Harmless Error Doctrine Extends to Rule 12.02(6) Motion
The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently released an opinion that provides a compelling insight into the sticky wicket of civil procedure. The facts of the case involve an otherwise pedestrian dispute between homeowners and their contracted buyer on one hand and an HOA on the other. The ruling, however, ultimately touches on the joinder doctrine and the relation back rule, the harmless error doctrine, the admissibility of evidence at the summary judgment stage, pleading rules, and consideration for contracts to forbear bringing suit.
Civil litigation practitioners should read the entire opinion, paying particular attention to the Court of Appeals' description of how Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.03 applies to obviate a statute of limitations defense. Additionally, readers should note the pronouncement by the court that the harmless error doctrine extends to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) motions to dismiss. This is evidently an issue of first impression in Tennessee law. The Court of Appeals decreed this new rule as follows:
Nevertheless, we agree that premature dismissal under Rule 12.02(6) is harmless error if, at the time of the trial court’s ruling, (1) there was a pending motion for summary judgment, (2) the non-moving party had a full and fair opportunity to respond, and (3) summary judgment is appropriate as a matter of law.
The upshot of this ruling is essentially that, if a trial court errs in granting a Rule 12 motion to dismiss, but a grant of a pending summary judgment motion would have been appropriate, then the dismissal will be upheld under Tennessee's long-standing "right result/wrong reason" rule.
Given the many issues of civil procedure addressed in this opinion, it will be interesting to see if the parties choose to ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to grant permission to appeal.