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In re Estate of Link

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 5, 2017

IN RE ESTATE OF WILLIAM C. LINK

          Session May 16, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 14C1299 Ben Cantrell, Special Judge

         Plaintiff, the successor administrator for the decedent's estate, brought a negligence suit against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County based on the probate clerk's failure to cite the prior administrator in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 30-2-602. Following the Metropolitan Government's filing of a motion for summary judgment, the trial court concluded that the asserted claims were barred by the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act's one-year statute of limitations. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Remanded.

          Patrick B. Mason and Steven C. Ebbers, Germantown, Tennessee, for the appellant, Paul Allen Gontarek.

          Keli J. Oliver and Melissa Roberge, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Brandon O. Gibson, J., joined.

          OPINION

          ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE.

         Background and Procedural History

         On March 19, 2003, the Seventh Circuit Court for Davidson County (the "Probate Court") entered an order appointing John Clemmons ("Mr. Clemmons") to serve as Administrator C.T.A.[1] for the Estate of William C. Link (the "Estate"). As is relevant to this appeal, the order required Mr. Clemmons to file an inventory and annual accountings for the Estate. Despite filing an accounting on September 15, 2004, Mr. Clemmons never filed another accounting for the Estate during his ten year tenure as Administrator C.T.A.

         On April 10, 2013, Mr. Clemmons was removed from his position as Administrator C.T.A. for the Estate, and in his stead, the Probate Court appointed Paul A. Gontarek ("Mr. Gontarek") as Successor Administrator C.T.A. Approximately seven months later, on November 15, 2013, Mr. Clemmons pled guilty to stealing over $770, 000.00 from the Estate and was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment as a result of his theft.

         On April 1, 2014, Mr. Gontarek, in his capacity as Successor Administrator C.T.A., filed a complaint in the Davidson County Circuit Court against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County ("Metro"). The complaint sought relief on account of Mr. Clemmons's wrongdoing and asserted that the 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. Namely, the complaint alleged that despite Mr. Clemmons's failure to provide annual accountings pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 30-2-601, the Probate Court Clerk had not cited Mr. Clemmons for this shortcoming. As alleged in the complaint, the Probate Court Clerk is required by statute to cite the personal administrator for failing to carry out his or her administrative duties. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 30-2-602 ("If any personal representative fails to settle the accounts as prescribed in § 30-2-601, the clerk shall cite the personal representative to appear and settle on a given day[.]"). Following the filing of the complaint, the trial judge assigned to the case recused himself. A few months thereafter, the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court assigned the matter to be heard by a Special Judge.

         On April 1, 2016, Metro moved for summary judgment as to the claims asserted against it. In addition to alleging that Mr. Gontarek's lawsuit was time-barred, Metro claimed that liability against it was precluded due to the fact that Mr. Gontarek had already obtained a default judgment against Mr. Clemmons for 100% of the Estate's losses in a separately-filed case. Metro's request for summary judgment was subsequently taken under advisement following a hearing in May 2016.

         On September 26, 2016, the trial court entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of Metro and dismissing Mr. Gontarek's complaint. As a basis for its dismissal, the trial court concluded that the claims asserted against Metro were barred by the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act's one-year statute of limitations. The trial court did not opine on the merits of the alternative basis for dismissal that Metro cited in its motion, holding that "[a]ll other issues . . . are . . . moot." This timely appeal followed.

         Issues Presented

         Having reviewed the parties' principal appellate briefs, we perceive that the following two issues are presented for our review:

1. Whether the claims in the complaint are time-barred.
2. Whether the present lawsuit is barred due to principles of comparative fault.

         Standard of Review

         Because this appeal stems from a grant of summary judgment, our inquiry "involves purely a question of law." Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 88 (Tenn. 2000). Our standard of review is de novo, and we afford no presumption of correctness to the trial court's determination. Maggart v. Almany Realtors, Inc., 259 S.W.3d 700, 703 (Tenn. 2008) (citations omitted). When ascertaining whether a grant of summary judgment was proper, we must make a fresh determination that the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied. Green v. Green, 293 S.W.3d 493, 514 (Tenn. 2009) (citations omitted). Under that rule, a motion for summary judgment should only be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ...


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