Articles Posted in Real Estate Litigation

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

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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It happens sometimes that someone, or some company, which owes a debt will transfer assets that could have been used to pay the debt in order to avoid paying it. Such transfers are often to family members, related or successor businesses, or preferred creditors, and often, when the asset transferred is not cash, are made so that the debtor/transferor receives well below the value of the asset transferred.

Fraudulent transfers can come in an endless variety of forms. Some are obvious and easy to spot. (One of the first ones I ran into involved a defendant which had transferred a piece of real estate to another entity just after my client obtained a judgment against it.) Often, however, they cannot be spotted absent access to the transferor’s financial records, and perhaps even, a deposition or two or a review of financial records by a forensic accountant.

Tennessee has adopted the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (the “Act”) to allow creditors to set aside fraudulent conveyances. If the debtor/transferor transferred the asset to a bona-fide purchaser who paid a value reasonably equivalent to the asset, a court may not set aside the transfer, but, in such a situation, it may well be possible to obtain a judgment against the entities or individuals responsible for the transfer, if they are different from the transferor.

Under the Act, it is important to remember that you do not have to have obtained a court judgment for the amount owed to you before a transfer can be considered fraudulent and set aside. A transfer can be fraudulent as to any creditor who has a “claim” against the transferor. Under the Act, “claim” has a broad definition, and odds are, if you were owed money by the transferor, you can avail yourself of the Act.  Moreover, the definition of “claim” includes unliquidated debts, meaning debts the exact amount of which are not known, but which, at some point, can be reduced to a dollar value.

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Tennessee has a statute, T.C.A. §28-2-110, which can come into play in a lawsuit about the ownership of real estate where the party initiating the lawsuit (the “Plaintiff”) is alleged not to have paid property taxes on the property at issue for more than twenty (20) years. To paraphrase the statute, it prevents anyone making a claim to real estate, or rents or profits from it, from bringing a lawsuit where that party, and those through whom that party claims her interest, have failed to pay any state or county taxes owing on the property for more than twenty (20) years.

In my estimation, the critical thing to understand about the statute is that it is a statute of limitations and does not, and cannot, divest a party of title to property or prevent a party from defending its claim to property when it is challenged by another party who initiates a lawsuit.  Furthermore, the statute cannot prevent a party who has initiated a lawsuit from defending its claim to the property when the defendant goes beyond invoking §28-2-110 and simply denying the plaintiff’s claim.  Where the defendant, through a counterclaim or otherwise, requests that the court adjudicate it to be the owner of the disputed tract, the court cannot use the statute to bar the plaintiff’s claim of ownership.

Maybe, the best way to understand the statute beyond the abstract, is to review how it has affected real parties in lawsuits. So, the following three case summaries are provided to help with that understanding.

Kinder v. Bryant (Tenn. Ct. App. 2018):  I selected this case because it seems to be a somewhat common and fairly easy to understand fact scenario in which the statute was employed as a defense. The property at issue was a forty (40) acre tract which the plaintiffs claimed to have purchased in 1980. The plaintiffs had a deed.  The plaintiffs did not record their deed until 1995. The defendants’ predecessors in interest purchased the same property in 1994. They received a deed and recorded it before 1995.  The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit to have themselves declared the owners of the property. Obviously, since there was no indication that the defendants were not bona fide purchasers without notice of the plaintiffs’ deed, and since the defendants had recorded their deed first, the plaintiffs had no chance of being declared the owners of the property based on the superiority of their title.  So, the plaintiffs claimed that they owned the property by adverse possession. Since it was undisputed that the plaintiffs had not paid any of the county taxes due on the property for over twenty (20) years, the court dismissed their case under §28-2-110. This case is an example of the statute barring a claim based on adverse possession.

Alexander v. Patrick (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983):  In this case, the plaintiff and defendant claimed ownership of the same fifty (50) acre tract of land.  Plaintiff’s claim was based on a deed as was defendant’s, but plaintiff’s deed was prior in time to defendant’s deed. The opinion does not state if, or when, the relevant deeds were filed with the register of deeds.  The proof established that defendant, and her predecessors, had paid the property taxes for more than twenty (20) years and that plaintiff, and her predecessors, had not. The court held that the plaintiff’s claim was barred by §28-2-110 and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint. This case is an example of the statute barring a claim based on title. Continue reading

A recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee provides a good roadmap of the law for joint owners of land involved in partition cases where there are claims that the proceeds from the sale of the property should not be divided equally because of rental value received by a joint owner and because of repair and maintenance paid by a joint owner.

Here are the basic facts:

  • Four siblings inherited a home (“Home”)
  • One sibling, Janella, lived at the Home with the parents before they passed and before the four children became joint tenants
  • After the parents died, Janella continued to reside at the Home
  • The siblings agreed that Janella would continue to reside at the Home, would maintain it, and have repairs made in preparation for its sale
  • Email correspondence established that all agreed that each sibling would contribute to the repairs and maintenance
  • All four siblings had some personal items at the Home
  • Janella informed her siblings that the necessary repairs would cost $48,000, but refused the requests of her siblings to provide more detailed information about the quotes and estimates
  • Janella began setting deadlines for her siblings to remove their personal property from the Home before she discarded the same
  • Janella stopped communicating with her siblings
  • One sibling went to the Home to remove her items and had to call the police to gain entry because Janella refused to allow her to enter the Home

The siblings filed a partition action. The trial court found that there had been an ouster. It held that Janella owed, to her siblings, three fourths of the rental value of the Home during the time she resided there. It also held that the siblings owed Janella $60,000 for repairs, maintenance and taxes which she had paid towards the Home.

Janella appealed the trial court’s decision that she owed her siblings rent. Her siblings appealed the trial court’s decision that they owed Janella the $60,000. The Court of Appeals of Tennessee affirmed the trial court’s decision on both rulings.

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Zoning laws and zoning maps are not caste in stone. They are subject to change for any number of reasons including recognition by a legislative body of a change in the character of an adjacent area. In Middle Tennessee these days, it is not at all fantastical for a land owner to expect a change in the current zoning of his or her property, which rezoning would allow new uses and development parameters.

In many cases, land owners’ real estate increases in value when a zoning change is enacted. For example, the value of a piece of property might dramatically increase when its zoning is changed from some form of residential to some form of commercial or industrial use. Can a possible change in zoning that would increase the value of a piece of property that is the subject of a condemnation case be considered by a jury?  In Tennessee, the answer is “yes.”

A couple of Tennessee eminent domain cases are excellent authority for the position that a potential change in zoning may be considered by a jury. In Shelby County v. Mid-South Title Company, Inc. (Tenn. Ct. App. 1980), the property owner’s property was zoned R-1 (single family residential).  The condemning authority, Shelby County, appealed a jury verdict on the grounds that the trial judge should not have permitted the property owner’s experts to testify as to the value of the land being taken based on appraisals wherein they considered comparable sales of commercially zoned properties.

At trial in the Shelby County case, the proof was that the county was taking 1.842 acres of the property owned by the defendant land owner. All three of the land owner’s expert witnesses testified that the property at issue had immediate and imminent commercial value that would be taken into account by any potential buyer. These opinions were based on their opinions that the property would be rezoned for commercial use in the near future. Consistent with the aforementioned opinions, each expert based his opinion of the value of the land being taken on appraisals based on comparable commercial sales.  The three experts for the county based their appraisals strictly on comparable residential sales because they believed that any commercial potential for the subject property was far-off.

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It is not unusual for construction litigation between owners, contractors and subcontractors to involve defenses and claims based on alleged untimely completion. The basics of the law in Tennessee related to project completion is a topic about which it is worthwhile for owners, contractors and subcontractors to have some practical knowledge.  A good place to start to gain that knowledge is an opinion in a construction case involving claims of breach of contract, a mechanics’ and materialmen’s’ lien, and the Tennessee Prompt Pay Act.  That case is Madden Phillips Construction, Inc. v. GGAT Development Corporation, and here are the basic facts of that case:

  • Madden Phillips (“Contractor”) and GGAT (“Owner”) entered into a construction contract for the construction of a residential subdivision
  • In the written construction contract, Contractor agreed to perform several scopes of work including earthwork and construction of infrastructure for utilities and roads
  • The written contract contained neither a date for completion nor a “time is of the essence” clause
  • Contractor began work in May of 2004, but suspended its work in July of 2004 based on Owner’s failure to perform work necessary for Contractor to perform its work
  • After forty-five days, Contractor resumed construction, but continued to have problems completing its work because of the failure of Owner to complete its work
  • After Contractor had performed about ninety five percent (95%) of its work, Owner terminated the contract and refused to pay

As a defense to Contractor’s claims, Owner argued that Contractor had materially breached the construction contract by failing to complete the work in eight months. The trial court rejected this defense based on three findings of fact. First, it found that the parties’ contract did not contain a term that the work had to be completed in eight months. Second, it found that the parties had not agreed to a “time is of the essence” term for completion. Third, any right Owner might have had to terminate Contractor for failing to perform its work on a timely basis was waived by Owner’s actions and inactions, including, failing to provide fill which had to be in place before Contractor could perform its work.

The court of appeals affirmed the aforementioned ruling of the trial court, and, in doing so, it expounded on Tennessee legal principles that are applicable in cases where timeliness of completion is at issue. First, it pointed out that contract clauses which state that “time is of the essence” and contract clauses which set forth a date by which the parties agree that the work will be completed have different legal effects. Here is how:  If a construction contract contains a date by which the work will be completed, but does not contain a “time is of the essence” provision, then a failure to complete the work by the agreed date will not rise to a material breach. A non-material breach does not allow the non-breaching party to terminate a contract and refuse to pay, which is what Owner did.

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A recent Court of Appeals decision involving a claim for breach of contract related to a flat fee promotion agreement illustrates how Tennessee courts are not permitted, except in limited situations involving non-compete agreements, to re-write contracts or to add terms to contracts.  Here are the basic facts:

  • Gregg wanted to pursue a career in country music
  • Cupit was a producer with a studio
  • Gregg and Cupit entered into a “Production Agreement”
  • The Production Agreement provided that Gregg would pay Cupit a “flat fee” of $100,000 per single for three singles which Cupit would “nationally promote”
  • The Production Agreement provided that the $300,000 would be used at the “sole discretion” of Cupit
  • The Production Agreement provided that Cupit made no guarantees of success because the music business was a “speculative business”
  • Cupit undertook to promote Gregg in various ways, including having its principal give him singing lessons; incurring expenses for Gregg’s appearance on a television show; producing a music video; arranging various performances at country music events; employing a publicist; and having a Cupit employee devote time to communicating with radio stations to promote each song Gregg recorded
  • Gregg never had any success with his career

Gregg sued Cupit for breach of contract. He claimed that, because Cupit could only prove that it had expended an amount on promotion which was far less than the money Gregg had paid it, it had breached the contract.

The trial court held for Gregg. In doing so, it invoked the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing that is, by law, part of every Tennessee contract. It held that Gregg was entitled to an award of the difference between what he had paid Cupit and the amount which Cupit could prove it spent on promotion for Gregg. The amount awarded by the trial court was $223,069.

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Sales representatives, whether they are employees or independent contractors, are too frequently faced with situations where the businesses which owe them commissions refuse to pay them or refuse to pay them the full amounts owed. While, unfortunately, sales representatives do sometimes get beaten out of commissions which they are rightfully owed, sales representatives should take a hard look at their situations before giving up on receiving payment for sales commissions.

Here are some legal points for sales reps to consider when faced with a refusal to pay:

A VERBAL CONTRACT TO PAY COMMISSIONS IS ENFORCEABLE

We have had several cases over the years where a sales representative was not paid and where the refusal to pay was on the basis that there was no written agreement to pay or to pay the percentage which was claimed to be owed. In such cases, sales reps should bear in mind that an agreement to pay commissions does not have to be in writing. Under Tennessee law, oral or verbal agreements to pay commissions are just as enforceable as written ones.  The problem with oral contracts is that people lie or, to be more euphemistic, they remember things differently.

The problem of the party who owes the commission remembering the parties’ agreement differently can sometimes be overcome by evidence of the parties’ course of conduct. For example, we had a case where a manufacturer claimed that it did not have a written agreement to pay its manufacturer’s representative commissions on pre-fabricated metal building materials. The manufacturer’s defense fell apart because our client had information on the total value of each sale he had made and he had copies of checks from the manufacturer which showed that, for over two years, he had been paid the percentage he claimed he was owed on all of the projects he sold. While most defenses don’t fall apart that easily, that case demonstrates how a course of conduct can make it difficult for a manufacturer, employer or other business to renege on the payment of sales commissions.

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Anecdotally, the defense of novation to a breach of contract claim under Tennessee law seems to do about as well as the multitude of other defenses which are often pled, but much less frequently successful. In a nutshell, a novation occurs when a prior contract between the same parties is replaced and extinguished by a new contract. The defense is often used by defendants who claim that, because of a novation, they were let off the hook and are no longer responsible for the obligations to which they agreed.

In a recent breach of contract case before the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Premier Imaging/Medical Systems, Inc. v. Coffey Family Medical Clinic, P.C., that court affirmed the decision of the trial court that the defendant had failed to prove the defense of novation.  Here are the key facts:

  • The defendant, CFMC, was a medical practice
  • CFMC entered into a contract (the “Contract”) with Premier whereby Premier was to service a medical scanner used by CFMC
  • The Contract had a five-year term and required CFMC to pay about $4,500 per month
  • The effective date of the Contract was January 1, 2011
  • In 2013, the principal of CFMC, Dr. Coffey, entered into a separate contract with a company called Pioneer (the “Pioneer Contract”)
  • Under the Pioneer Contract, Pioneer assumed contractual obligations of CFMC including CFMC’s contractual obligations to Premier under the Contract
  • Premier was not a party to the Pioneer Contract and did not agree that CFMC was no longer obligated pursuant to the Contract
  • CFMC requested that Premier begin sending its monthly invoices to Pioneer
  • Premier, thereafter, did send the monthly invoices to Pioneer
  • Pioneer made monthly payments to Premier for only four months after which its relationship with Dr. Coffey and CFMC deteriorated

Since the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision and reasoning of the trial court, the appellate court’s reasoning will be discussed here. The court started its analysis by laying out the four elements that have to be proven for a novation: (1) a prior valid obligation; (2) an agreement supported by evidence of intention; (3) the extinguishment of the old contract; and (4) a valid new contract. It also noted a couple of other key points about the defense of novation. First, the party asserting it has the burden of proving it. Second, while a novation may be implied and does not have to be established by evidence that it was expressed, it is never presumed and must be established by a clear and definite intention.

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