Session: June 20, 2017
from the Chancery Court for Roane County No. 2014-131 Frank
V. Williams, III, Chancellor
appeal arises from a taxpayer's successful challenge of
the appraisal value assigned to his real property by the
Roane County Property Assessor. The taxpayer filed a petition
for judicial review challenging an administrative decision
that affirmed the assessor's valuation. The trial court
ruled in favor of the taxpayer, overturning the
administrative decision and ordering Roane County to pay the
taxpayer's attorney's fees. On appeal, Roane County
argues that the trial court had no authority to assess
attorney's fees against it. We agree and reverse the
trial court's award of attorney's fees.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court is Reversed and Remanded.
Leffew, Rockwood, Tennessee, for the appellants, Roane County
Executive Mayor, Roane County Assessor of Property, and Roane
G. Carter and Stephanie L. Prager, Knoxville, Tennessee, for
the appellee, Roy Zumstein.
Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter,
Andrée Sophia Blumstein, Solicitor General, and James
P. Urban, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee,
for the appellee, Tennessee State Board of Equalization.
B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which
Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ.,
B. GOLDIN, JUDGE
and Procedural History
Zumstein owned three adjacent, separate tax parcels in Roane
County. At the request of Mr. Zumstein, in an effort to
reduce the land value appraisal, the Roane County Property
Assessor combined the three parcels into one tax parcel. Mr.
Zumstein initiated these proceedings to challenge his 2013
county real property tax assessment on the combined parcel.
Specifically, Mr. Zumstein argued that the appraisal value of
$444, 500 assigned to the land and improvements by the Roane
County Property Assessor was too high. Following a series of
administrative appeals, the Tennessee State Board of
Equalization Assessment Appeals Commission issued a decision
certifying the property's appraisal value as $338, 700.
Mr. Zumstein filed a petition for judicial review of that
decision in the Roane County Chancery Court. The trial court
conducted an evidentiary hearing and determined that the
property's appraisal value should be reduced to $270,
200. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Zumstein filed a motion
requesting an award of his attorney's fees. Mr. Zumstein
asserted that Tennessee Code Annotated section 67-1-1803(d)
mandates that attorney's fees be awarded to prevailing
parties in tax litigation. While the trial court did not rule
on the applicability of the statute, it concluded that
requiring Mr. Zumstein to incur attorney's fees in the
case "would be inequitable." As such, the trial
court entered an order directing Roane County to pay Mr.
Zumstein's attorney's fees in the amount of $12, 325.
Roane County appealed.
sole issue Roane County raises on appeal is whether the trial
court erred in granting Mr. Zumstein's request for
attorney's fees. That issue involves a question of law.
We review trial court decisions on questions of law de novo
with no presumption of correctness. Knox Cnty. ex rel.
Envtl. Termite & Pest Control, Inc. v.
ArrowExterminators, Inc., 350 S.W.3d 511, 518 (Tenn.
Tennessee Supreme Court recently reaffirmed its long-standing
adherence to the "American Rule" in assessing
attorney's fees. Eberbach v. Eberbach, No.
M2014-01811-SC-R11-CV, ___ S.W.3d ___, 2017 WL 2255582, at *3
(Tenn. May 23, 2017). The American Rule provides that, absent
a specific contractual or statutory provision that creates a
right to recover attorney's fees, litigants are generally
responsible for their own attorney's fees. Cracker
Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. v. Epperson, 284 S.W.3d
303, 308 (Tenn. 2009). Tennessee's adherence to the
American Rule is based on public policy considerations
suggesting that society is best served by litigants bearing
their own legal fees regardless of the outcome of a
case.Id. As is often the case with
common law rules, however, courts have recognized that
equitable exceptions to the American Rule should apply in
certain circumstances. See, e.g., House v.
Estate of Edmonson, 245 S.W.3d 372, 377 (Tenn. 2008)
(explaining and applying ...