In Goetz v. Autin, No. W2015-00063-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 10, 2016), plaintiff filed a rather unclear complaint that appeared to assert four causes of action: (1) defamation, (2) malicious prosecution, (3) abuse of process and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court dismissed the entire complaint for failure to state a claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Plaintiffs factual allegations were essentially that defendants “made defamatory statements to [his] family members, neighbors and friends, subjecting [him] to contempt and ridicule and threatening his job[;]” that defendants filed suit against plaintiff on May 12, 2010 with “no reasonable basis” for the action and with an “ulterior motive;” that defendants “committed an act in the use of process other than such as would be proper in the regular prosecution of the charges alleged[;]” that defendants eventually voluntarily dismissed their claims; that the lawsuit contained false statements about plaintiff; and that plaintiff suffered “severe physical and emotional injury” due to the defendant’s lawsuit and statements. Based on these facts, the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling that the complaint failed to state a claim for the causes of action pursued by plaintiff.
On the abuse of process claim, the Court noted that “a plaintiff must allege the existence of an ulterior motive and an act in the use of process other than such as would be proper in the regular prosecution of the charge.” Moreover, “[t]he mere initiation of a lawsuit, though accompanied by a malicious ulterior motive, does not constitute an abuse of process.” (internal citation omitted). Instead, a “plaintiff must allege some misuse of process after the initiation of the lawsuit.” Here, the complaint failed to allege that defendants did anything more than file the “original processes of the court.” Since the institution of a lawsuit alone is not enough to support an abuse of process claim, plaintiff’s complaint failed to state a claim for this cause of action.
For the intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claim, the Court split the analysis into two parts. First, the Court looked at plaintiff’s allegation that certain statements made by defendants caused him severe emotional distress. Plaintiff’s complaint referred to the underlying events as “the false statements and subsequent lawsuit,” clearly indicating that the statements at issue were made before the May 2010 lawsuit. IIED claims are subject to the one-year statute of limitations found in Tenn. Code Ann. Section 28-3-104(a)(1). Because plaintiff did not file the instant matter until May 2012, any claims for IIED based on these statements from more than two years ago was time barred.
Plaintiff also appeared to assert an IIED claim based on plaintiff’s underlying 2010 lawsuit and the actions taken therein. The Court held, though, that to the extent an IIED claim was based on the other lawsuit it was “barred by the litigation privilege.” “The litigation privilege embodies a general recognition that statements made in the course of a judicial proceeding that are relevant and pertinent to the issues involved are absolutely privileged and cannot be the predicate for liability in an action for libel, slander or invasion of privacy.” (internal citation and quotations omitted). Public policy favors “access to the judicial process and the freedom to institute an action without fear of being sued based on statements made in the course of the proceedings.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that “as a matter of law, the mere initiation and prosecution of a lawsuit, even if allegedly for the purpose of harassment and intimidation, cannot be the basis of an IIED claim.”
Although it was unclear whether the remaining two claims were at issue on appeal, the Court addressed them to ensure that the case was fully adjudicated. On the defamation claim, the Court noted that the discussion regarding the IIED was applicable to defamation as well in that the defamation claims were barred by the statute of limitations and/or the litigation privilege. As for the malicious prosecution claim, the Court noted that the complaint admitted that defendants voluntarily dismissed their earlier suit, and “as a matter of law, a voluntary dismissal without prejudice does not constitute a favorable termination for purposes of a malicious prosecution claim.
There was also a question in this case regarding whether plaintiff’s notice of appeal was timely filed. After the trial court’s ruling, plaintiff filed what he titled “Plaintiff’s Motion to Alter or Amend and Memorandum in Support.” In this motion, plaintiff argued for the first time that his complaint stated claims for a civil rights violation and for conspiracy. Plaintiff did not file his notice of appeal until after the trial court denied this motion. Defendants argued that plaintiff’s filing was actually a motion to reconsider, which is not recognized by the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, and that it thus did not toll the time limit for filing a notice of appeal. On appeal, the Court determined that “although the post-judgment motion impermissibly sought to present previously unasserted theories and legal arguments, it arguably requested that the trial court correct a clear error of law,” and thus deemed it a “proper motion to alter or amend” under the Tennessee rules. It did so, though, with a “word of caution,” warning that “[p]arties should not attempt to present previously unasserted theories or legal arguments or re-litigate previously adjudicated matters under the guise of filing a Tenn. R. Civ. P. 59.04 motion to alter or amend.”
This appears to be a case of a poorly drafted complaint and a plaintiff throwing in multiple causes of action that do not quite fit in an attempt to make something stick. Cases like this are good reminders to be mindful of the elements of each claim when drafting your complaint, and to pay attention to statutes of limitations and other potential bars to recovery.