Darrell L. Scarlett, Judge

Biography

Reports of Cases Reviewed by Appellate Courts – Beginning Jan. 1, 2022

Text is the appellate court’s summary of the opinion.

Scroll down for important information.

 

Fulghum v. Notestine, No. M2022-00420-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 31, 2023).  The Plaintiff brought a premises liability claim after falling off his own ladder while at the Defendant’s residence. The Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing he had no duty to warn and could avoid liability under principles of comparative fault. The Plaintiff countered that the Defendant was actually his employer and that the Defendant’s decision not to provide workers’ compensation insurance prevented the Defendant from being able to raise a comparative fault defense. Furthermore, the Plaintiff argued that the Defendant did have a duty to warn. The trial court granted the Defendant summary judgment finding no duty to warn and that even if a duty existed that Plaintiff’s claim failed as a matter of law based upon comparative fault principles. The Plaintiff appealed to this Court. We affirm.

 

Mynatt v. National Treasury Employees Union, Chapter 39, No. M2020-01285-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. May 4, 2023). Kenneth J. Mynatt (“Plaintiff”) served as the vice president of the local chapter of his union. He filed an action for malicious prosecution and civil conspiracy against the union, the local chapter, and several individuals associated with the union. He alleged that after he publicly criticized the union’s financial waste, its leadership accused him of misusing union funds. Those accusations led to his indictment on two felony charges. In the resulting criminal case, the State filed a motion to retire the charges for one year, and those charges were ultimately dismissed after the year passed. In Plaintiff’s complaint for malicious prosecution, he stated that he continued to maintain his innocence, that he refused any plea deals, and that the criminal case terminated in his favor because it was ultimately dismissed. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the retirement and dismissal of the criminal charges was not a favorable termination on the merits. Thus, they argued his complaint was missing an essential element of a malicious prosecution claim. The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that Plaintiff sufficiently alleged that the underlying criminal proceedings terminated in his favor. The defendants sought review from this Court, arguing that the Court of Appeals did not apply the correct standard for determining what constitutes a favorable termination for the purpose of a malicious prosecution claim. We conclude that the prohibition in Himmelfarb v. Allain, 380 S.W.3d 35 (Tenn. 2012), precluding a fact intensive and subjective inquiry into the reasons and circumstances leading to dispositions in civil cases also applies to dispositions in criminal cases. We hold that plaintiffs can pursue a claim for malicious prosecution only if an objective examination, limited to the documents disposing of the proceeding or the applicable procedural rules, indicates the termination of the underlying criminal proceeding reflects on the merits of the case and was due to the innocence of the accused. Under this standard, Mr. Mynatt did not allege sufficient facts for a court to conclude that the dismissal of his criminal case was a favorable termination. We therefore reverse the holding of the Court of Appeals and affirm the trial court’s judgment granting the motion to dismiss.

 

Albers v. Powers, No. M2021-00577-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. July 12, 2022). This appeal requires us to consider the defense of res judicata in the context of two separate lawsuits filed by parties who were in a car accident.  Following the car accident, the first lawsuit was filed and settled by agreement of the parties.  An agreed judgment was entered dismissing the first lawsuit.  Subsequently, the defendant from the initial lawsuit and her husband filed suit against the former plaintiff, alleging various causes of action sounding in tort.  The trial court dismissed the second case, finding that all of the claims were barred by res judicata.  The defendant in the initial suit and her husband—the plaintiffs in the second suit—appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit.  We find that the tort claims alleged in the second suit were not compulsory counterclaims under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 13.01, and were not claims that would nullify the initial action or impair rights established in the initial action; therefore, we hold that the doctrine of res judicata does not bar those claims.  The judgment of the trial court dismissing the case is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

Understanding the Limitations and Use of the Information Found in This Book

Tennessee’s trial judges resolve hundreds of thousands of legal and factual issues in tens of thousands of cases every single year.  No appeal is filed in the vast percentage of those cases, indicating that while the “losing” party may not like a ruling on a particular issue, that party understands there was an appropriate reason for the judge’s decision or, at a minimum, the judge was acting within his or her discretion.

 

Of course, a small number of decisions of trial judges do result in an appeal. Experienced trial lawyers know that the number of cases appealed out of a particular trial judge’s court does not, in and of itself, reveal much about the trial judge. For example, some judges hear more complex cases than others, and those cases are more likely to be appealed. Convictions in child sex abuse cases are frequently appealed, as are many criminal cases resulting in long sentences. There are a large number of parental rights termination cases that find their way to the appellate courts.  Judges who routinely try those types of cases will, other things being equal, see more of their cases reviewed by appellate courts than judges who do not see such cases.

 

Second, certain litigants (and certain lawyers) are more likely to appeal a case than others.  Thus, judges who have those litigants or lawyers regularly appear in their courtrooms will find more cases reviewed by the appellate courts.

 

For these and other reasons, the reader is cautioned not to read too much into the number of cases appealed from a court.  Stated differently, there is no reason to believe that a judge who has ten cases reviewed by an appellate court in a single year is a “worse” judge than one who has one case appealed, or that a judge who has three cases appealed is a “better” judge than one who has nine cases appealed.

 

Next, the number of times a judge’s ruling is reversed by an appellate court is not necessarily indicative of the quality of his or her work. For example, experienced lawyers know that there are “holes in the law,” i.e., cases where there is no law directly on point and the judge is forced to predict what an appellate court would rule on the issue. The fact that a judge decided an open legal issue one way and an appellate court decided it another way does not mean that the trial judge was “wrong” or does not understand the law. It simply means that the trial judge had a different view of what the law should be than the appellate court that decided the issue. A trial judge is not blessed with a crystal ball that can with 100 percent accuracy forecast how an appellate court will rule on an undecided legal issue.

 

In addition, the trial court is sometimes not provided with the same in-depth legal arguments and law that is supplied to the appellate court by the parties, or which is provided by law clerks at the appellate level (many trial courts do not have law clerks). The trial judge may have reached the same conclusion as the appellate court if he or she had been supplied with additional law or argument.

 

Finally, the law changes constantly, and the trial judge may rule on a case based on today’s law, which may evolve between the time of that ruling and the issuance of an opinion of the appellate court. In such cases, the reversal of the case by the appellate court is a question of timing of the original court decision as compared to changes in the law, not one of error by the trial court.

 

So, what is the value of this book?  How can the trial lawyer use it to help his or her clients given the limitations expressed above? Permit me to digress slightly.

 

You have seen the coffee cups or t-shirts that proclaim, “A good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge.”

 

Some read this phrase as suggesting that the “great lawyer” is one who has an improper relationship with the judge – that he or she can use a personal relationship to improperly influence the judge.  But most lawyers know better.  Most lawyers understand that “knowing the judge” means knowing the judge’s background, preferences concerning the presentation of evidence (including exhibits), arguments of motions, drafting of proposed orders, and given that experience, how he or she is likely to rule on a particular issue.  “Knowing the judge” also means knowing the local rules, local forms, local customs, and what things irritate the judge (and every judge is irritated by at least one thing that lawyers or litigants may do).

 

Many lawyers, particularly those in more rural areas of the state or who limit their practice to one area of law, understand the personality and preferences of the judges they see on a regular basis. Many of these lawyers may have a fair advantage appearing before that judge. (The advantage is “fair” because it results from experience and knowledge.)  That advantage – knowing how the judge thinks and his or her preferences – is not outcome-determinative, but it still may be an advantage, similar to a sports team playing on their home field.

 

Why did I say it “may” be an advantage, given what I said earlier about the benefits of “knowing the judge?”  Because simply knowing the judge’s thought processes and preferences is not enough. You still need to have the law and the facts on your client’s side.  And you need to be prepared to be able to give the judge what he or she needs to know to make a ruling.

 

So, the purpose of “The Book” is to give Tennessee lawyers case-related information to help them understand the trial judge who will rule on their client’s case or preside over a jury trial. By looking at past appellate court rulings arising from cases decided by the trial judge, anyone unfamiliar with a judge can get a “feel” for the judge. The case data contained herein does not compare with daily or weekly appearances in front of the judge on issues like a given case, but it is readily available information that give you an idea of how the judge has ruled in the past on a variety of matters.

 

The cases included are those originally decided by the trial judge that were in appellate court opinions released on or after January 1, 2022.  Note that there are a substantial number of judges who first took office in 2022 and thus it is reasonable to assume that there will be no appellate decisions for such judges until late 2023 or 2024.

 

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