John Howard Story, Et Al. v. Nicholas D. Bunstine, Et Al.

John Howard Story, Et Al. v. Nicholas D. Bunstine, Et Al.
E2015-02211-SC-R11-CV

The defendant attorneys in the instant legal malpractice case, Nicholas D. Bunstine, Brent R. Watson, and Jerrold L. Becker, individually and d/b/a Bunstine, Watson, McElroy & Becker, represented the plaintiffs, John Howard Story and David Bruce Coffey, in a lender liability lawsuit. In the underlying lender liability lawsuit, the trial court ultimately dismissed the case against two of the lender defendants, and the claims against the remaining lender defendant were later voluntarily dismissed. Thereafter, the plaintiffs filed the instant lawsuit against the defendant attorneys alleging legal malpractice. The trial court partially dismissed the case based on the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations for filing a complaint for legal malpractice. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(c)(1). Later, in response to the defendant attorneys’ motion for summary judgment, the trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ remaining claim, determining that the claim was also barred by the statute of limitations. The Court of Appeals affirmed. We granted this appeal to address: (1) whether this Court’s opinion in Carvell v. Bottoms, 900 S.W.2d 23 (Tenn. 1995), in which we set forth a discovery rule for when the statute of limitations begins to run in a legal malpractice action, should be overruled; (2) whether an interlocutory ruling in underlying litigation constitutes a legally cognizable injury; (3) whether this Court should adopt either the continuous representation rule or the appeal-tolling doctrine for tolling the statute of limitations in legal malpractice actions; and (4) whether a subsequent action of an attorney that renders an interlocutory order final amounts to a separate and discrete act of malpractice such that the statute of limitations for that action does not begin until said action is taken. Following our review, we conclude that Carvell v. Bottoms is the accurate analysis for determining when a claim of legal malpractice accrues. In addition, we decline to adopt the two tolling doctrines proposed by the plaintiffs, and we further decline to hold that the trial court’s final judgment in the underlying case is required before there is an actual injury for purposes of the accrual of a claim for litigation malpractice. Nevertheless, we conclude that, in the case before us, the complaint fails to establish an actual injury prior to the date of the trial court’s final judgment in the underlying case. Consequently, the trial court erred in granting the motion to dismiss and in determining that the plaintiffs’ legal malpractice claims were time barred. Finally, we conclude that the trial court also erred in granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. In this case, the defendant attorneys’ alleged negligence, which purportedly rendered the interlocutory order in the underlying case final, constituted a distinct act of malpractice, and as such, the statute of limitations had not run on that claim at the time the plaintiffs filed this legal malpractice action. Therefore, we reverse the judgments of the trial court and the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. 

Authoring Judge: 
Justice Roger A. Page
Originating Judge: 
Judge Kristi M. Davis
Date Filed: 
Monday, December 11, 2017