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Hippe v. Miller & Martin, PLLC

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 12, 2015

RUSSELL H. HIPPE, JR.
v.
MILLER & MARTIN, PLLC

Session April 15, 2015

Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 1421I Claudia Bonnyman, Chancellor

Russell H. Hippe, Jr., Nashville, Tennessee, Pro Se.

John P. Branham, Nashville, Tennessee; William P. Eiselstein and Lynzi J. Archibald, Chattanooga, Tennessee; for the appellee, Miller & Martin, PLLC.

Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, P.J., M.S., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.

OPINION

ANDY D. BENNETT, JUDGE

Procedural Background

Russell L. Hippe, Jr., is a lawyer who used to be a member of the law firm Trabue, Sturdivant & DeWitt. In 1988, he executed a partnership agreement that addressed, inter alia, retirement benefits. Miller & Martin, PLLC ("M&M") is the successor by merger to the Trabue firm. In January 2009, Mr. Hippe filed a complaint against M&M alleging M&M was in breach of a contract that Mr. Hippe asserted entitled him to retirement benefits. Mr. Hippe amended his complaint two months later, in March 2009. M&M filed a motion to dismiss both the initial complaint and the amended complaint, and the trial court dismissed Mr. Hippe's complaint in May 2009 after finding that his cause of action was barred by the statute of limitations. Mr. Hippe appealed the trial court's dismissal to this Court, and we affirmed the trial court's dismissal in January 2010. See Hippe v. Miller & Martin, PLLC, No. M2009-01917-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 334642, perm. app. denied (Aug. 25, 2010).

In January 2014, five years after filing his initial complaint, Mr. Hippe filed another complaint against M&M, again alleging a breach of the same contract. M&M filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.02, arguing that Mr. Hippe's 2014 complaint was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Mr. Hippe opposed M&M's motion and filed his own motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted M&M's motion and denied Mr. Hippe's motion. The court wrote, in pertinent part:

The same parties were involved in both Plaintiffs 2009 Claim and the Current Claim. The same claim or cause of action was asserted in both Plaintiffs 2009 Claim and the Current Claim. Finally, contrary to Plaintiffs argument, this Court's dismissal of Plaintiffs 2009 Claim was final and on the merits.
The rule of res judicata is applicable to former judgments which determined the question of statute of limitations. Unless the court in its order for dismissal otherwise specifies, a dismissal operates as an adjudication upon the merits. Additionally, a judgment on the merits is final if it resolves all the issues in the case, leaving nothing else for the trial court to do. This Court's Order dismissing Plaintiffs 2009 Claim 1) determined the question of statute of limitations, 2) contained no language to suggest that its judgment was not on the merits, and 3) dismissed Plaintiffs 2009 Claim in its entirety. Therefore, this Court's dismissal of Plaintiffs 2009 Claim constitutes a final judgment on the merits. (Citations and quotations omitted.)
The Court reviewed the trial court order from the first Hippe v. Miller & Martin, PLLC case, dismissed pursuant to Rule 12.02(6), based upon failure to state a claim, because the statute of limitations had run. The trial court order was entered "with prejudice." A trial court judgment granting a Rule 12.02(6) dismissal is a judgment on the merits for res judicata purposes.

Mr. Hippe appeals the trial court's judgment granting M&M's motion for summary judgment. He contends that the dismissal of his 2009 complaint was not a dismissal of his cause of action, and that the doctrine of res judicata, therefore, does not apply to the complaint he filed in 2014. M&M argues that Mr. Hippe's appeal ...


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