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Morrow v. Gault Financial, LLC

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 17, 2018

DEBBIE H. MORROW
v.
GAULT FINANCIAL, LLC

          Session March 27, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 16C3259 Thomas W. Brothers, Judge

         This case was originally filed in general sessions court. The general sessions court entered a default judgment against Appellant in the amount of $8, 066.04 on January 27, 2012. In September of 2015, Appellant filed a motion for relief from the general sessions judgment, alleging that the judgment was void because she was not properly served with the civil warrant. The general sessions court denied the motion, and Appellant appealed to the circuit court. The circuit court vacated the general sessions' default judgment finding that Appellant was not properly served but remanded the case to general sessions for a trial on the merits. Because the general sessions court lacked personal jurisdiction over Appellant, we conclude that the default judgment entered in the general sessions court is void. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court's order vacating the default judgment, but reverse the circuit court's remand of the case to general sessions court, and instead we remand to the circuit court with instructions to dismiss the case.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court is Affirmed in Part; Reversed in Part, and Remanded.

          James E. Kirby, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Debbie H. Morrow.

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S. and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE.

         Gault Financial, LLC ("Gault, " or "Appellee") purchased, from Chase Bank, certain defaulted debts. One of those debts was that of Appellant Debbie H. Morrow in the amount of $8, 066.04. As Chase's assignee, Gault filed suit against Ms. Morrow in the General Sessions Court of Davidson County on October 20, 2011. The civil warrant states: "Served Debbie H. Morrow @ 6:20 PM 10-25-2011." Although the warrant is signed by Mr. Wayne Harrison, as purported process server, it does not identify Mr. Harrison by name (other than his signature) and does not indicate Mr. Harrison's address as required under Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-15-901(b) ("The process server must be identified by name and address on the return.").

         Ms. Morrow did not appear for the scheduled hearing on January 27, 2012, and, on Gault's motion, the general sessions court granted a default judgment against Ms. Morrow for $8, 066.40 plus costs. No further action was taken until October 14, 2014, when the general sessions court issued a subpoena to Ms. Morrow, requiring her to appear before the court on February 17, 2015 and to bring certain financial documents. Like the civil warrant, discussed supra, the subpoena stated: "Served Debbie H. Morrow @ 3:10 PM 10-27-2014." The subpoena was signed by Mr. Harrison, but, like the warrant, did not identify him by name and did not include his address. The subpoena was left on Ms. Morrow's door.

         On September 16, 2015, Ms. Morrow filed a motion to set aside the default judgment in the general sessions court. On July 7, 2016, after obtaining counsel, she filed a motion to quash discovery and void default judgment. Ms. Morrow's motion to quash discovery and void default judgment was denied by order of December 1, 2016.

         Ms. Morrow then appealed to the Circuit Court for Davidson County. By order of July 11, 2017, the circuit court vacated the general sessions court's denial of Ms. Morrow's motion to quash discovery subpoena and void default judgment, finding that Ms. Morrow was not properly served with the civil warrant. Despite this finding, the circuit court ultimately concluded that Ms. Morrow had voluntarily submitted to the general sessions court's jurisdiction by personal appearance. Accordingly, the circuit court remanded the case to the general sessions court for trial on the merits.

         Appellant raises one issue:

Whether the trial court erred in remanding the case to the General Sessions Court for trial on the merits after finding that Appellant was never personally served with the civil warrant issued on October 20, 2011.

         We first address the validity of the default judgment entered against Ms. Morrow in the general sessions court. Ms. Morrow alleges that the general sessions court did not obtain personal jurisdiction over her for the following reasons: (1) she was not served with the civil warrant in October of 2011; (2) the civil warrant failed to comply with Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-15-901(b) in that it did not contain the process server's address on the return;[2] and (3) that the return of service was not properly sworn to and was missing from the original court file. We have previously stated that "[b]ecause the trial court's jurisdiction of the parties is acquired by service of process, proper service of process is an essential step in a proceeding." Watson v. Garza, 316 S.W.3d 589, 593 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008) (citing Stitts v. McGown, No. E2005-02496-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 1152649, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 2, 2006)); se ...


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