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Elaster v. Massey

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

February 22, 2018

APRIL ELASTER
v.
GARY MASSEY JR., ET AL.

          Assigned on Briefs February 2, 2018

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hamilton County No. 15C877 Don R. Ash, Senior Judge.

         In this legal malpractice case, defendant-attorneys filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that they complied with the applicable standard of care. In response to the summary judgment motion, Appellant failed to offer any expert proof that defendant-attorneys breached the applicable standard of care. Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment on this basis. Discerning no error, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          April Elaster, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Pro Se.

          William S. Walton, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Gary Massey, Jr., Massey & Associates, PC, and Danny Ellis.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and John W. McClarty, J., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE.

         Background

         Plaintiff/Appellant April Elaster suffered a work-place injury in 2005. With the help of counsel, Ms. Elaster filed a workers' compensation claim against her employer. Following the withdrawal of her initial attorney, Ms. Elaster retained the services of Defendants/Appellees Gary Massey Jr., d/b/a Massey and Associates, and Danny Ellis (together, "Appellees"). Appellees represented Ms. Elaster from 2009 until 2014. Since 2014, Ms. Elaster represented herself in the workers' compensation proceeding.

         On July 20, 2015, Ms. Elaster filed a pro se complaint for legal malpractice against Appellees. Therein, Ms. Elaster alleged that Appellees failed to adequately represent her in the workers' compensation case. Specifically, Ms. Elaster alleged that Appellees "settled" the workers' compensation case without informing her. Ms. Elaster further alleged that she had no knowledge that a "monetary settlement had been taken on her claim" until she performed her own investigation in July 2014. Appellees filed an answer denying the material allegations in the complaint. The parties thereafter entered into a period of discovery.

         After encountering alleged problems obtaining discovery from Ms. Elaster, Appellees filed a motion to compel on November 3, 2015, which motion was eventually granted by the trial court. Additional disputes occurred regarding Ms. Elaster's deposition; the deposition eventually took place on February 22, 2016. Ms. Elaster also submitted written discovery to Appellees on March 9, 2016. Appellees responded on March 25, 2016. Ms. Elaster, however, was unsatisfied with certain responses submitted by Appellees, particularly where Appellees refused to supply certain information on grounds that the information was privileged or irrelevant and unlikely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. As such, Ms. Elaster filed several pleadings with the trial court concerning what she alleged were discovery violations by Appellees.

         In the meantime, on April 20, 2016, Appellees filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that they had complied with all relevant standards of care in their representation of Ms. Elaster and that Ms. Elaster's claim in her complaint that Appellees had obtained a settlement of Ms. Elaster's workers' compensation claim was patently false. Appellees' motion was accompanied by a statement of undisputed material facts. Therein, Appellees alleged that Ms. Elaster had been twice examined by physicians, neither of whom supported her claim for impairments in the underlying workers' compensation proceeding.[1] Further, Appellees alleged that despite negotiating a settlement for Ms. Elaster's "disputed and doubtful" claim, she later repudiated the agreement and no settlement had ever been entered into by Appellees on behalf of Ms. Elaster with regard to her workers' compensation claim. Finally, Appellees alleged they had never received any "monetary settlement" in connection with their representation of Ms. Elaster and that the representation was terminated in July 2014. Importantly, the statement of undisputed material facts also alleged that both Mr. Massey and Mr. Ellis were familiar with the recognized standard of care with regard to the legal representation at issue and that neither attorney had breached the applicable standard of care. In support of their assertions regarding the standard of care, Appellees relied on the affidavits of both Mr. Massey and Mr. Ellis.

         On May 17, 2016, Ms. Elaster filed a motion to compel discovery, arguing that Appellees had refused to provide requested documents and that Appellees' objections regarding privilege and relevance were not well-founded. Appellees responded in opposition. On May 26, 2016, Ms. Elaster also filed a motion seeking to delay the hearing on the summary judgment motion, noting that she had issued a subpoena to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development ("Department of Labor") and that she needed time to review the documents. Again, Appellees opposed Ms. Elaster's request, arguing that the documents at issue were easily obtainable simply by signing a release and that evidence showed that the Department of Labor had already released the relevant documents to Ms. Elaster but that Ms. Elaster had not retrieved the released documents. In a later filing, Ms. Elaster admitted that she was able to obtain her file from the Department of Labor in June of 2016.

         On May 31, 2016, Ms. Elaster filed an affidavit in opposition to the motion for summary judgment. Therein, Ms. Elaster asserted that despite Appellees' assertion otherwise, she had never claimed that Appellees received a money settlement and retained the funds without remitting those funds to Ms. Elaster. Ms. Elaster also included certain alleged portions of Mr. Massey's response to a Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility complaint filed by Ms. Elaster.

         The parties appeared as scheduled for the summary judgment hearing on June 6, 2016. At the hearing, the trial court granted Ms. Elaster's request for a continuance. Ms. Elaster thereafter requested that the trial court recuse itself. The trial court later entered an order granting ...


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