Where the gravamen of plaintiff’s complaint was his tort claim for defamation seeking unliquidated damages, the chancery court did not have subject matter jurisdiction and the case should have been transferred to circuit court.
In Lowery v. Redmond, No. W2021-00611-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 23, 2022), plaintiff filed a petition in chancery court related to various allegedly defamatory statements made by defendants. Plaintiff alleged that defendants “defamed his character in an attempt to ensure that he would not succeed in his bid for election to public office, by distributing defamatory information about him to prospective voters.” Plaintiff’s complaint sought compensatory damages for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It also sought punitive damages, injunctive relief, and a declaratory judgment that defendants had violated certain statutes.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over this claim and that the complaint should be dismissed or transferred to circuit court. The trial court denied the motion and ultimately found for plaintiff. On appeal, this ruling was vacated.
On appeal, defendants argued that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-102, which states that the chancery court does not have concurrent jurisdiction over “unliquidated damages for injuries to person or character.” Plaintiff, on the other hand, asserted that “the trial court had jurisdiction over his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief and the portion involving liquidated damages, and thus the trial court also had jurisdiction to adjudicate his remaining claims.” The Court noted that because the “parties do not appear to dispute that the chancery court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over [plaintiff’s] three tort claims, because they seek unliquidated damages for injuries to person or character,” the issue here was whether plaintiff’s “injunctive and declaratory relief claims vest the trial court with subject matter jurisdiction.” (internal citation omitted).
Turning first to whether plaintiff’s claim for injunctive relief was enough to vest the chancery court with jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals first noted that it was “not entirely clear that the trial court in fact had jurisdiction to enjoin the alleged defamatory behavior here.” Assuming jurisdiction for the injunctive request did exist, however, the Court found that it would not have been enough to confer subject matter jurisdiction over the tort claims. The Court reasoned:
[Plaintiff] is correct that it is sometimes broadly stated that when a chancery court has jurisdiction for one purpose, it will take jurisdiction for all purposes; but this means all purposes incidental to its jurisdiction of the main subject. …[T]he inference clearly is…that if the main thing involved in the lawsuit is not of an equitable nature such as the equity court has given jurisdiction, then courts of equity will not take jurisdiction. In other words, the gravamen of the lawsuit must afford the chancery court subject matter jurisdiction—only then can the chancery court take jurisdiction for all other incidental purposes. …Here, we must conclude that [plaintiff’s] claim for an injunction is merely incidental to his claim for damages related to various reputational torts. …The gravamen of the suit is clearly in the nature of defamation. …The request for injunctive relief—that [defendants] be required to stop making allegedly defamatory and damaging statements—is merely incidental to [plaintiff’s] claims surrounding defamation. …The injunctive relief requested here, as incidental to claims for non-equitable relief, was therefore not sufficient to serve as a basis for the trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction.
(internal citations and quotations omitted).
The Court next considered whether the claim for declaratory judgment conferred subject matter jurisdiction over the tort claims, finding that it did not. Plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment under two statutes, but the Court pointed out that both of these statutes “prescribe[d] a criminal penalty” and “neither…expressly provides a private right of action, therefore prohibiting one from being implied.” (internal citation omitted). Further, “in Tennessee, our supreme court has held that the Declaratory Judgment Act has not given the courts jurisdiction over any controversy that would not be within their jurisdiction if affirmative relief were being sought,” such that “a declaratory judgment is proper in chancery, but only if chancery originally could have entertained a suit of the same subject matter.” (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, plaintiff’s declaratory judgment claim was found “insufficient to confer subject matter jurisdiction on the trial court” for the tort claims.
Because neither the claim for injunctive relief nor the claim for a declaratory judgment conferred subject matter jurisdiction over the tort claims to the chancery court, the chancery court’s ruling for plaintiff was vacated, the court’s denial of the motion to transfer was reversed, and the case was remanded to the trial court with directions to transfer the case to the circuit court.
This opinion was released 3.5 months after oral arguments.