Meade v. Paducah Nissan, LLC

Decision Date09 June 2022
Docket NumberM2021-00563-COA-R3-CV
CourtTennessee Court of Appeals

Session March 31, 2022

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2020-462 Joseph A. Woodruff, Judge

Wife appeals from the trial court's decision to dismiss a complaint against the car dealership managed by her estranged husband for claims associated with the use of a demonstrator vehicle. We affirm the decision of the trial court.

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

William Kennerly Burger, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellant, Ashley Shearin Meade.

Sye T. Hickey and Austin K. Purvis, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Paducah Nissan, LLC.

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



I. Factual and Procedural History

Plaintiff/Appellant Ashley Shearin Meade ("Appellant") filed for divorce against her husband James Robert Meade, Jr. ("Mr. Meade") sometime in 2019. While the divorce was still pending, Appellant filed a complaint on October 7, 2020, in the Circuit Court for Williamson County (the "trial court") against Defendant/Appellee Paducah Nissan, LLC[1]("Appellee") and Mr. Meade, in his individual capacity and his capacity as a managing agent for Appellee. Because this case was decided on a motion to dismiss, we take the facts as alleged in the complaint as true for purposes of this appeal.

The genesis of Appellant's complaint was that Appellant had entered into an oral agreement with Mr. Meade and Appellee that resulted in an "effective year-to-year leasing of [a] 'demonstrator' vehicle, as negotiated with [Mr.] Meade [] at the commencement of their parties' relationship, and effectively renewed each year (following the surrender of her personal vehicle at Mr. Meade's request)." The complaint alleged that such a lease or bailment was created under the following circumstances:

1. [Appellant], for good and valuable legal consideration, and as a result of an unwritten, routine practice of the couple, possessed, as an intangible marital interest, exclusive dominion and control over a certain 2020 Nissan Armada SUV. [Appellant] asserts that throughout the couples' seven-year relationship, she operated a "demonstrator" vehicle through an oral lease, or bailment.
2. [Appellant] allowed Mr. Meade to dispose of her unencumbered vehicle. A "quid pro quo" (as consideration or detrimental reliance) supported the agreement by Mr. Meade and [Appellant]: as a benefit to [Appellee], both Mr. Meade and [Appellant] would be provided each year with a new "demonstrator," with a specifically identified vehicle being driven by [Appellant], and another (specifically identified) vehicle being driven each year by Mr. Meade. That practice never wavered. There was no written agreement. There were no conditions for usage; restrictions; compliance duties for insurance; and, no forms to sign. Accordingly, [Appellant's] basis for her assertion of lawful "legal and equitable" dominion and control over the above-referenced 2020 Nissan Armada was firmly established by conduct[.]

Appellant therefore alleged that she had an enforceable agreement as a lessee or bailee.

According to the complaint, however, in 2020, Mr. Meade suffered a series of legal setbacks in the divorce proceeding. In addition, in June 2020, Mr. Meade admitted in his divorce deposition that he had placed a tracking device on Appellant's vehicle in late 2019; according to the complaint the tracking "occurred on numerous, successive dates over a period of months" and was done by Mr. Meade "in furtherance of his management position" with Appellee. In July 2020, Mr. Meade requested that Appellant sign a written agreement as condition for her continued use of the demonstrator vehicle. According to Appellant, the terms were onerous, "high risk" to her, and legally ineffective. She refused.

The parties' disputes culminated on September 14, 2020, when Mr. Meade caused the 2020 Nissan Armada to be "repossessed." Appellant was instead left with the keys to drive a "much smaller vehicle" that had typically been used by Mr. Meade.[2] According to Appellant, this action violated both the oral lease or bailment that the parties had agreed to abide by and the mandatory injunction put in place in the divorce action.[3]

Based on these facts, the complaint raised claims of conversion, unlawful vehicle tracking, and violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act ("TCPA"). Moreover, Appellant asserted that Mr. Meade had utilized his role as a principal and manager of Appellee in furtherance of his personal attack upon Appellant, and that Appellee should be vicariously liable for the actions of Mr. Meade. Appellant sought compensatory damages in the amount of $100, 000.00, as well as treble or punitive damages.

On December 18, 2020, Appellee filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Appellant failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted against Appellee. Appellant responded in opposition. A hearing on the motion to dismiss was held via videoconference on April 22, 2021, at which time the trial court took the motion under advisement.

The trial court issued a written order granting Appellee's motion to dismiss on May 4, 2021. Therein, the trial court ruled that Appellant's conversion claim failed because Appellant had not alleged an ownership interest in the 2020 Nissan Armada. The trial court further ruled that Appellant's vehicle tracking claim did not meet the requirements under either the federal or state statutes cited by Appellant. Finally, the trial court ruled that the repossession of the vehicle did not give rise to any claim under the TCPA.

On June 24, 2021, Appellant filed a notice of voluntary dismissal of the claims against Mr. Meade individually. On July 1, 2021, the trial court entered an order dismissing the claims against Mr. Meade without prejudice. A final judgment having been entered, Appellant appealed to this Court.

II. Issues Presented

On appeal, Appellant contends that the trial court erred in granting Appellee's motion to dismiss her claims for (1) conversion; (2) unlawful vehicle tracking under state and federal law; and (3) violations of the TCPA. In the posture of appellee, Appellee seeks an award of attorney's incurred in this appeal under three different theories.

III. Standard of Review

An essential purpose of a pleading is to give notice of the issues to be tried so that the opposing party will be able to prepare for trial. Abshure v. Methodist Healthcare- Memphis Hosps., 325 S.W.3d 98, 103 (Tenn. 2010). A Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6) motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Lanier v. Rains, 229 S.W.3d 656, 660 (Tenn. 2007). It admits the truth of all relevant and material allegations, but asserts that such allegations do not constitute a cause of action as a matter of law. See Riggs v. Burson, 941 S.W.2d 44, 47 (Tenn. 1997). These motions are not favored and are rarely granted in light of the liberal pleading standards contained in the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. Dobbs v. Guenther, 846 S.W.2d 270, 273 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992). Moreover, pleas or counts contained in a complaint will be given the effect required by their content, without regard to the name given them by the pleader. State By and Through Canale ex rel. Hall v. Minimum Salary Dept. of African Methodist Episcopal Church, Inc., 477 S.W.2d 11 (Tenn.1972).

When considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, we are limited to an examination of the complaint alone. See Wolcotts Fin. Serv., Inc. v. McReynolds, 807 S.W.2d 708, 710 (Tenn.Ct.App.1990). The basis for the motion is that the allegations in the complaint, when considered alone and taken as true, are insufficient to state a claim as a matter of law. See Cook By & Through Uithoven v. Spinnaker's of Rivergate, Inc., 878 S.W.2d 934, 938 (Tenn. 1994). Although allegations of pure legal conclusion will not sustain a complaint, see Ruth v. Ruth, 213 Tenn. 82, 372 S.W.2d 285, 287 (Tenn. 1963), a complaint "need not contain in minute detail the facts that give rise to the claim[.]" Donaldson v. Donaldson, 557 S.W.2d 60, 61 (Tenn. 1977); White v. Revco Discount Drug Centers, 33 S.W.3d 713, 718, 725 (Tenn. 2000). Instead, the complaint

must contain direct allegations on every material point necessary to sustain a recovery on any legal theory, even though it may not be the theory suggested . . . by the pleader, or contain allegations from which an inference may fairly be drawn that evidence on these material points will be introduced at trial.

Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Human., Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422, 427 (Tenn. 2011) (quoting Leach v. Taylor, 124 S.W.3d 87, 92 (Tenn. 2004)).

In short, a Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6) motion to dismiss seeks only to determine whether the pleadings state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and such a motion challenges the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not the strength of the plaintiff's proof. Bell ex rel. Snyder v. Icard, 986 S.W.2d 550, 554 (Tenn. 1999). In considering such a motion, the court should construe the complaint liberally in favor of the plaintiff, taking all the allegations of fact therein as true. See Cook ex. rel. Uithoven v. Spinnaker's of Rivergate, Inc., 878 S.W.2d 934, 938 (Tenn. 1994). An appellate court should uphold the grant of a motion to dismiss only when it appears that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of a claim that will entitle him or...

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