Assigned on Briefs September 4, 2019
from the Circuit Court for Bradley County No. V-16-082
Lawrence Howard Puckett, Judge
appeals from the dismissal of his complaint seeking damages
for the improper forfeiture of his property seized incident
to an arrest. The trial court dismissed the action on the
basis of lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We affirm the
trial court's dismissal of Appellant's claim for the
return of his seized property, as the trial court lacked
subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate that claim. We
reverse, however, the dismissal of Appellant's claim for
damages related to a bad faith seizure under Tennessee Code
Annotated section 40-33-215.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit
Court Affirmed in Part; Reversed in Part; and
Abraham A. Augustin, Coleman, Florida, Pro se. Thomas E.
LeQuire, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee,
Bradley County Sheriff's Office.
Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the
court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Andy D. Bennett,
STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE
February 9, 2016, Petitioner/Appellant Abraham Asley Augustin
("Appellant") filed an action in the Bradley County
Circuit Court ("the trial court") seeking a return
of "property that [was] forfeited without Due
Process" against the Bradley County Sheriff's
Department ("the Bradley County Sheriff's
Department" or "Appellee"). Because this case
was dismissed on a motion to dismiss, we take the facts from
Appellant's pleadings and the documents attached thereto.
The complaint alleged that Appellant was arrested on December
3, 2009 by the Bradley County Sheriff's Department on a
warrant for kidnapping and robbery. Incident to this arrest
in Bradley County, Appellant alleged that both his vehicle
and cash were seized. At the time, Appellant signed a notice
of seizure form indicating that cash and drugs had been
seized. Appellant was then transferred to Hamilton County,
where the charges were pending. He was subsequently released
December 9, 2009, Appellant was arrested a second time by the
Bradley County Sheriff's Department on federal kidnapping
charges. Incident to this arrest, Appellant alleged that
additional cash and a U-Haul were seized by the Bradley
County Sheriff's Department. A notice of forfeiture
regarding the seized cash, as well as seized narcotics,
indicates that a notice was presented to Appellant, but he
refused to sign. A superseding indictment was later issued
adding a drug conspiracy to Appellant's kidnapping
charge. Although the U-Haul was later released to another
party allegedly without Appellant's consent, Appellant
alleged the cash was never returned. Appellant remained
incarcerated in Bradley County until the resolution of his
federal charges, approximately March 2011. According to
Appellant, he was acquitted of the drug conspiracy charge but
convicted of kidnapping and "murder-for-hire
offenses." Appellant has therefore been incarcerated in
federal prison throughout the pendency of this case.
Appellant was never charged for any crimes in Bradley County.
2012, Appellant filed his first action for return of the
seized property in the trial court. The action was eventually
dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and
expiration of the statute of limitations.
the dismissal of his first action, Appellant engaged in
federal litigation concerning the seized property. In the
course of the federal litigation, on November 12, 2015,
Appellant alleged that he finally received information
regarding the seizure and forfeiture of his property.
Specifically, Appellant alleged that he learned that although
the Bradley County Sheriff's Department obtained
forfeiture warrants and later forfeiture orders regarding
Appellant's "property and cash," documents
relative to the seizure were not properly mailed to Appellant
as required by statute. According to Appellant's complaint
and attached documents, the warrants and orders were in fact
mailed to addresses in North Carolina, despite the fact that
Appellant resided at the Bradley County jail at all relevant
times. Thus, Appellant alleged that the Bradley
County Sheriff's Department knowingly and intentionally
mailed the notices to an incorrect address, thereby depriving
Appellant of his ability to contest the forfeiture of the
property at issue. Appellant further alleged that this action
violated his constitutional rights and that he was entitled
to "the monetary equivalence" of the seized
property and cash, as well as attorney's fees.
August 1, 2016, Appellant filed a motion for default judgment
against Appellee. Appellant thereafter filed additional
motions to ensure his participation in the case despite his
incarceration and to be awarded punitive damages. On January
17, 2017, the trial court denied the motion for default
judgment on the basis that Appellee had not been served.
February 13, 2017, Appellant filed a motion to amend his
complaint to add additional individual defendants and to more
fully set forth his claims for relief. In the corresponding
pleading styled as a "Statement of Claim,"
Appellant sought $316, 840.00 as the monetary value of the
items seized, $2, 000, 000.00 in compensatory damages for the
items seized that had no pecuniary value, and $3, 000, 000.00
in punitive damages. The statement of claim also names
additional parties as individual defendants. Also on the same
day, Appellant filed a notice of removal of his action to
federal court. On March 10, 2017, the United States District
Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee dismissed the
federal action as legally frivolous, noting that federal law
did not support removal by the plaintiff.
August 14, 2017, the Bradley County Sheriff's Department
filed a motion to dismiss Appellant's complaint, arguing
inter alia, that the issues raised were barred by
the doctrine of res judicata and/or the applicable statute of
limitations,  and that the trial court lacked subject
matter jurisdiction to adjudicate Appellant's claim. With
regard to jurisdiction, Appellee contended that Appellant was
required to exhaust his administrative remedies with the
Department of Safety pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated
section 40-33-201 et seq., and that, in any event,
any petition for judicial review should have been filed in
Davidson County Chancery Court pursuant to the Uniform
Administrative Procedures Act. On December 20, 2017, the
trial court granted Appellee's motion to dismiss after
concluding that is lacked subject matter jurisdiction to
address the issues raised in Appellant's complaint.
Appellant thereafter appealed to this Court.
case, the trial court dismissed Appellant's case solely
on the basis that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to
adjudicate the claims contained therein. Thus, as we perceive
it, a single issue is raised in this appeal: whether the
trial court erred in dismissing Appellant's claims for
lack of subject matter jurisdiction. According to the
Tennessee Supreme Court,
The concept of subject matter jurisdiction involves a
court's lawful authority to adjudicate a controversy
brought before it. See Meighan v. U.S. Sprint
Communications Co., 924 S.W.2d 632, 639 (Tenn. 1996);
Standard Sur. & Casualty Co. v. Sloan, 180 Tenn.
220, 230, 173 S.W.2d 436, 440 (1943). Subject matter
jurisdiction involves the nature of the cause of action and
the relief sought, see Landers v. Jones, 872 S.W.2d
674, 675 (Tenn. 1994), and can only be conferred on a court
by constitutional or legislative act. See Kane v.
Kane, 547 S.W.2d 559, 560 (Tenn. 1977); Computer
Shoppe, Inc. v. State, 780 S.W.2d 729, 734
(Tenn.Ct.App.1989). Since a determination of whether subject
matter jurisdiction exists is a question of law, our standard
of review is de novo, without a presumption of correctness.
See Nelson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 8 S.W.3d 625,
628 (Tenn. 1999).
Northland Ins. Co. v. State, 33 S.W.3d 727, 729
(Tenn. 2000). "The lack of subject matter jurisdiction
is so fundamental that it requires dismissal whenever it is
raised and demonstrated." First Am. Trust Co. v.
Franklin-Murray Dev. Co., L.P., 59 S.W.3d 135, 141
(Tenn. Ct. App. 2001) (citations omitted) (noting that an
appellate court cannot reach the merits of an appeal upon a
finding that the trial court lacked subject matter
case was resolved on a motion to dismiss. In considering a
motion to dismiss, courts "'construe the complaint
liberally, presuming all factual allegations to be true and
giving the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable
inferences.'" Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for
Humanity, Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422, 426 (Tenn. 2011)
(quoting Tigg v. Pirelli Tire Corp., 232 S.W.3d 28,
31-32 (Tenn. 2007)). A motion to dismiss should be granted
only where the plaintiff "'can prove no set of facts
in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to
relief.'" Id. (quoting Crews v. Buckman
Labs. Int'l, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 852, 857 (Tenn. 2002)).
Our review of the trial court's decision to grant
Appellee's motion to dismiss is de novo with no
presumption of correctness. Id.
addressing the merits of the question on appeal, however, we
must first address Appellant's pro se status and the
state of his brief. As we have previously explained:
Parties who decide to represent themselves are entitled to
equal treatment by the court. Murray v. Miracle, 457
S.W.3d 399, 402 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014). The court should take
into account that many pro se litigants have no legal
training and little familiarity with the judicial system.
Id. However, the court must also be mindful of the
boundary between fairness to the pro se litigant and
unfairness to the pro se litigant's adversary.
Id. While the court should give pro se litigants who
are untrained in the law a certain amount of leeway in
drafting their pleadings and briefs, it must not excuse pro
se litigants from complying with the same substantive and
procedural rules that represented parties are expected to
observe. Hessmer v. Hessmer, 138 S.W.3d 901, 903
(Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).
Lacy v. Mitchell, 541 S.W.3d 55, 59 (Tenn. Ct. App.
2016). We therefore keep these principles in mind in
considering Appellant's compliance with the briefing