Neurology v. Beavers, M2020-00553-COA-R3-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtKristi M. Davis, J.
Citation639 S.W.3d 651
Docket NumberNo. M2020-00553-COA-R3-CV,M2020-00553-COA-R3-CV
Decision Date18 June 2021

639 S.W.3d 651


No. M2020-00553-COA-R3-CV

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Middle Section, AT NASHVILLE.

Assigned on Briefs February 2, 2021
FILED June 18, 2021

Angello L. Huong, Lebanon, Tennessee, for the appellants, Nandigam Neurology, PLC, and Dr. Kaveer Nandigam.

Daniel A. Horwitz, Nashville, Tennessee, and Sarah L. Martin, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Kelly Beavers.

Kristi M. Davis, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Kenny W. Armstrong, J., joined.


Kristi M. Davis, J.

639 S.W.3d 654

This case arises from a defamation and false light lawsuit filed in the General Sessions Court for Wilson County (the "general sessions court"). The action was dismissed pursuant to the Tennessee Public Participation Act (the "TPPA") and the plaintiffs appealed the dismissal to the Circuit Court for Wilson County (the "circuit court"). After concluding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the appeal, the circuit court transferred the case to this Court. On appeal, the parties dispute whether this Court has subject matter jurisdiction, and the defendant argues that the ruling of the general sessions court should be affirmed. We conclude that this Court has subject matter jurisdiction to decide this appeal and, discerning no error, we affirm the decision of the general sessions court dismissing the plaintiffs’ legal action pursuant to the TPPA.


This case centers on the recently enacted TPPA, found at Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-17-101 et. seq. Kelly Beavers ("Defendant" or "Appellee") and her father visited the office of Dr. Kaveer Nandigam ("Dr. Nandigam"), a neurologist, in early November 2019. Although the details of the visit are disputed, Dr. Nandigam and Defendant agree that there was a disagreement over whether Defendant could make a video recording of the appointment with her phone. According to Defendant, she often does this at her father's doctor's appointments because he has neurological and memory issues. According to Dr. Nandigam, however, videotaping a doctor's appointment violates his office policy. In any event, after the appointment, Defendant posted an online Yelp! review regarding Dr. Nandigam and his practice, Nandigam Neurology, PLC (together with Dr. Nandigam, "Plaintiffs" or "Appellants"). Defendant's review stated in its entirety:

This "Dr's" behavior today was totally unprofessional and unethical to put it mildly. I will be reporting him to the State of TN Medical Review Board and be filing a formal complaint. How this guy is in business is beyond me. Since when did they start allowing Doctors, to throw a complete temper tantrum in front of Patients and slam things when they get upset? He does not belong in the medical field at all.

On November 27, 2019, Nandigam Neurology initiated the first action against Defendant in the circuit court. Dr. Nandigam was not listed as a plaintiff in that action. Nandigam Neurology claimed causes of action for defamation, libel, false light, and conspiracy and alleged, inter alia , that Defendant's Yelp! review contained "false, disparaging, and misleading statements." Defendant responded by filing a motion to dismiss pursuant to the TPPA, specifically sub-section 20-17-104(a). Defendant averred that Nandigam Neurology's lawsuit was a strategic lawsuit against public participation, meaning the suit was intended to deter Defendant's lawful exercise of her right to free speech and that the lawsuit should be dismissed. Before the circuit court could rule on Defendant's petition, however, Nandigam Neurology filed a notice of voluntary dismissal.

Soon thereafter, on January 21, 2020, Plaintiffs filed a new action in the general sessions court, this time listing both Nandigam Neurology and Dr. Nandigam as plaintiffs. The summons alleged "[d]efamation as to Nandigam Neurology, PLC and [Dr. Nandigam]; and [f]alse light invasion of privacy as to [Dr. Nandigam]."1 Again,

639 S.W.3d 655

Defendant responded by filing a petition to dismiss Plaintiffs’ case in its entirety. First, Defendant argued that Plaintiffs failed to state any claim for which relief could be granted, pointing out that Plaintiffs failed to plead the substance of any statement over which they complained. Defendant also averred that her statement was not defamatory because it expressed only opinions and rhetorical hyperbole. Defendant again relied on the TPPA in asserting that her review was a statement made in connection with a matter of public concern and that Plaintiffs’ lawsuit "qualifies as one filed in response to [Defendant's] exercise of the right to free speech[.]" Defendant requested that the suit be dismissed, that she be awarded costs and attorney's fees, and that the general sessions court sanction Plaintiffs pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-17-107. Attached to Defendant's petition to dismiss was an affidavit executed by Defendant which provided that her Yelp! review was based on her personal observations and that she had no reason to believe any of the statements in the review were false.

Plaintiffs answered Defendant's petition for dismissal on January 31, 2020, asserting that section 20-17-101 et. seq. could not apply to their claims because "it is a rule of [c]ivil [p]rocedure, and the rules of [c]ivil [p]rocedure do not apply in general sessions court." Plaintiffs further argued that they "[met] the pleading requirements for general sessions court" and that they were entitled to a hearing at which they would provide evidence of their damages. Plaintiffs also asserted that because "there is no discovery in general sessions court, ... no affidavit by Plaintiffs or Defendant is necessary or appropriate." As such, Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant's TPPA petition for dismissal did not address the substance of Defendant's argument nor did Plaintiffs offer any countervailing proof in response to Defendant's affidavit.

The general sessions court held a hearing on Defendant's TPPA petition on February 6, 2020. While Defendant reiterated the argument that her Yelp! review was not defamatory as a matter of law, Plaintiffs maintained that "there's no discovery in General Sessions Court[,]" and that the court should "go ahead and just have the trial." Rather than respond to the merits of Defendant's petition at the February 6, 2020 hearing, Plaintiffs’ counsel relied solely on the theory that the TPPA is a rule of civil procedure that does not apply in general sessions court. On the other hand, Defendant maintained that the TPPA is a duly enacted Tennessee statute that, by its terms, applies to all legal actions, and that the general sessions court should rule on the petition and dismiss Plaintiffs’ case. The general sessions court took the petition under advisement and informed the parties that a ruling would be announced on February 13, 2020, one week later.

On February 12, 2020, six days after the hearing on Defendant's TPPA petition, Plaintiffs filed a pleading titled "Plaintiff's Supplemental Answer to Defendant's § 20-17-104(a) Motion to Dismiss[.]" In this pleading, Plaintiffs addressed the substance of Defendant's TPPA petition for the first time, arguing that Plaintiffs could prove a prima facie case for defamation and false light. Specifically, Plaintiffs asserted that the use of ironic quotes in Defendant's Yelp! review was defamatory because the quotes suggest Dr. Nandigam is not a real doctor. Plaintiffs further asserted that the allegations that Dr. Nandigam "threw a temper tantrum" and "slammed things" were defamatory because

639 S.W.3d 656

these allegations amount to facts as opposed to opinion or hyperbole. In support of their contention that they could plead their prima facie case, Plaintiffs attached to their supplemental answer an affidavit of Dr. Nandigam, which provided his version of the circumstances surrounding Defendant's visit to Nandigam Neurology in November 2019.

The parties appeared in the general sessions court the following day, February 13, 2020, to hear the ruling on Defendant's TPPA petition. At this hearing, Defendant argued that Plaintiffs’ supplemental answer was untimely pursuant to section 20-17-104(c), which provides that a response to a TPPA petition to dismiss "may be served and filed by the opposing party no less than five (5) days before the hearing or, in the court's discretion, at any earlier time that the court deems proper." As Plaintiffs’ supplemental response and affidavit were not filed until nearly a week after the hearing on Defendant's petition and on the eve of the general sessions court's scheduled ruling, Defendant urged that Plaintiffs’ response should not be considered. Defendant therefore averred that Plaintiffs had offered no countervailing proof in response to Defendant's TPPA petition and that Plaintiffs’ case must be dismissed. The general sessions court acknowledged that it had only received Plaintiffs’ response the prior afternoon and ruled that: (1) Plaintiffs failed to state a claim for defamation because they did not plead the substance of the statement at issue; (2) the TPPA applies in general sessions court because it is a Tennessee...

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1 practice notes
  • In re Lyric N., E2021-00578-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • July 29, 2022
    ...should be considered as a threshold inquiry' and 'resolved at the earliest possible opportunity.'" Nandigam Neurology, PLC v. Beavers, 639 S.W.3d 651, 660 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2021) (quoting In re Estate of Trigg, 368 S.W.3d at 489). "Since a determination of whether subject matter jurisdiction ......
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  • Flade v. City of Shelbyville, M2022-00553-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • February 24, 2023
    ...unambiguous, we look no further than the language of the statute itself to determine its meaning." Nandigam Neurology, PLC v. Beavers, 639 S.W.3d 651, 657 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2021) (citing Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Memphis Light, Gas and Water, 578 S.W.3d 26, 30 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2018)). W......
  • Adamson v. Grove, M2020-01651-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • November 30, 2022
    ...This Court provided the following general overview of SLAPP suits and anti-SLAPP legislation in Nandigam Neurology, PLC v. Beavers, 639 S.W.3d 651, 657-59 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2021): The term "SLAPP" stands for lawsuits against public participation," meaning lawsuits which might be viewed as "di......
  • Laferney v. Livesay, E2021-00812-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • November 22, 2022
    ...for dismissal under the TPPA is either granted or denied. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17-106; see also Nandigam Neurology, PLC v. Beavers, 639 S.W.3d 651, 664-66 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2021). In relevant part, the TPPA provides: The court's order dismissing or refusing to dismiss a legal action pursu......
  • Reiss v. Rock Creek Constr., E2021-01513-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • November 1, 2022
    ...S.W.3d 614, 617-19 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2021) (footnote omitted). As further elucidated by this Court in Nandigam Neurology, PLC v. Beavers, 639 S.W.3d 651, 658 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2021): "Plaintiffs in SLAPP suits do not intend to win but rather to chill a defendant's speech or protest activity and......
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