Time Runs Under Statute of Limitations Only If There is a Person Who Can File Suit

Although the issue rarely arises, the statute of limitations on a claim does not begin to run until there is a person who can properly bring the action.

In In re Estate of Link, No. M2016-002002-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 5, 2017), John Clemmons had been appointed administrator of the Link Estate in 2003, and he served for ten years. Although the order appointing Mr. Clemmons required him to file an annual inventory and accounting, he filed one in 2004 and then never filed another. In 2013, Mr. Clemmons was removed as administrator and replaced by the plaintiff who filed this action. Seven months after his removal, Mr. Clemmons plead guilty to stealing over $770,000 from the Link Estate.

Plaintiff brought this suit in his capacity as administrator against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. Plaintiff alleged that defendant’s “employees in the Probate Court Clerk’s office had been a cause of the Estate’s damages through their negligent failure to monitor Mr. Clemmons.” Plaintiff pointed to Tenn. Code Ann. § 30-2-602, which requires the Court Clerk “to cite the personal administrator for failing to carry out his or her administrative duties.” Defendant moved for summary judgment, asserting that the claim was barred by the one-year statute of limitations and by the fact that plaintiff had already gotten a default judgment against Mr. Clemmons for the full amount of the damages. The trial court granted summary judgment based on the statute of limitations, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

Defendant argued, and the trial court agreed, that this claim was barred by the statute of limitations. This case fell under the GTLA, which has a one-year statute of limitations, and the losses to the estate all happened more than one year before the complaint was filed. According to the trial court, the administrator at the time of the losses knew about the losses and knew that Metro was not requiring annual filings, and he could have brought this claim against defendant Metro, even if that was a highly unlikely scenario. The Court of Appeals, however, found that this was not the correct analysis.

The Court pointed out that while a statute of limitations normally begins to run “when the plaintiff discovers, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have discovered, that he or she sustained an injury as a result of the defendant’s wrongful conduct,” there is a second, little used part of the inquiry—a cause of action “does not accrue in its proper sense, until there is a person by or against whom process can issue.” (internal citations omitted). Applying this rule to the present matter, the Court reasoned:

Metro’s defense is predicated on the notion that Mr. Clemmons could have sued for the losses to the Estate that stemmed from his own malfeasance. Respectfully, we find such a proposition to be absurd, and to this end, we are in agreement with [plaintiff] that the present lawsuit is, in fact, timely. …[T]he particular question here is not whether Mr. Clemmons could have sued himself, but whether Mr. Clemmons could have sued Metro on behalf of the Estate. …[W]e reject the notion that Mr. Clemmons could have properly overseen the asserted claims against Metro, even if he chose not to sue himself. It cannot be expected that Mr. Clemmons would ever bring such a lawsuit given the nature of the allegations involved, and even if he had attempted to sue only Metro, his control over the course of litigation would necessarily mean that he would control the scope of light shed on his own wrongdoing. Allowing him to assume such a position is untenable.

The Court ultimately held that because only an administrator can sue on behalf of an estate, and because Mr. Clemmons could not assert this cause of action, the statute of limitations did not begin to run until a new administrator was appointed. Because the claim was filed within a year of the new appointment, it was timely.

Next, the Court looked at defendant’s claim that the case was barred because plaintiff had already obtained a default judgment against Mr. Clemmons for the full amount of the damages. According to defendant, plaintiff could have named Metro in that suit, and “[t]o now permit recovery against [Metro] would violate the principles of comparative fault and sanction a double recovery for the Plaintiff.” The Court rejected this argument, finding that the doctrine of joint and several liability applied here. The Court noted that joint and several liability had been cited in many cases since the adoption of comparative fault, indicating that it continued to exist. Further, the Court pointed out that “post-McIntyre decisions indicate that the conduct of a negligent defendant should not be compared with the intentional conduct of another when the intentional conduct is a foreseeable risk created by the negligent actor.” The Court cited the Tennessee Supreme Court, which stated in an earlier case that “where the intentional actor and the negligent actor are both named defendants and each are found to be responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, then each defendant will be jointly and severally responsible.” (internal citation omitted).

The Court determined that here, based on the theory of the case, “an apportionment of fault is unnecessary.” The Court ruled that if Metro was found liable, it would be liable for the full amount of damages and be jointly and severally responsible for such. In response to defendant’s argument that joint and several liability had been abolished by statute, the Court acknowledged that the Tennessee Legislature had passed a bill possibly affecting joint and several liability (Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-11-107), but pointed out that the statute only applied to claims arising after July 1, 2013. Since the wrongdoing in this case occurred before that date, the statute did not apply and was not interpreted.

Because the Court rejected both of defendant’s arguments, summary judgment was reversed.

This was a well-reasoned decision by the Court of Appeals. Ruling that the statute of limitations ran in full while the only person legally able to bring the claim was the one whose intentional conduct caused the loss would be absurd. The Court rightly determined that the limitations period here did not begin until a new administrator was appointed.