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Augustin v. Bradley County Sheriff's Office

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

October 2, 2019

ABRAHAM ASLEY AUGUSTIN
v.
BRADLEY COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE ET AL

          Assigned on Briefs September 4, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Bradley County No. V-16-082 Lawrence Howard Puckett, Judge

         Appellant 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.

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

          Abraham A. Augustin, Coleman, Florida, Pro se. Thomas E. LeQuire, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee,

          Bradley County Sheriff's Office.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Andy D. Bennett, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Background

         On 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 on bond.

         On 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.

         In 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.

         Following 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

         On 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.

         On 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.[3] 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.

         On 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, [4] 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.

         Discussion

         In this 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 jurisdiction).

         This 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.

         Before 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 ...


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