Where a defendant in a Tennessee defamation case moved to dismiss based on both substantive grounds and the assertion that the court lacked personal jurisdiction, the trial court should have considered the personal jurisdiction argument before granting dismissal based on the substantive grounds.
In Checkan v. Southern Towing Company LLC, No. W2020-00636-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2021), the plaintiff filed a defamation case against the defendant drawbridge owner, alleging that a letter sent by the defendant to the plaintiff’s employer containing false information caused him to be fired from his job and made him unable to obtain new employment as a riverboat captain. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, raising substantive arguments and asserting that the trial court did not have personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The trial court granted dismissal, finding that the allegedly defamatory letter was a prelitigation letter and was accordingly entitled to privilege, but it specifically noted that it was not “ruling on the other procedural bases for dismissal.” On appeal, this ruling was vacated.
In a brief opinion, the Court of Appeals quoted from a federal opinion explaining why a personal jurisdiction argument should be addressed before a failure to state a claim argument:
Not only does logic compel initial consideration of the issue of jurisdiction over the defendant—a court without such jurisdiction lacks power to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim—but the functional difference that flows from the ground selected for dismissal likewise compels considering jurisdiction and venue questions first. A dismissal for lack of jurisdiction or improper venue does not preclude a subsequent action in an appropriate forum, whereas a dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is with prejudice.
(internal citation omitted). Should a court address substantive issues before reviewing personal jurisdiction challenges, there could be “concern[s] about the validity of the order.” (internal citation omitted). Further, addressing personal jurisdiction first promotes “judicial economy,” as “a reviewing court can consider the full range of issues at the same time.” (internal citation omitted).
In this case, the defendant did not waive its personal jurisdiction argument, and the trial court should have therefore addressed “the jurisdictional issue before entertaining the merits.” The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order and remanded with instructions to consider the personal jurisdiction defense.
NOTE: This opinion was released two weeks after oral arguments.