In The News

Attorney Liens: Because Every Lawyer Should Get Paid

I talk a lot about liens as a good way for a creditor to get paid. In state courts and bankruptcy courts, there often are two lines formed: one for those with liens, and the other for those without liens. And you can guess which one leads to the money.

Under Tennessee statutes, there are liens for all kinds of people: mechanics, artisans; dentists; jewelers; shoe repairers; cotton ginners; lithographers; baggage claim folks...just to name a few.

But let's talk about attorney liens today.

Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 23-2-102, an attorney who files a lawsuit "shall have a lien upon the plaintiff's or complainant's right of action from the date of the filing of the suit." (Or, per Tenn. Code Ann.  § 23-2-103, the attorney has a lien from the date that the attorney starts work on the case.)

This lien extends to two types of property. The first is a "retaining lien," which gives the attorney the right to retain a client's books, papers, or money coming into his possession during the matter until the client pays. The second is a "charging lien," which is a lien for payment of fees against the judgment or recovery obtained in a case. For a good review of this, see Starks v. Browning, 20 S.W.3d 645, 650 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999).
There's some old caselaw out there that suggests that the attorney must have the lien noted in the Judgment to be valid. The Starks case above (involving the venerable Nashville lawyer, Bart Durham) says that requirement is not in the statute and is just an odd creation from old caselaw.
 
But, I say that it's a good practice to note the attorney lien any- and every-where (in judgments, in notices filed with the Court, notices recorded in the Register's Office), but it's not legally required.
 
The statutes above don't cover all situations where an attorney might have a lien; in fact, other specific statutes, like worker's compensation matters, may have their own special rules. Additionally, nothing would stop a collection minded lawyer from obtaining a consensual lien as part of his or her client engagement documents, particularly where client resources may eventually be scarce.
 
Long story short, the attorney lien statutes are probably narrower than you thought they were, granting a lien generally only the lawsuit filed by the attorney. Any other, broader liens to secure repayment must be granted or taken under other statutes (judgment liens, consensual liens).

 

A Reminder About Collection on Unpaid Legal Invoices: Wait a Year

This is an issue I've written about before over at Creditor Rights 101, in Collection on Unpaid Invoices: One Really Good Reason to Wait a Year.

But, I mention it again because the Tennessee Court of Appeals revisited the issue recently, in Scott Ostendorf, et. al. v. R. Stephen Fox, et. al. (Tenn. Ct. Apps.,  No. E2013-01978-COA-R3-CV, July 16, 2014).

In that case, the law firm committed possible malpractice regarding the perfection of a client's lien security interest rights. The issue came to light in November 2008, and the client sued for malpractice in March 2012. Clearly, the lawsuit was filed more than one year after the facts alleged to be malpractice.

This was a pretty easy one for the Court, which cited the Tennessee Supreme Court's opinion at Kohl & Co., P.C. v. Dearborn & Ewing, 977 S.W.2d 528, 532 (Tenn. 1998):

"The statute of limitations for legal malpractice is one year from the time the cause of action accrues. Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a)(2). When the cause of action accrues is determined by applying the discovery rule. Under this rule, a cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knows or in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence should know that an injury has been sustained as a result of wrongful or tortious conduct by the defendant. Shadrick v. Coker, 963 S.W.2d 726, 733 (Tenn. 1998)."

As I said in my prior post, I'm not condoning legal malpractice, nor suggesting that you should play hard-ball in collection of unpaid invoices for services that involved malpractice. But, as I said in my last post, if you sue a client for unpaid bills, it's more than likely going to result in that client claiming malpractice, whether it's merited or not.

If you think that such a claim will be raised from vindictiveness or tactic planning, then any lawyer should sit on the unpaid bills for services for at least a year. It's an easy "summary judgment" / "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted" issue.

Don't Let Your Post-Foreclosure Rights Expire: Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-118(d) Imposes a Two Year Statute of Limitations on Deficiency Lawsuits

Last week, a local collections lawyer conceded, in open court, that collection cases rarely have interesting issues involved. This case was different, the lawyer argued, because it involved interpretation of Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-118(d), which has not yet been discussed in any Tennessee opinion.

This is the new foreclosure deficiency statute, and I've dealt with this law a few different times. Here's a blog post about the first judicial opinion defining what constitutes a reasonable bid price at foreclosure under the statute.

I've also noted that the statute shortens the statute of limitations on pursuing post-foreclosure deficiency lawsuits. Specifically, the statute says:

(d)(1) Any action for a deficiency judgment under this section shall be brought not later than the earlier of:

(A) Two (2) years after the date of the trustee's or foreclosure sale, exclusive of any period of time in which a petition for bankruptcy is pending; or

(B) The time for enforcing the indebtedness as provided for under §§ 28-1-102 and 28-2-111.

So, to collect your debt after a foreclosure, you have to act fast in Tennessee. While two years doesn't sound like a short time frame, it can be, where the creditor spends time on eviction, selling the property, or even selling the deficiency debt to a third party.

The statute has a September 1, 2010 effective date, so the courts may still be dealing with deficiencies from both the pre-statute and post-statute time periods.

Always be on the look-out for this issue. In the "interesting" case that I mentioned above, the foreclosure occurred in February 2011, with the lawsuit filed in February 2014. In response to this issue, Plaintiff's counsel confidently cited the general six year statute of limitations on breach of contracts (Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-109). The Court rightfully held that the more specific timelines of the foreclosure deficiency statute controlled and dismissed the action.

Who says collection cases aren't interesting? We made law that day!

 

New Tennessee Case Provides Good Statement of Law on Contract Interpretation, Promissory Fraud, and Piercing the Corporate Veil

The Tennessee Court of Appeals released an opinion, Dog House Investments, LLC v. Teal Properties, Inc., et. al.,  last Friday that has some fairly useful issues of law discussed. (This case is currently "unpublished," but it still has value for its useful content/summary of the law.)

In the case, a building was severely damaged in the Nashville 2010 floods, and the tenant and landlord got into a dispute over the repairs, including: who was required to perform them under the lease; did the landlord commit promissory fraud in statements that he'd reimburse the tenant for repairs; and should the corporate veil be pierced where landlord kept the insurance proceeds and paid his personal bills with the money.

The value here isn't necessarily in the facts of the case, but the Court's useful statements of "the law" as it relates to contract interpretation, promissory fraud, and piercing the corporate veil/fraud.

This is a good case to print and save for your next brief.