LLC v. I & L Investments, LLC, the project Owner was ordered to pay, not only the withheld retainage owed to the Contractor, but also, the Contractor’s attorney’s fees, as well as pre-judgment interest.  The case is a good example of the Tennessee Prompt Pay Act achieving its intended purpose — requiring owners to pick up a contractor’s tab for attorney’s fees when they withhold retainage in bad faith and for no legitimate reason other than to pressure the contractor to take less than it is owed or to release lien rights it has for work or materials.

Here are the key facts:

  • Contractor entered into a contract for the construction of a building with Owner
  • Owner retained Butler, a principal in an architectural firm, to act as construction manager for the Project
  • On May 17, 2011 a certificate of occupancy was issued for the building
  • On November 11, 2011, counsel for Contractor sent Owner a letter demanding Owner pay the $48,442.77 it was holding in retainage as well as another $120,000 for change order work
  • Although Butler responded that the retainage was being withheld because of unresolved deficiencies in site work, he admitted at trial that he never placed any monetary value on any corrective work
  • On April 12, 2012, Owner sent a letter to Contractor advising it that it had a “final check” in the amount of $62,297 which was available provided that Contractor (and a subcontractor) executed an “appropriate lien release”
  • Contractor filed a lawsuit alleging that it was owed the retainage and that it was entitled to attorney’s fees under the Prompt Pay Act because the retainage had been withheld in bad faith (it also alleged breach of contract for the change order work)
  • The trial court found that Contractor was owed the retainage; that Owner had violated the Prompt Pay Act by withholding the retainage in bad faith; that Contractor was entitled to an award of attorney’s fees under the Prompt Pay Act for Owner’s bad faith; and that Owner was responsible for pre-judgment interest at 6% APR

The Court of Appeals (“Court”) affirmed the decision of the trial court that Contractor was entitled to the retainage, that Owner had acted in bad faith under the Prompt Pay Act in withholding payment, and that Owner was liable for attorney’s fees.

The Court observed that, under §66-34-204 of the Tennessee Prompt Pay Act, the retainage had to be paid within 90 days of the issuance of the certificate of occupancy, and that Owner had failed to do that. Owner argued that the 90 period of that statute did not apply because the General Conditions of the contract allowed it to hold the retainage beyond 90 days. The provision of the General Conditions relied upon by Owner allowed it to withhold the retainage until the occurrence of a number of conditions, including Contractor’s execution of documents necessary for “waivers of liens.”

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Can you recover punitive damages in Tennessee for breach of contract? It is difficult, but not impossible.  Moreover, there is little published case law on the subject, and, as discussed below, there is one major question about punitive damages in breach of contract cases which has yet to be fully explored and answered by Tennessee courts.

A good place to start is a summary of some Tennessee cases where punitive damages were requested for breach of contract.

Riad v. Erie Insurance Exchange (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013):  In this case, the plaintiff alleged the defendant insurance company was liable for breach of contract, bad faith failure to pay and for violating the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.  After a trial, the jury assessed punitive damages against the defendant of $1.5 million dollars.  (It assessed compensatory damages of $343,430).

While regurgitating the same phrase used in previous Tennessee cases that punitive damages are “generally not available in breach of contract cases,” the court upheld the award of punitive damages. It did so by pointing to the seminal punitive damages case in Tennessee, Hodges v. S.C. Toof & Co. (Tenn. 1992).  In Hodges, the Supreme Court of Tennessee held that, to recover punitive damages, the defendant must have acted intentionally, fraudulently, maliciously, or recklessly.  Notably, Hodges was not a breach of contract case.

Dog House Investments, LLC v. Teal Properties, Inc. (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014): In this case, the plaintiff alleged breach of contract and promissory fraud.  (A defendant is liable for promissory fraud if it can be proven that, at the time the defendant made a promise, it had no present intent to fulfill that promise.)  The Court of Appeals of Tennessee held that the breach of contract in this case did not rise to a level of egregiousness warranting an award of punitive damages.  I think most people would agree that the conduct of the defendant in this case was every bit as egregious as the conduct of the defendant in the Riad case.  In the Dog House case, the court seemed to say that, in order to receive punitive damages for breach of contract, there must be some fraud in addition to a breach of contract. Notably, in this case, the court allowed the punitive damages verdict to stand because the trial judge had found that the defendant not only breached the contract, but also, committed promissory fraud. Continue reading →

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Given the prevalence of form contracts and the reality of the lack of attention sometimes paid to contracts and agreements on the front end by business people, disputes often arise in Tennessee commercial litigation cases about whether someone is personally liable on a contract in addition to their company being liable. In breach of contract cases for failure to pay, whether the owner of the business (or some other party) is also individually liable is very frequently critical.  Any Tennessee business litigation lawyer who has handled even a modicum of cases has run into a situation where, if his or her client cannot collect from an individual guarantor, their client will collect nothing because the company is broke.

The Supreme Court of Tennessee has issued a new opinion which clarifies the liability of individuals in situations where it is alleged that they personally guaranteed the debts of a company. In MLG Enterprises v. Johnson, the plaintiff sued the defendants, a company and its CEO, for breach of contract of a commercial lease.  The commercial lease contained a paragraph which specifically and unequivocally stated that the CEO agreed to be personally liable for all of the obligations of the company under the commercial lease.  Because of the manner in which the lease was signed, there turned out to be a doubt, at least until the case made it to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, about whether that unambiguous language was effective.

The CEO had signed the commercial lease twice. He signed it once on behalf of his company, the “Tenant.”  Directly below the signature line for the Tenant signature, the words “President/CEO” were typewritten. As well, beside the “Tenant” signature line was written the name of the CEO’s company, which was an LLC.

There was another signature line on the lease for the CEO which contained his name and not the company’s. When the CEO signed in that location, right after he signed his name, he wrote the words “for Mobile Master Mfg., LLC,” the company of which he was CEO.

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Tennessee courts, if they follow the law, which they usually do, are very disinclined to make a party do something or to make a party refrain from doing something until the usual legal processes which occur after a lawsuit has been filed have taken place. The usual processes, which typically take many months, are an initial round of pleadings and motions, an opportunity for each party to engage in discovery, and the occurrence of a trial (if one of the parties has not shown that it has a strong enough case that it is entitled to a summary judgment or dismissal).

There are situations in which Tennessee courts are authorized to, and will, grant what is referred to as “extraordinary relief” or “injunctive relief” on an emergency or semi-emergency basis. Such relief comes in the form of temporary restraining orders (“TROs”) and temporary injunctions, sometimes also called emergency injunctions. Temporary restraining orders and temporary injunctions are almost always granted at the outset of litigation in order to prevent irreparable harm to a party.  (Permanent injunctions are granted after a trial or dispositive motion and are not discussed in this blog.)

The notion behind TROs and temporary injunctions is that, in some situations, if a party has to wait on the usual legal processes to occur, even if it wins, it will suffer damages or harm that cannot be remedied even by an award of money damages.

A.  Requirements for Obtaining a TRO or Temporary Injunction

To obtain a TRO, a party must prove to the court that, absent a TRO, the opposing party’s actions will cause it immediate damage which will be irreparable. TROs are frequently issued in cases where ex-employees or independent contractors are violating valid non-compete agreements and/or have confidential information, which information gives them a competitive and unfair advantage over their prior employer or the party with whom they had the independent contractor relationship.

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