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Koczera v. Christi Lenay Fields Steele

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

April 28, 2017

PAUL KOCZERA, ET AL.
v.
CHRISTI LENAY FIELDS STEELE, ET AL.

          Session Date: November 21, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Anderson County No. BOLA0425 John D. McAfee, Judge

         Plaintiffs brought suit asserting that defendants' negligence prevented the proper defendant from being served with process in a healthcare liability action, as a result of which that defendant was dismissed from the suit. Contemporaneously with answering the complaint, Defendants moved for summary judgment on various grounds. Plaintiffs responded to the motion, disputing certain material facts and asking for additional time to conduct discovery. After settlement was reached in the healthcare liability suit, Plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss their suit on the ground of mootness. The trial court denied plaintiffs' motions for additional time for discovery and to dismiss their suit and granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs thereafter filed a motion for default judgment against one defendant, which the trial court denied. Plaintiffs appeal the various rulings of the court. Upon our review, we affirm the denial of Plaintiffs' motions for default judgment, to dismiss their complaint, and for additional time to conduct discovery in order to respond to the motion for summary judgment; we vacate the order granting summary judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in Part and Vacated in Part; Case Remanded.

          Wanda McClure Dry, Danville, Kentucky, for the appellants, Paul Koczera and Jolene Koczera.

          Wynne du M. Caffey, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Christi Lenay Fields Steele; Randall E. Pearson, M.D.; Oak Ridge Urology Associates, Tennessee Urology Associates, PLLC; and Tennessee Urology Associates, PLLC d/b/a Oak Ridge Urology Associates.

          Richard H. Dinkins, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which, Charles D. Susano, Jr. and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          RICHARD H. DINKINS, JUDGE

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs Paul and Jolene Koczera are a married couple who previously filed a healthcare liability action against Dr. Laurence O'Connor and other defendants, including Oak Ridge Urology Associates ("the O'Connor suit"). Christi Steele, the office manager for Oak Ridge Urology Associates, was served with Dr. O'Connor's process and gave the complaint and summons to another doctor ("Dr. Pearson"), who gave them to Dr. O'Connor. Dr. O'Connor filed an answer in the suit, in which, inter alia, he asserted the defense of insufficiency of service of process, contending that Ms. Steele was not authorized to accept service of process on his behalf; on the basis of that defense, Dr. O'Connor was dismissed as a defendant.

         Plaintiffs then filed the lawsuit that led to this appeal on September 10, 2010, against Ms. Steele, Dr. Pearson, Oak Ridge Urology Associates, Tennessee Urology Associates, PLLC, and Tennessee Urology Associates, PLLC d/b/a Oak Ridge Urology Associates, alleging that the negligence and negligent misrepresentation of those parties prevented Dr. O'Connor from being properly served and resulted in his dismissal from the suit; they sought $1.5 million in damages.

         Defendants filed their answer on October 13 denying liability, asserting that Plaintiffs failed to serve process on Tennessee Urology Associates, PLLC, and pleading the defenses of comparative fault, intervening cause, and "res judicata and/or collateral estoppel." Contemporaneously with the answer, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that they owed no duty to Plaintiffs, they did not act unreasonably, they did not cause any damage or injury to Plaintiffs, that Plaintiffs suffered no damages, and that Plaintiffs' counsel was negligent in failing to secure service of process on Dr. O'Connor. Defendants supported the motion with a statement of undisputed facts supported by ten exhibits: the return filed by the sheriff's deputy who served Dr. O'Connor's copy of the complaint; the deposition of Ms. Steele taken in the O'Connor suit; the affidavit of Dr. Pearson; the answer filed by Dr. O'Connor and Oak Ridge Urology Associates in the O'Connor suit; the order dismissing Dr. O'Connor from the O'Connor suit; the affidavit of Plaintiffs' counsel's paralegal; an order entered by the Court of Appeals in the O'Connor suit denying application for interlocutory appeal; one page from the transcript of a May 21, 2010 hearing in the O'Connor suit; and two records from the Board of Professional Responsibility.[1]

         On November 3, 2010, the Circuit Judge entered an order recusing himself and designating a judge to hear the case by interchange. On December 14, Plaintiffs filed a response to the motion for summary judgment, requesting that the hearing on the motion be postponed for several reasons, including Defendants' attorney's failure to provide dates for requested depositions and the fact that no discovery had taken place. Plaintiffs argued that "[b]ecause of the lack of discovery . . . a response on the merits to the Motion for Summary Judgment is impossible at this time." On December 28, Plaintiffs filed a document styled "Motion To Dismiss, As Moot, " asking that the action be dismissed due to the settlement of the underlying healthcare liability action. Defendants opposed the motion.

         On February 14, 2011, Plaintiffs filed a response to Defendants' statement of undisputed material facts, specifically disputing three of the statements, and responding to several of the statements in this manner:

Plaintiffs agree that this fact is undisputed for purposes of ruling on the motion for summary judgment only. (Plaintiffs may dispute this fact later, because [the deputy, Ms. Steele, Dr. Pearson, and Dr. O'Connor] ha[ve] not yet been deposed . . . . Plaintiffs will not know whether or not this fact will be disputed [ . . . ] until discovery depositions of those people are taken.)

         Plaintiffs also asserted additional statements of undisputed fact. In their response to Defendants' statement as well as in support of their statements of undisputed fact, Plaintiffs relied on the pleadings and the deposition of Ms. Steele taken in the O'Connor suit and the complaint in the present suit. Plaintiffs also filed a memorandum opposing summary judgment, again raising the lack of discovery and arguing that the case should be dismissed as moot "because a settlement was reached in the underlying medical malpractice case, so that, as of today, Plaintiffs are willing to forego the pursuit of the remaining damages."

         On February 23, a hearing was held on the Defendants' motion for summary judgment, Plaintiffs' motion to dismiss, and Plaintiffs' request that the motion for summary judgment be delayed until discovery could be completed. The court denied Plaintiffs' request for a continuance to conduct additional discovery as well as their motion to dismiss; the court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The court's oral rulings were incorporated into a written order, entered on June 29.

         Before the oral ruling was memorialized in an order, Plaintiffs moved for a default judgment against Oak Ridge Urology Associates on the basis that it never filed an answer to the complaint. Defendants filed a response, asserting that the Answer "made clear that the Answer was filed on behalf of the urology practice and that the naming of Oak Ridge Urology Associates as a stand-alone party was incorrect. By making these denials and averments, the Answer was filed on behalf of Oak Ridge Urology Associates . . ." The trial court did not rule on this motion.

         After entry of the June 29 order, Plaintiffs appealed; this Court dismissed the appeal due to lack of a final judgment on September 15, 2011, due to the pending motion for default judgment. On October 26, 2015, Plaintiffs gave notice of a hearing on the motion for default judgment. After a hearing, the trial court entered an order denying the motion for default judgment. Plaintiffs now appeal, raising the following issues for our review:

1. Did the trial court err by denying Plaintiffs'/Appellants' Motion to Dismiss as Moot?
2. Did the trial court abuse its discretion by failing to permit Plaintiffs/Appellants to take a voluntary dismissal?
3. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in 2015, by denying Plaintiffs'/Appellants' Motion for Default judgment ...

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