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Ryan v. Soucie

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

July 18, 2019

NOAH RYAN ET AL.
v.
LAVERNA SOUCIE

          Session April 15, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Hamilton County No. 17-0447 Pamela A. Fleenor, Chancellor

         This appeal arises from a dispute concerning the defendant's conduct, which impeded the plaintiffs' use of a state right of way for ingress to and egress from the plaintiffs' commercial property. The trial court entered a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs following its determination that the defendant had created a nuisance and had intentionally interfered with the plaintiffs' business relationships. The defendant has appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Patrick B. Hawley, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Laverna Soucie.

          John P. Konvalinka, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, Noah Ryan d/b/a Ryan Heat and Air and B.M. Crane d/b/a Crane Development Company.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Richard H. Dinkins, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On June 20, 2017, the plaintiffs, Noah Ryan d/b/a Ryan Heat and Air and B.M. Crane d/b/a Crane Development Company (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), filed a complaint in the Hamilton County Chancery Court ("trial court") against the defendant, Laverna Soucie. In their complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that Mr. Ryan operated his business on commercial property owned by Ms. Crane, who is his mother-in-law.[1] Plaintiffs additionally averred that Ms. Soucie owned a nearby tract of residential property improved with a home. According to Plaintiffs, Ms. Soucie had recently engaged in conduct that impeded Plaintiffs' necessary route of ingress to and egress from their property to a public road known as Parker Lane.

         Plaintiffs further alleged that the City of Chattanooga ("the City"), via ordinance, had rezoned a portion of Ms. Crane's real property to reflect a commercial designation in 1995, "for the purpose of allowing commercial business on Crane's Property having a street address of 3222 Parker Lane with 'access to site' (from Parker Lane to Crane's Property) as described on the map attached to, and a part of, such approved and enacted ordinance." Plaintiffs asserted that they had continuously used and exclusively maintained the gravel road providing such access since that time. According to Plaintiffs' allegations in the complaint, the United States Postal Service had instructed Mr. Ryan to place a mailbox for his business at the point where the gravel road abutted Parker Lane.

         As averred, at some point following her purchase of nearby property in 2014, Ms. Soucie began impeding Plaintiffs' use of the gravel road by, inter alia, planting trees and placing a trailer in front of the gate to Plaintiffs' property, even though Ms. Soucie does not own the real property across which the gravel road exists. Plaintiffs' specific claims included that Ms. Soucie's actions (1) substantially interfered with their use of the gravel road and their own property, (2) constituted a nuisance, and (3) interfered with and harmed Mr. Ryan's business and business relationships. Consequently, Plaintiffs sought damages and injunctive relief. The trial court subsequently granted Plaintiffs a temporary restraining order and set the matter for hearing.

         In response, Ms. Soucie filed an answer, contending that title to the property traversed by the gravel road at issue had been conveyed to the State of Tennessee in 1982 and 1984 without any encumbrances reflected in the deeds. Ms. Soucie averred that the City lacked authority to encumber property owned by the State with an easement and asserted that Plaintiffs' use of the gravel road was unnecessary because their property had access to Center Street. Ms. Soucie also raised various affirmative defenses, including failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and failure to join an indispensable party.

         Although the parties subsequently attempted mediation, no settlement was achieved. Ms. Soucie thereafter filed a motion to dismiss, which the trial court denied in an order dated December 7, 2017. On December 14, 2017, the eve of trial, Ms. Soucie filed a motion to recuse, alleging that she had recently learned that the chancellor had previously been in partnership with counsel for Plaintiffs. Ms. Soucie alleged that neither the chancellor nor Plaintiffs' counsel had disclosed their previous business relationship to her. She therefore insisted that the chancellor's impartiality in the matter could be reasonably questioned, such that recusal was proper. In accordance with Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B, Ms. Soucie filed a supplement to her motion, asserting that the motion was not presented for an improper purpose.

         The trial court entered an order on December 18, 2017, denying the recusal motion. The court found that the motion was untimely because the complaint had been filed on June 20, 2017, and numerous orders had been entered and continuances granted since that time. The court noted that "waiting five months to file a motion to recuse and [] filing that motion one day prior to trial, is not timely." With regard to the affidavit required by Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B that must be based on personal knowledge, the court found the instrument filed by Ms. Soucie's counsel to be inadequate. The court determined that "counsel's lack of personal knowledge of the matter set forth in the memorandum is both pronounced and conspicuous as the memorandum attempts to speak to many matters that occurred in the case prior to counsel's appearance in the case and are incorrect as pointed out below." The court thus determined that the motion was not supported by a proper affidavit.

         With regard to the merits of the recusal motion, the trial court determined that there was no basis for recusal in the case at bar. The chancellor noted that she had "entertained hearings and trials from all of her prior employers . . . and has never announced that she was formerly employed by that firm." The trial court further determined that "there is no appearance of impropriety where opposing counsel was a former partner 23 years ago with the Chancellor." Finally, the court found that there was no bias or prejudice that would prevent a proper adjudication in this matter.

         The trial court subsequently conducted a bench trial on March 9, 2018, and May 1, 2018. On May 21, 2018, the trial court entered a final judgment, wherein the court made detailed findings of fact, including that Plaintiffs possessed the right to use the gravel road in question, or the "Driveway" as it was referred to by the court. The court ultimately determined that Ms. Soucie "intentionally, unreasonably and substantially inconvenienced and interfered with Plaintiff[s'] use of the Driveway," thereby constituting a nuisance. The court awarded damages to Plaintiffs in the amount of $14, 850, which represented the cost of hauling refuse from Plaintiffs' property after Ms. Soucie rendered the gravel road impassable for the waste disposal truck. Although the court further found that Ms. Soucie had intentionally interfered with Plaintiffs' business relationships, no additional damages were awarded for this claim. Ms. Soucie timely appealed.

         II. Issues Presented

         Ms. Soucie presents the following issues for our review, which we have restated slightly:

1. Whether the trial court erred by denying Ms. Soucie's motion to dismiss pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6).
2. Whether the trial court erred by determining that the weight of the evidence preponderated in favor of the award of monetary damages to Plaintiffs.
3. Whether the trial court erred by holding Ms. Soucie liable for nuisance and intentional interference with business relationships.
4. Whether the trial court erred by denying Ms. Soucie's motion for directed verdict.
5. Whether the trial court erred by denying Ms. Soucie's motion to recuse.

         In addition to rephrasing the issues raised by Ms. Soucie, Plaintiffs raise the following additional issue, which we have similarly restated as follows:

6. Whether this Court should consider Ms. Soucie's contentions regarding her motion to dismiss when such contentions were not raised in the trial court.

         III. Standard of Review

         We review a trial court's findings of fact de novo with a presumption of correctness unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise. See Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d); Nashville Ford Tractor, Inc. v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 194 S.W.3d 415, 424 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). "[F]or the evidence to preponderate against a trial court's finding of fact, it must support another finding of fact with greater convincing effect." Rawlings v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 78 S.W.3d 291, 296 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). We review questions of law de novo. See Wells v. Tenn. Bd. of Regents, 231 S.W.3d 912, 916 (Tenn. 2007). "We defer to the trial court's determinations of witness credibility because the trial judge could observe the witnesses' demeanor and hear in-court testimony." Coleman v. Olson, 551 S.W.3d 686, 694 (Tenn. 2018).

         We review a trial court's ruling concerning a motion to dismiss de novo with no presumption of correctness. See Woodruff by & through Cockrell v. Walker,542 S.W.3d 486, 494 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2017), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Oct. 6, 2017). Concerning motions for recusal made pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B, we likewise review the denial of such a motion de novo with ...


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