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Rozen v. Wolff Ardis, P.C.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

December 17, 2019


          Session September 18, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT-003797-16 Valerie L. Smith, Judge

         Appellants filed a legal malpractice action against their former law firm after two civil judgments were not renewed after a ten-year period. After a bench trial, the trial court ruled that the appellants' claim was filed beyond the statute of limitations. The trial court also found that no attorney-client relationship existed to impose a duty on the law firm to renew the civil judgments before they expired. We find no reversible error in the trial court's ruling regarding the statute of limitations. As such, we affirm the decision of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          R. Sadler Bailey and J. Vance Montgomery, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellants, Linda L. Rozen, and Doron Rozen.

          Russell E. Reviere and Dale Conder, Jr., Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellee, Wolff Ardis, P. C.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Kenny Armstrong and Carma Dennis McGee, JJ., joined.



         I. Background

         This case involves a claim of legal malpractice following the failure to renew two civil judgments ten years after they were first issued. Appellants Doron Rozen and Linda L. Rozen ("the Rozens") hired a law firm, Appellee Wolff Ardis, P.C. ("Wolff Ardis"), after they discovered that an employee, Jessica Trotter-Lawson ("Ms. Trotter"), and her then-boyfriend, Andrew Burton ("Mr. Sheriff")[1], had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Rozens' jewelry business in Memphis. The Rozens signed an engagement agreement with Wolff Ardis on January 8, 2003. The agreement stated that Wolff Ardis would represent the Rozens and their business, Town & Country Jewelers, Inc., "in the investigation, pursuit, and if appropriate, prosecution of any claim and/or lawsuit arising out of the activities of [Ms. Trotter] and/or [Mr. Sheriff]."

         The Rozens sought civil judgments against Ms. Trotter and Mr. Sheriff. The Shelby County Chancery Court issued a $493, 685.81 judgment against Ms. Trotter on April 23, 2003, and a $519, 357.47 judgment against Mr. Sheriff on August 11, 2003. When each civil judgment was issued, the Rozens were represented by Sharon Petty ("Ms. Petty"), who then worked as an attorney at Wolff Ardis. Pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-3-110(a)(2), civil judgments are effective for ten years; judgments may, however, be renewed by the filing of a timely petition. Ms. Trotter and Mr. Sheriff separately pleaded guilty to two counts of theft over $60, 000 on January 13, 2004, and were each sentenced to a maximum of eight years in prison. Because Ms. Trotter and Mr. Sheriff had no demonstrable assets and would be incarcerated for some time, Wolff Ardis encouraged the Rozens to wait to collect on the judgments until both people had collectable income or assets. The Rozens were willing to wait and pursue their judgments against Ms. Trotter and Mr. Sheriff as long as necessary. Both Ms. Trotter and Mr. Sheriff were eventually released on probation.

         Wolff Ardis represented the Rozens again in 2006 to ensure that the Rozens' judgment against Mr. Sheriff was not discharged after he was released from prison and filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court entered an order on May 8, 2008, that declared that the Rozens' judgment could not be discharged. On May 20, 2008, the Rozens received a letter from Wolff Ardis stating that "this matter is completed" and requesting that the Rozens pay for the legal services performed for them.

         In the years after obtaining the judgments and the conclusion of bankruptcy matter, Mr. Rozen continued to contact Wolff Ardis about renewing the judgments before they expired.[2] Typically, Mr. Rozen would discuss the judgments with Wolff Ardis staff, including paralegal Cindy Tupis ("Ms. Tupis") and legal assistant Cynthia Dayne ("Ms. Dayne").[3] After one such conversation, Ms. Dayne sent an email to Mr. Rozen on June 29, 2011, stating in part:

It appears that the Order Granting Default Judgment against Jessica Trotter was in April of 2003 and the Order Granting Default Judgment against Andy Sheriff was in June of 2003. Judgments have to be renewed in 10 years, so in 2013 we will have to renew.
We will docket a reminder for this in our system for January of 2013.
I am copying Sharon Petty on this email - Sharon please confirm that I am correct.

         Calendar reminders were directed to Ms. Dayne and Ms. Petty about renewing the Rozens' judgments. Unbeknownst to Ms. Dayne at the time, those reminders were never received due to technical issues. Neither Ms. Dayne nor Ms. Petty worked for Wolff Ardis when the present lawsuit was filed. At trial, the parties stipulated that Ms. Petty would testify that she never received the calendar invite. Mr. Rozen continued to contact Wolff Ardis regarding the judgments, including in 2012 after Ms. Trotter was accused of stealing from a church in Johnson City.[4]

         The 2013 renewal dates on both judgments passed without intervention from either the Rozens or Wolff Ardis. Specifically, Wolff Ardis did not work to renew the judgments and did not issue a bill to the Rozens during that time. The Rozens contacted Wolff Ardis again about the judgments in June 2016, when Mr. Rozen asked the law firm to send him case files and complete a background check on Mr. Sheriff. At that time, Mr. Rozen indicated his belief that the judgments had been renewed. While conducting the background check, Ms. Tupis learned the judgments against Ms. Trotter and Mr. Sheriff were never renewed and arguably invalid. Ms. Tupis told her supervisor, Patrick M. Ardis ("Mr. Ardis"), about the expired judgments. Mr. Ardis told Ms. Tupis that they should try to help the Rozens if they could. Without approval from the Rozens, Wolff Ardis filed Motions and Requests for Scire Facias to Revive Judgments against Ms. Trotter and Mr. Sheriff on June 20, 2016. Ms. Tupis completed the background check and emailed Mr. Rozen about the results on June 21, 2016. Ms. Tupis and Mr. Ardis unsuccessfully attempted to contact the Rozens personally and alert them of the judgments. Ms. Tupis eventually emailed Mr. Rozen on July 28, 2016 to inform him of the expired judgments and the motions that had been filed to revive them. After a hearing on August 15, 2016, the Motions and Requests for Scire Facias to Revive Judgments were denied by the Shelby County Chancery Court. Mr. Ardis sent a letter to the Rozens on August 17, 2016 informing them of the expired judgments, the failed efforts to revive them, and the law firm's plans to appeal the rulings at its own expense.[5]

         The Rozens, along with Town & Country Jewelers, Inc., filed the present legal malpractice action against Wolff Ardis in Shelby County Circuit Court ("the trial court") on September 15, 2016.[6] Wolff Ardis answered the complaint with multiple affirmative defenses on November 1, 2016, including expiration of the legal malpractice statute of limitations. Wolff Ardis moved for summary judgment on April 27, 2017, and the Rozens separately moved for summary judgment on May 30, 2017. The trial court was also asked whether Wolff Ardis could present evidence about the collectability of the judgments as part of its defense. The trial court denied both motions for summary judgment and additionally allowed Wolff Ardis to present evidence at trial regarding collectability. The Rozens moved ...

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