IN RE TENNESSEE WALKING HORSE FORFEITURE LITIGATION
Session Date: June 28, 2017
from the Circuit Court for Fayette County No. 13-CV-61 J.
Weber McCraw, Judge
the second appeal involving the attempted forfeiture of
horses that had allegedly been the victims of animal abuse.
The State appeals the trial court's finding that Appellee
owners had standing to contest the forfeiture and the grant
of summary judgment to Appellee owners on the ground that the
State failed to comply with applicable procedural
requirements. We conclude that because Appellees are
"owners" as defined by Tennessee Code Annotated
section 39-11-702(3), they have standing to contest the
forfeiture. We also conclude that the undisputed facts
establish that the attempted forfeiture did not comply with
the substantive and procedural requirements of the applicable
forfeiture statutes. The trial court's ruling is,
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit
Court Affirmed and Remanded
Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter;
Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Linda D.
Kirklen, Assistant Attorney General; Scott C. Sutherland,
Assistant Attorney General, for the appellant, State of
Houston Gordon, Covington, Tennessee, for the appellees,
Kelly Sherman, and Beverly Sherman.
Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the
court, in which W. Neal McBrayer, and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ.,
STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE
is the second appeal of this case. See In re Tennessee
Walking Horse Forfeiture Litig., No.
W2013-02804-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 1636704, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App.
Apr. 8, 2015) ("Walking Horse I"). The
material facts at issue in this case are largely undisputed
and were detailed in this Court's prior Opinion. As we
On March 1, 2012, officials from the Fayette County
Sheriff's Office and the United States Department of
Agriculture seized two Tennessee Walking Horses, named
"Paroled in the Night" and "Mucho Bueno,
" incident to the arrests of the horses' trainers,
employees of Whitter Stables, for animal cruelty. The
officials placed the horses into the custody of the Humane
Society of the United States ("HSUS"). HSUS is not
chartered with the State of Tennessee.
On May 16, 2012, Beverly Sherman and Kelly Sherman
("Appellees"), the purported owners of the horses
at issue, filed a Complaint for Possession or in the Nature
of Replevin, seeking to recover the horses. The State of
Tennessee ("State") filed an answer, denying that
the Appellees were entitled to the return of the property.
On May 22, 2012, the horse trainers pleaded guilty in the
United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Tennessee to soring the horses at issue in violation of the
Federal Horse Protection Act. The trainers also pleaded
guilty to State animal cruelty charges involving the subject
horses on July 10, 2013. According to the State, the trainers
admitted, as part of their state-law guilty pleas, to having
sored and abused the subject horses.
The State filed an ex parte application for a forfeiture
warrant for the horses on July 10, 2013. On the same day, the
Fayette County Circuit [C]ourt issued an ex parte Forfeiture
Warrant and Order placing the horses in the custody of the
HSUS pending a final forfeiture determination.
On August 9, 2013, the State filed a forfeiture complaint.
The forfeiture complaint indicated that the State had
information to believe that the Appellees were the owners of
two of the horses. However, the forfeiture complaint
specifically reserved the issue of the Appellee's
standing to contest the forfeiture. On September 2, 2013, the
Appellees filed a motion to dismiss the forfeiture complaint
or in the alternative, to consolidate the forfeiture
litigation with the previously filed Replevin Lawsuit. The
motion to dismiss was based upon the assertion that both the
Replevin and the State's Forfeiture lawsuits dealt with
identical issues, namely, the custody of the horses. The
Appellees also argued that the forfeiture warrant was not
properly issued because the State failed to obtain it within
five (5) working days of March 1, 2012, as required by
Tennessee Code Annotated Section 39-11-707(c). On the same
day, the Appellees filed a motion to dismiss the forfeiture
warrant, arguing generally the same basis as the motion to
dismiss the forfeiture complaint.
Walking Horse I, 2015 WL 1636704, at *1 (footnotes
trial court eventually granted Appellees' motion to
dismiss on the ground that the State had "violated
certain procedural requirements contained in the forfeiture
statutory scheme in taking possession of the subject
horses." Id. at *2. An appeal to this Court
followed, in which we ruled that the "threshold
matter" of Appellees' standing to contest the
forfeiture had never been decided by the trial court and had
not been waived by the State. Id. at *5. As such, we
vacated the judgment and remanded the case back to the trial
court for a determination of standing. Id. at *6-*7.
parties returned to the trial court, and Appellees filed a
motion to show cause why their horses should not be returned
to them in order to establish standing under Tennessee Code
Annotated section 39-11-709(d). The parties later agreed that
Appellees were the owners of the horses. The State argued,
however, that in order to have standing to contest the
forfeiture, Appellees were required to show that they were
"innocent owners" under Tennessee Code Annotated
section 39-11-701, discussed in detail, infra.
Nevertheless, the trial court eventually ruled in favor of
Appellees on the issue of standing, reasoning that Appellees
sufficiently established that they were "innocent
owners" because they had never been convicted of the
crime of abusing horses. Immediately following the trial
court's ruling on standing, Appellees filed a motion to
deem admitted certain requests for admission that had been
filed prior to the first appeal. Shortly thereafter, on
November 4, 2015, Appellees filed a motion for summary
judgment arguing that the State's forfeiture attempt
should be dismissed due to its failure to follow certain
procedural requirements. Appellees' motion was
accompanied by a statement of undisputed material facts
concerning the taking of the horses and the notice provided
to Appellees. The State responded in opposition on January
21, 2016, generally admitting the procedure utilized by the
State in seizing the horses, but including additional facts
alleging that Appellees were aware of the abuse of their
State later filed a response to Appellees' motion to deem
requests for admission admitted, arguing that it was not
required to respond to the requests because they had not been
refiled following the first appeal. The State also argued
that this matter was criminal and therefore the Tennessee
Rules of Civil Procedure regarding requests for admission
trial court entered an order on April 2, 2016, denying
Appellees' motion to deem requests for admission admitted
but granting Appellees' motion for summary judgment,
ruling that the State failed to comply with procedural
requirements under Tennessee Code Annotated section
39-11-701, et seq. and section 39-14-202(e). The
State thereafter filed a timely notice of appeal to this
State raises two issues, which are restated from its
1. Whether the trial court erred in determining that
Appellees had standing to challenge the forfeiture under
Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-11-701, et seq.?
2. Whether the trial court erred in granting Appellees'
motion for summary judgment due to the State's failure to
comply with applicable procedural requirements?
posture of appellee, Appellees contend that the trial court
erred in denying Appellees' motion to have requests for
admission deemed admitted.
initial matter, we must first determine whether the trial
court correctly concluded that Appellees had standing to
intervene in this forfeiture proceeding and contest the
forfeiture of the subject horses. The issue of whether a
party has standing is a question of law. Massengale v.
City of E. Ridge, 399 S.W.3d 118, 123 (Tenn. Ct. App.
2012) (citing Cox v. Shell Oil Co., 196 S.W.3d 747,
758 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005)). Therefore, "our review is de
novo upon the record with no presumption of correctness
accompanying the trial court's conclusions of law."
Cox, 196 S.W.3d at 758.
explained in Walking Horse I, standing is a
threshold matter that must be determined before a party may
contest the forfeiture of property. See Walking Horse
I, 2015 WL 1636704, at *2-*3. Standing in this case is
governed by Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-11-701,
et seq. Id. at *2 (holding that although the
forfeiture of animals allegedly abused is governed by section
39-14-202(e), section 39-11-709 governs the procedure for
establishing standing) (citing State v. Siliski, No.
M2004-02790-CCA-R3-CO, 2006 WL 1931814, at *3 (Tenn. Crim.
App. July 10, 2006) ("We recognize that animals
forfeited under the animal cruelty statutes are not property
acquired or received as a result of the offense, but absent
any forfeiture procedures within Part 2 on Animals, we look
to the general provisions of this title for the proper
interpreting the statutes governing standing, we apply the
familiar rules of statutory construction. As explained by our
"The most basic principle of statutory construction is
to ascertain and give effect to the legislative intent
without unduly restricting or expanding a statute's
coverage beyond its intended scope." Owens v.
State, 908 S.W.2d 923, 926 (Tenn. 1995) (citing
State v. Sliger, 846 S.W.2d 262, 263 (Tenn.1993)).
"The text of the statute is of primary importance."
Mills v. Fulmarque, 360 S.W.3d 362, 368 (Tenn.
2012). A statute should be read naturally and reasonably,
with the presumption that the legislature says what it means
and means what it says. See BellSouth Telecomms., Inc. v.
Greer, 972 S.W.2d 663, 673 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997).
Statutes that relate to the same subject matter or have a
common purpose must be read in pari materia so as to give the
intended effect to both. "[T]he construction of one such
statute, if doubtful, may be aided by considering the words
and legislative intent indicated by the language of another
statute." Graham v. Caples, 325 S.W.3d 578, 582
(Tenn. 2010) (quoting Wilson v. Johnson Cnty., 879
S.W.2d 807, 809 (Tenn. 1994)). We seek to adopt the most
"reasonable construction which avoids statutory conflict
and provides for harmonious operation of the laws."
Carver v. Citizen Utils. Co., 954 S.W.2d 34, 35
(Tenn.1997). Issues of statutory interpretation present a
question of law, which we review de novo on appeal, giving no
deference to the lower court decision. Mills, 360
S.W.3d at 366; Lind v. Beaman Dodge, Inc., 356
S.W.3d 889, 895 (Tenn. 2011).
In re Kaliyah S., 455 S.W.3d 533, 552 (Tenn. 2015).
As such, we first consider the text of the statute.
begin, the forfeiture statute at issue here "mandates
that '[o]nly an owner or interest holder may make a claim
for return of property seized for forfeiture or otherwise
contest the forfeiture under this part.'"
Walking Horse I, 2015 WL 1636704, at *4 (quoting
Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-709(a)). Tennessee Code
Annotated section 39-11-708(d) therefore provides that:
"The claimant must first establish by a preponderance of
the evidence that the claimant is an owner in the property
seized before other evidence is taken. The claimant has the
burden of establishing standing to assert the claim."
Thus, section 39-11-709(a) and (d) make clear that to have
standing to contest the forfeiture of property under the
general forfeiture statutory scheme, the claimant must
establish that he or she is an owner or interest holder in
the subject property. See also Tenn. Code Ann.
§ 39-11-708(c) ("Any party who claims an interest
in the property subject to forfeiture must first establish by
a preponderance of the evidence that the party is an owner or
interest holder in the property seized before other evidence
is taken. The claimant has the burden of establishing
standing to assert the claim."). An owner of property
for purposes of the general forfeiture statute is expressly
defined by the statute as "a person, other than an
interest holder, who has an interest in the property."
Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-702(3). In contrast, an interest
holder is defined as "a secured party within the meaning
of § 47-9-102(a), a mortgagee, lien creditor, one
granted a possessory lien under law, or the beneficiary of a
security interest or encumbrance pertaining to an interest in
property, whose interest would be perfected against a good
faith purchaser for value." Tenn. Code Ann. §
case, there can be no dispute that Appellees "ha[ve] an
interest" in the subject horses. Tenn. Code Ann. §
39-11-702(3). Indeed, in response to Appellees' later
filed statement of undisputed facts in support of the motion
for summary judgment, the State admitted that Appellees are
the "title-holders" of the subject
horses. As such, they clearly qualify as