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Collins v. Sams East Inc.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

March 13, 2018

VALENEN COLLINS
v.
SAMS EAST INC.

          Session February 21, 2018

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT-003667-16 Rhynette N. Hurd, Judge

         Appellant appeals the dismissal of this action on the ground of res judicata. We hold that an essential element of res judicata-that the underlying judgment was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction-is not met in this case. Here, the court that rendered the judgment relied upon lacked subject matter jurisdiction due to the doctrine of prior suit pending. The trial court's judgment of dismissal is therefore reversed.

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

          John R. Johnson, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Valenen Collins.

          Russell E. Reviere and W. Christopher Frulla, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Sams East, Inc.

          J. Steven Stafford, P. J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, P.J., M.S., and Brandon O. Gibson, J., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         BACKGROUND

         This appeal requires consideration of two separate actions, both of which were originally filed in Shelby County General Sessions Court. The first action was filed on November 20, 2013 ("First Case"), alleging that Plaintiff/Appellant Valenen Collins ("Appellant") was injured at the premises owned by Defendant/Appellee Sams East, Inc. ("Appellee"). The First Case was set for trial on January 13, 2014, but a judgment of dismissal without prejudice was entered the same day when Appellant did not appear. Appellant thereafter retained counsel, who filed a motion to set aside the dismissal of the First Case on January 23, 2014. Appellee responded in opposition to the motion, but the motion was not immediately adjudicated by the general sessions court.

         On February 18, 2015, Appellant filed a second civil warrant in the Shelby County General Sessions Court alleging the same cause of action ("Second Case"). The Second Case alleged that the First Case was dismissed by final order on February 19, 2014, apparently due to an incorrect notation by the general sessions court clerk. Eventually, a trial occurred in the Second Case, and the general sessions court rendered a verdict for the defense.[1] Appellant appealed the Second Case to the circuit court; the circuit court entered an order on May 27, 2016, dismissing the Second Case based upon the expiration of the statute of limitations. According to Appellant, after learning that the motion to set aside in the First Case had yet to be adjudicated, Appellant filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment in the Second Case, which was eventually denied by the circuit court.[2] No appeal was taken from the trial court's ruling in the Second Case.

         Following the dismissal of the Second Case, Appellant returned to the First Case and requested that the general sessions court rule on the motion to set aside. The motion was eventually heard on August 24, 2016. On the same day, the general sessions court denied the motion. The following day, Appellant filed an appeal of the First Case to the circuit court. Appellee thereafter filed a motion to dismiss on the basis of res judicata, arguing that the issues sought to be litigated in the First Case had been previously decided by final order in the Second Case. Appellant responded that the trial court in the Second Case lacked subject matter jurisdiction to decide the case because of prior suit pending, thereby negating an essential element of the doctrine of res judicata.

         The trial court granted the motion to dismiss on the basis of res judicata. The trial court specifically found that the doctrine of prior suit pending did not apply because the First Case was final at the time the Second Case was filed because the motion to set aside filed in the First Case did not affect the finality of the judgment or suspend its operation. Appellant thereafter filed a timely appeal to this Court.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         Appellant raises three issues on appeal, which are taken from her brief and slightly restated:

1. Did the trial court err in granting Appellee's motion to dismiss Appellant's appeal from general sessions court based upon the principle of res judicata?
2. Did the trial court err in failing to recognize that the doctrine of prior suit pending bars the second suit ...

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