In a recent negligence case, the Court of Appeals vacated summary judgment due to the trial court’s failure to explain the basis upon which summary judgment was granted, and it remanded the case with directions for an order that met the standards of Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04 to be entered.
In Koczera v. Steele, No. E2015-02508-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 28, 2017), plaintiffs had previously filed an HCLA suit against several defendants, including Dr. O’Connor and Oak Ridge Urology Associates (ORUA). Christi Steele was the office manager at ORUA, and she “was served with Dr. O’Connor’s process and gave the complaint and summons to another doctor, who gave them to Dr. O’Connor.” Dr. O’Connor was eventually dismissed from the HCLA suit on the basis that “Ms. Steele was not authorized to accept service of process on his behalf.”
Plaintiffs subsequently filed this case against Ms. Steele, the doctor to whom Ms. Steele gave Dr. O’Connor’s process, ORUA, Tennessee Urology Associates PLLC, and Tennessee Urology Associates PLLC d/b/a Oak Ridge Urology Associates. In their complaint, plaintiffs alleged that “the negligence and negligent misrepresentation of those parties prevented Dr. O’Connor from being properly served and resulted in his dismissal from the [original] suit.”
Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment “asserting that they owed no duty to Plaintiffs, they did not act unreasonably, they did not cause any damage or injury to Plaintiffs, that Plaintiffs suffered no damages, and that Plaintiffs’ counsel was negligent in failing to secure service of process on Dr. O’Connor.” In response to the motion, plaintiffs requested that the hearing be postponed so that they could have more time for discovery. Further, plaintiffs filed a “Motion to Dismiss, As Moot,” asking the trial court to dismiss the action because the underlying HCLA case had been settled. After a hearing, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for a continuance for additional discovery, denied plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss, and granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, the Court addressed three issues. First, it looked at plaintiffs’ argument that ORUA “is a separate entity from Tennessee Urology Associates, and because it was not included in Tennessee Urology Associate’s motion for summary judgment, the claims against it remained after summary judgment was granted.” The Court rejected this assertion, noting that “Tennessee Urology Associates answered on behalf of [ORUA] and explained that [ORUA] is a trade name used by Tennessee Urology Associates.” The Court held that plaintiffs produced no evidence that ORUA was “a separate entity” and that the trial court correctly ruled that ORUA “was included in any references to Tennessee Urology Associates[.]”
Next, the Court analyzed the trial court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss the case as moot. While Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 41.01(1) provides plaintiffs with the absolute right to voluntarily dismiss an action, the Rule also contains exceptions, one of which being “when a motion for summary judgment is pending.” Trial courts have the authority to override this exception, but are not obligated to do so. Here, defendants had a pending motion for summary judgment when plaintiffs filed their motion to dismiss. In holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss, the Court stated:
Plaintiffs argue that Defendants filed the motion for summary judgment and did not raise a statute of limitations defense in their answer solely in an effort to preserve the ability to pursue a malicious prosecution suit. The record before us does not support their argument, and we do not presume such motives on the part of Defendants nor do we think, if true, the motives would be inappropriate. Defendants were entitled to file the motion for summary judgment and argued that dismissing their case pursuant to Plaintiffs’ motion would affect their ability to bring a malicious prosecution claim in the future. Under the procedural posture of the case, Plaintiffs ability to voluntarily dismiss the case was subject to the trial court’s discretion[.]
Finally, the Court looked at “whether the [trial] court erred in granting summary judgment.” Regarding this issue, the Court first affirmed the trial court’s denial of plaintiffs’ request for a continuance. In response to defendants’ motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs requested more time for discovery, specifically noting that defense counsel had “not cooperated by providing dates for the requested depositions.” The Court noted, though, that “plaintiffs did not make any of these ‘need for discovery’ responses under oath, which is mandatory under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.07, which specifically requires affidavits.” Due to plaintiffs’ failure to follow the rule’s requirements, the Court held that the “trial court’s decision was not illogical or unreasonable in light of the correct legal standard, Rule 56.07. Because Plaintiffs failed to file an affidavit setting forth facts to justify the need for additional time for discovery, the court’s decision to deny additional discovery does not constitute an abuse of discretion.”
Even though the Court affirmed the denial of a continuance, it ultimately vacated the summary judgment ruling, holding that “[n]either the oral ruling nor the order explains the basis upon which the trial court determined that Defendants had successfully negated essential elements of the Plaintiffs claims or why the material cited in Plaintiffs’ statement of additional material facts did not establish their claims or create a genuine issue of material fact.” Because Rule 56.04 requires a court to “state the legal grounds” upon which it grants or denies a summary judgment motion, the order was vacated and remanded “for entry of an order that complies with Rule 56.04.”
This is another example of a defendant who successfully attained a summary judgment ruling having to go through additional litigation because the trial court’s order did not state the basis for the ruling. If your client wins on a summary judgment motion, it is vital to make sure that the trial court cites the reasons for its ruling; otherwise, the order may be vacated on appeal. Further, if you are the party opposing summary judgment and you want to argue that you need more discovery, this case illustrates the importance of following the requirements of civil procedure rules and stating the need for discovery in a sworn affidavit.