Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 11/22/2017
Format: 11/22/2017
Tennessee Department of Correction v. David Pressley
M2015-00902-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Claudia C. Bonnyman

We granted this appeal to determine whether a “preferred service” state employee has a protected property interest in his or her employment and whether due process or specific statutory language requires the State to bear the ultimate burden of proof in a post-termination administrative appeal under section 8-30-318 of the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability, and Management Act of 2012, Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 8-30-101 through -407. The Respondent, David Pressley, was employed by the Petitioner, Tennessee Department of Correction, as a correctional officer at the Morgan County Correctional Complex. Mr. Pressley was dismissed from his employment and challenged his termination pursuant to the TEAM Act’s appeals process. Mr. Pressley’s termination was upheld by the Commissioner of TDOC at Step I of the TEAM Act’s appeals process and at Step II by the Commissioner of Human Resources. At Step III of the appeals process, the Board of Appeals reinstated Mr. Pressley and reduced his discipline to a 14-day suspension. The Board of Appeals also determined that the State bore the ultimate burden of proof in the Step III appeal. The State appealed to chancery court, challenging the assignment of the burden of proof. The chancery court reversed the Board of Appeals’ decision on the burden of proof issue and remanded the matter to the Board of Appeals. Mr. Pressley appealed to the Court of Appeals which, in turn, reversed the chancery court’s decision and determined that “preferred service” state employees have a protected property interest in their employment and that the State bore the ultimate burden of proof in the Step III appeal. We reverse the Court of Appeals’ judgment and remand this matter to the Board of Appeals for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion. 

Davidson County Supreme Court 09/14/17
Linda Beard v. James William Branson, et al.
M2014-01770-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Judge Robert E. Burch

We granted permission for this appeal to determine whether a surviving spouse who files a wrongful death lawsuit is acting as a legal representative of the decedent and whether a wrongful death lawsuit filed pro se by the surviving spouse is void ab initio based on the spouse’s pro se status. In this case, the decedent’s surviving spouse filed a pro se wrongful death health care liability lawsuit shortly before the one-year statute of limitations lapsed. After expiration of the limitations period, the spouse retained an attorney and filed an amended complaint. In the ensuing discovery, the defendants learned that the decedent had two daughters, both of whom were statutory beneficiaries in the wrongful death action. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment. They argued that the spouse’s initial pro se complaint was filed in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent and the other statutory beneficiaries and that it was, therefore, void ab initio; thus, the filing of the amended complaint could not relate back to the date of the initial complaint, and the lawsuit was time-barred. The trial court denied the summary judgment motions and permitted the amended complaint to relate back to the date of the initial pro se complaint. It then conducted a jury trial; the jury found both defendants liable and awarded damages. The defendant hospital appealed the denial of summary judgment. Adopting the defendant’s argument, the Court of Appeals reversed. The plaintiff now appeals. Under the plain language of Tennessee’s wrongful death statutes, the decedent’s right of action “pass[es] to” the surviving spouse upon the decedent’s death, and the surviving spouse asserts the right of action for the benefit of himself and other beneficiaries. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106(a) (2009 & Supp. 2016). Consequently, we hold that the surviving spouse did not file the initial pro se complaint as the legal representative of either the decedent or the decedent’s estate. As we construe our wrongful death statutes, in filing the pro se complaint, the surviving spouse was acting to a large extent on his own behalf and for his own benefit pursuant to his right of self-representation. Under the facts of this case, we hold that the initial pro se complaint was not void ab initio, it served to toll the statute of limitations, and the trial court did not err in allowing the filing of the amended complaint to relate back to the date of the initial complaint. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, affirm the trial court’s denial of summary judgment, and remand to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the other issues that were properly raised on appeal but not addressed. 

Houston County Supreme Court 08/30/17
State of Tennessee v. Christopher Scottie Itzol-Deleon
M2014-02380-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge Mark J. Fishburn

We granted the State’s application for permission to appeal in this case in order to determine (1) whether we should expressly overrule our decision in State v. Barney, 986 S.W.2d 545 (Tenn. 1999), and (2) whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred in merging two of the Defendant’s convictions. We expressly overrule Barney and hold that double jeopardy principles apply when determining whether multiple convictions of sexual offenses arise from a single act of sexual assault. We further hold that, in light of the factors we adopt herein, under the facts and circumstances of this case, the Court of Criminal Appeals did not err in merging two of the Defendant’s multiple convictions. Accordingly, albeit for different reasons, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Davidson County Supreme Court 08/25/17
Jason Ray v. Madison County, Tennessee
M2016-01577-SC-R23-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge J. Daniel Breen

We accepted certification of questions of law from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, which require us to determine: (1) whether, for split confinement sentences, Tennessee law authorizes a sentencing court to fix a percentage of the sentence that a defendant must serve in actual confinement before becoming eligible to participate in a work program in the local jail or workhouse; and (2) whether Tennessee law imposes a duty on a sheriff to challenge an inmate’s improper or potentially improper sentence. We conclude (1) that for split confinement sentences Tennessee trial judges are authorized to fix a percentage the defendant must serve in actual confinement before becoming eligible to earn work credits; and (2) that sheriffs in Tennessee have no duty to challenge an inmate’s sentence as improper or potentially improper.

Supreme Court 08/16/17
Danny C. Garland, II v. Board of Professional Responsibility Of The Supreme Court of Tennessee - Dissenting
E2016-01106-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood

I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion in this case.

From the majority’s recitation of the facts in this case, we can all agree that the complainant, Ms. McKeogh, did not get good service overall from Mr. Garland’s office. However, the majority’s recitation of the facts also makes it clear that the problems of which Ms. McKeogh complains arise from the actions or inactions of Mr. Garland’s staff, particularly Ms. Harris and Ms. Snyder.
 

Knox County Supreme Court 08/10/17
Danny C. Garland, II v. Board of Professional Responsibility Of The Supreme Court of Tennessee
E2016-01106-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood

A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility determined that a Knoxville attorney should receive a public censure based on his violations of Rules of Professional Conduct 1.3, 1.4, and 8.4(a). The trial court affirmed the hearing panel’s decision. After careful consideration, we affirm the judgment of the trial court. 

Knox County Supreme Court 08/10/17
In Re: Paul Julius Walwyn, BPR #18263
M2016-01507-SC-BAR-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Roger A. Page
Trial Court Judge:

The Board of Professional Responsibility (“Board”) initiated disciplinary proceedings against attorney Paul Julius Walwyn based on a client’s complaint of professional misconduct. A hearing panel (“Panel”) determined that Mr. Walwyn had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct (“RPC”) and ultimately entered “Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Amended Judgment of the Hearing Panel” (“Amended Judgment”) imposing a public censure with a practice monitor for one year and six additional hours of continuing legal education (“CLE”) on subjects related to the management of a law practice and/or client communication. Mr. Walwyn did not appeal the Amended Judgment to the trial court. The Board petitioned this Court for an order enforcing the Panel’s Amended Judgment. Pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 15.4(b) and (c), we determined that the punishment imposed by the Panel appeared inadequate and proposed that it be increased. Mr. Walwyn subsequently requested oral argument, which we granted. We now consider whether the punishment imposed by the Panel is appropriate under the circumstances of this case and is in uniformity with prior disciplinary decisions in this state. Following a thorough review of the record and the law, we conclude that it is not. Therefore, we modify the Panel’s Amended Judgment to impose a one-year suspension from the practice of law, with six months to be served on active suspension and six months to be served on probation with a practice monitor. The duties and obligations in relation to the practice monitor shall be enforced in accordance with the Panel’s Amended Judgment. We also impose six additional hours of CLE on subjects related to the management of a law practice and/or client communication.

Supreme Court 08/04/17
Deborah Bray v. Radwan R. Khuri, M.D.
W2015-00397-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Donna M. Fields

Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(2)(E) requires a person who asserts a potential claim for healthcare liability to include with pre-suit notice a HIPAA compliant medical authorization permitting the healthcare provider who receives the notice to obtain complete medical records “from each other provider being sent the notice.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(2)(E). Here, the plaintiff sent pre-suit notice of her claim to a single healthcare provider and included a medical authorization. After the plaintiff filed suit, the defendant healthcare provider moved to dismiss, asserting the plaintiff had failed to provide a HIPAA-compliant medical authorization. The trial court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. We hold that a prospective plaintiff who provides pre-suit notice to one potential defendant is not required under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(2)(E) to provide the single potential defendant with a HIPAA-compliant medical authorization. We reverse the judgments of the trial court and the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings. 

Shelby County Supreme Court 07/05/17
State of Tennessee v. Rodney Stephens
E2014-02514-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge E. Shayne Sexton

We granted the State’s application for permission to appeal in this case in order to determine whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred in concluding that the evidence was not sufficient to support the Defendant’s conviction of aggravated stalking. The Court of Criminal Appeals reduced the Defendant’s conviction to misdemeanor stalking after concluding that the State had not adduced sufficient evidence to establish that the Defendant knowingly violated an order of protection. We hold that the Court of Criminal Appeals misapplied the standard of review and so committed reversible error. Because the proof was sufficient to support the jury’s determination that the Defendant had actual knowledge of the order of protection issued against him on August 20, 2010, the evidence is sufficient to support the Defendant’s conviction of aggravated stalking. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstate the trial court’s judgment.

Campbell County Supreme Court 06/16/17
State of Tennessee v. Ray Rowland
W2014-02311-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge James M. Lammey, Jr.

The issue we address is whether a defendant has an appeal as of right from the denial of a Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g) motion for return of property when the defendant did not file a pretrial motion to suppress and pleaded guilty. The defendant was indicted on charges of aggravated assault by use or display of a deadly weapon. Law enforcement officers seized guns and other related items from the defendant’s home. The defendant did not challenge the seizure of his property and pleaded guilty to reduced charges of reckless endangerment. Three years later, he filed a Rule 41(g) motion for the return of property. The trial court dismissed the motion, and the defendant appealed. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that the defendant may be entitled to relief under Rule 41(g) based on the court’s determination that an illegal seizure occurs when, after a conviction, the State retains possession of property that is not stolen and not connected to the commission of a crime. See State v. Rowland, No. W2014-02311-CCA-R3-CD, 2015 WL 6601315, at *3 (Tenn. Crim. App. Oct. 30, 2015), perm. app. granted (Mar. 23, 2016). We hold that the defendant had no appeal as of right under Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 3(b) from the trial court’s order denying the Rule 41(g) motion. The Court of Criminal Appeals erred by hearing the defendant’s appeal when it lacked jurisdiction under Rule 3(b) and by determining that the defendant could be entitled to relief under Rule 41(g).   

Shelby County Supreme Court 06/02/17
Peter M. Napolitano v. Board of Professional Responsibility
M2016-00869-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Special Judge Ben H. Cantrell

This matter initially originated from a fee dispute between attorney Peter M. Napolitano (“Attorney”) and his client Gayle Connelly (“Client”). Client filed a complaint with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility (“the Board”) regarding the fee dispute in 2008. The Board dismissed this complaint in 2010 without imposing any sanctions. Client sued Attorney over the fee dispute and, after Attorney was deposed in conjunction with the lawsuit, Client filed a second complaint with the Board in 2012. This second complaint alleged that Attorney had mishandled funds in his trust account and lied under oath. The Board prosecuted this second complaint, resulting in a hearing before a hearing panel (“the Panel”). The Panel determined that Attorney had committed ethical violations related to his trust account and by lying under oath. Accordingly, the Panel imposed sanctions against Attorney, including a five-year suspension of Attorney’s law license, with one year of active suspension. Attorney and the Board both sought review in circuit court. The circuit court modified the Panel’s sanctions in part but affirmed the five-year suspension. Both Attorney and the Board sought review by this Court, with Attorney seeking a lesser punishment and the Board seeking disbarment. Additionally, both parties disagree with the Panel’s order of $7,500 in restitution to Client. We hold that the five-year suspension is appropriate and that the Panel did not err in ordering $7,500 in restitution. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court’s judgment but modify it by adding the requirement of a practice monitor during Attorney’s probationary period.

Montgomery County Supreme Court 05/24/17
Elizabeth Eberbach v. Christopher Eberbach
M2014-01811-SC-R11
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge James G. Martin, III

We granted this appeal to determine whether the Court of Appeals may exercise discretion and decline to award appellate attorney’s fees when the marital dissolution agreement at issue contains a provision entitling the prevailing party to an award of such fees. In this case, Husband and Wife were parties to a marital dissolution agreement that was incorporated into their final divorce decree (“the Parties’ MDA”). The Parties’ MDA contained a provision for the award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in any subsequent legal proceedings. Following a post-divorce proceeding that resulted in the trial court granting relief and awarding attorney’s fees to Wife, Husband appealed. Wife also prevailed on appeal and sought an award of appellate attorney’s fees from the Court of Appeals under a statutory provision and under the Parties’ MDA. Exercising its discretion, the Court of Appeals declined to award the requested fees under the statute. The Court of Appeals erroneously failed to separately consider an award of the requested fees under the Parties’ MDA. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals’ judgment and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

Williamson County Supreme Court 05/23/17
State of Tennessee v. James Hawkins - Concurring
W2012-00412-SC-DDT-DD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Chris Craft

I concur fully with the Court’s opinion except for the analysis regarding the proportionality review. In 1997, this Court narrowed the scope of the proportionality review required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 39 13 206(c)(1)(D) by limiting its consideration to only those cases in which the death penalty had been sought. State v. Bland, 958 S.W.2d 651, 666 (Tenn. 1997). A majority of this Court reaffirmed this truncated approach in State v. Pruitt, 415 S.W.3d 180, 217 (Tenn. 2013). In Pruitt, I joined Justice William C. Koch, Jr. in dissenting from the Court’s decision to continue following the Bland approach, as it improperly narrows the proportionality review required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 39 13 206(c)(1)(D). Pruitt, 415 S.W.3d at 230 (Koch and Lee, JJ., concurring and dissenting). We determined that the Court should return to its pre-Bland proportionality analysis by considering “all first degree murder cases in which life imprisonment or a sentence of death has been imposed” and focusing on whether the case under review more closely resembles cases that have resulted in the imposition of the death penalty than those that have not. Id. at 230-31 (Koch and Lee, JJ., concurring and dissenting).

Shelby County Supreme Court 05/01/17
State of Tennessee v. James Hawkins
W2012-00412-SC-DDT-DD
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Chris Craft

A jury convicted the defendant of the premeditated first degree murder of his girlfriend, who was the mother of his three children. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-202(a)(1) (2014). The jury also found the defendant guilty of initiating a false report concerning her disappearance and of abuse of her corpse, based on his sawing off her head, hands, and feet and throwing the remainder of her body over a bridge in Mississippi. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-16-502 (2014); id. § 39-17-312(a). At the conclusion of a separate sentencing hearing on the first degree murder conviction, the jury imposed the death sentence, finding that the prosecution had proven two statutory aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, id. § 39-13-204(i)(2), (13), and had established that these aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, id. § 39-13-204(g). For the remaining convictions, the trial court imposed consecutive sentences of twelve and six years, respectively, and ordered these sentences served consecutively to the death penalty. The defendant appealed, raising numerous issues, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his convictions and sentences. State v. Hawkins, W2012-00412-CCA-R3-DD, 2015 WL 5169157 (Tenn. Crim. App. Aug. 28, 2015). The case was thereafter automatically docketed in this Court for review, as required by statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-206(a)(1), (c)(1). We hold that: (1) the defendant’s sentence of death was not imposed in an arbitrary fashion; (2) the evidence supports the jury’s findings that the aggravating circumstances were proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that these aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt; and (3) the sentence of death is neither excessive nor disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the nature of the crime and the defendant. We also hold that: (1) admission of the defendant’s statements was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to allow the defendant to enter guilty pleas to the noncapital offenses pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(b) at the beginning of trial, after the jury had been sworn; (3) the trial court did not err by admitting testimony about the victim’s threats to call the police about the defendant’s conduct as this testimony was non-hearsay; (4) the trial court did not err by admitting the victim’s application for an order of protection against the defendant, pursuant to the forfeiture by wrongdoing exception to the hearsay rule; (5) the trial court did not violate Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b) by permitting the defendant’s children to testify about his acts of violence and sexual abuse because this testimony was offered to prove motive and premeditation; and (6) any error in the prosecutorial rebuttal argument was not so improper or inflammatory as to prejudice the defendant. Accordingly, we affirm the judgments of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the trial court upholding the defendant’s convictions and sentences. With respect to issues not specifically addressed herein, we affirm the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals and include relevant portions of the intermediate appellate court’s decision in the appendix to this opinion.

Shelby County Supreme Court 05/01/17
Darryl F. Bryant, Sr. v. Darryl F. Bryant, Jr. - (Dissent)
M2014-02379-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman

The Court has adopted a majority rule that allows a co-tenant to unilaterally sever a joint tenancy with right of survivorship and convert the estate into a tenancy in common without the knowledge or consent of the other co-tenant. The better rule, followed by other jurisdictions, does not allow a co-tenant to act unilaterally to sever the other co tenant’s interest, thereby protecting the rights and expectations of joint tenants who are conveyed property with a survivorship interest. 

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/19/17
Darryl F. Bryant, Sr. v. Darryl F. Bryant, Jr.
M2014-02379-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman

We granted permission to appeal in this case to address whether a joint tenancy with an express right of survivorship can be severed by the unilateral actions of one of the co-tenants. The owner of the property at issue in this appeal executed a deed conveying the property to herself and to her son in a joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The same grantor later executed a quitclaim deed granting her interest in the property to her grandson (the son’s child). After the grantor died, the son filed a declaratory judgment action against the grandson, claiming that the son was the rightful owner of the property in fee simple as the surviving joint tenant under the first deed. In response, the grandson asserted that the grantor’s second deed severed the joint tenancy, conveyed the grantor’s one-half interest to him, and destroyed the son’s right of survivorship. The trial court granted the son’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. We reverse. Following the common-law doctrine of severance, we hold that a joint tenancy with an express right of survivorship may be severed by the unilateral action of one of the co-tenants, and that doing so converts the estate into a tenancy in common and destroys the survivorship interests of the original joint tenants. In this case, the grantor’s second deed, conveying her interest in the property to the grandson, severed the joint tenancy and destroyed the son’s right of survivorship, so the son and the grandson own the property in equal parts as tenants in common.

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/19/17
Judy Kilburn v. Granite State Insurance Company, et al.
M2015-01782-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Roger A. Page
Trial Court Judge: Judge Michael Binkley

In this workers’ compensation case, Charles Kilburn sustained several injuries from a motor vehicle accident. He underwent cervical spine surgery to resolve his neck injury complaints. His authorized physician also recommended lumbar spine surgery to combat his back pain, but that request was denied through the utilization review process. Mr. Kilburn took oxycodone to alleviate his back pain, and his treating physician referred him to a pain management clinic. Six months after the cervical spine surgery, Mr. Kilburn died due to an overdose of oxycodone combined with alcohol. After a bench trial, the chancery court found that the death was compensable. Mr. Kilburn’s employer appealed. The appeal was initially referred to a Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel, but we later transferred the case to the Supreme Court for review. After examining the record, the parties’ arguments, and the applicable law, we reverse the judgment of the chancery court.

Williamson County Supreme Court 04/10/17
State of Tennessee v. James Robert Christensen, Jr.
W2014-00931-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Joseph H. Walker

The maxim, “every man’s house is his castle,” is deeply rooted in our jurisprudence. Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 390 (1914). It applies whether the house is a castle or a cottage—a mansion or a mobile home. The right to retreat into the privacy of one’s home and be free from governmental intrusion is a basic tenet of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution. Our homes and adjoining land are protected spaces; governmental officers must have a warrant, absent special circumstances, to intrude onto this private area. 

Tipton County Supreme Court 04/07/17
State of Tennessee v. James Robert Christensen, Jr.
W2014-00931-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge Joseph H. Walker

James Robert Christensen, Jr., (“the Defendant”) was convicted by a jury of resisting arrest, promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine, initiating the manufacture of methamphetamine, and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. Prior to trial, the Defendant moved to suppress evidence obtained through what he claimed was an illegal search. The trial court denied the Defendant’s motion and also denied the Defendant’s motion seeking an interlocutory appeal. On direct appeal following trial, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgments, including the trial court’s ruling on the suppression issue. We granted the Defendant’s application for permission to appeal in order to address the legality of the police officers’ warrantless entry onto the curtilage of the Defendant’s residence. We hold that the officers’ entry onto the Defendant’s property was constitutionally permissible in spite of the posted “No Trespassing” signs near the Defendant’s unobstructed driveway. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.  

Tipton County Supreme Court 04/07/17
Edwin B. Jenkins et al. v. Big City Remodeling et al.
E2014-01612-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge O. Duane Slone

At issue in this appeal is the liability of a general contractor and two flooring subcontractors for damages sustained by the plaintiffs when a fire destroyed their partially completed house. The plaintiffs alleged that the negligence of the general contractor and the subcontractors caused the fire and that the general contractor had breached the construction contract. The trial court granted summary judgment to the general contractor, holding that the plaintiffs could not rely on res ipsa loquitur to establish an inference of negligence; granted summary judgment to the subcontractors based on the plaintiffs’ failure to prove that any negligence of the subcontractors caused the fire; and granted summary judgment to the general contractor based on evidence that the plaintiffs were the first party to materially breach the construction contract. The Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, affirmed summary judgment to the general contractor based on the inapplicability of res ipsa loquitur; and reversed summary judgment to the subcontractors on the negligence claim and to the general contractor on the breach of contract claim, finding genuine issues of disputed material fact. We hold that the plaintiffs cannot rely on res ipsa loquitur because they did not produce sufficient evidence that the general contractor was in exclusive control of the specific cause or all reasonably probable causes of the fire. We further hold that the plaintiffs did not produce sufficient evidence to establish that any negligence of the subcontractors was the cause in fact of the fire. For these reasons, the general contractor and flooring subcontractors are entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims based on negligence and breach of contract. We affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. 

Sevier County Supreme Court 04/05/17
State of Tennessee v. Jerry Lewis Tuttle
M2014-00566-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Stella l. Hargrove

We granted the State’s appeal primarily to determine whether the intermediate appellate court erred in finding the search warrant affidavit insufficient to establish probable cause, and in doing so, to revisit the continuing vitality of State v. Jacumin, 778 S.W.2d 430 (Tenn. 1989). In Jacumin, this Court refused to follow Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983), which adopted a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis for determining whether an affidavit establishes probable cause for a search warrant, and instead embraced, as a matter of Tennessee constitutional law, another test derived from two earlier United States Supreme Court decisions, Aguilar v. Texas, 378 U.S. 108 (1964) and Spinelli v. United States, 393 U.S. 410 (1969). For the reasons explained herein, we overrule Jacumin and adopt the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis for determining whether an affidavit establishes probable cause for issuance of a warrant under article I, section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution. Applying this standard, we reverse the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision holding the search warrant invalid. We also reverse the intermediate appellate court’s conclusion that the evidence was insufficient to support the defendant’s convictions for conspiracy to possess over 300 pounds of marijuana with intent to sell or deliver and conspiracy to commit money laundering and reinstate the trial court’s judgment approving the jury’s verdict. Finally, we affirm, on separate grounds, the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision upholding the trial court’s judgment ordering forfeiture of the $1,098,050 cash seized when the search warrant was executed.

Maury County Supreme Court 04/05/17
Stephen Michael West, et al. v. Derrick D. Schofield, et al
M2015-01952-SC-RDM-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Claudia C. Bonnyman

The Plaintiffs, each convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death, brought this declaratory judgment action seeking to have declared facially unconstitutional the written protocol by which the Tennessee Department of Correction carries out an execution by lethal injection. After a lengthy evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied relief. The Plaintiffs appealed and, following a motion by the Defendants, this Court assumed jurisdiction over this matter. The Plaintiffs assert three grounds for relief in their brief to this Court: (1) the protocol is unconstitutional because it creates a substantial risk of serious harm; (2) the protocol is unconstitutional because it creates a substantial risk of a lingering death; and (3) the trial court erred by dismissing their claim that the protocol is unconstitutional because it requires the State to violate federal drug laws. We hold that the trial court did not err in concluding that the Plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of demonstrating that the protocol, on its face, violates the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. We also hold that the trial court did not err in dismissing the Plaintiffs’ claims that the protocol requires violations of federal drug laws. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.  

Davidson County Supreme Court 03/28/17
Judith Moore-Pennoyer v. State of Tennessee, et al
E2015-01701-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood

We granted permission to appeal to clarify the nature of the employment relationship of a trial judge’s secretarial assistant. We hold that a trial judgeʼs secretarial assistant is an at-will employee. As a result, the secretarial assistant’s employment may be terminated at any time during the term of the trial judge to whom he or she is assigned, either by the judge or the secretarial assistant. If the relationship is not terminated during the trial judge’s term, the secretarial assistant’s employment automatically terminates when the trial judge’s service ends. Because the plaintiff secretarial assistant’s employment automatically ended when the trial judge’s term ended and because she remained employed until the end of the trial judge’s term, as a matter of law, the defendant did not tortiously interfere with the plaintiff’s employment relationship. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, vacate the judgment of the trial court, and remand for entry of a judgment granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint, and for any further proceedings, consistent with this decision, that may be necessary in the trial court.

Knox County Supreme Court 03/28/17
Reginald Dion Hughes v. Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole (Dissent)
M2015-00722-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ellen H. Lyle

We granted permission to appeal believing this case presented us with an opportunity to address the constitutionality of Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-812 (2014)—an issue that merits our attention given a 2014 decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit holding the statute unconstitutional as applied in certain circumstances.  See Clifton v. Carpenter, 775 F.3d 760, 767-68 (6th Cir. 2014) (holding the statute unconstitutional when applied to bar a petitioner whose parole had been revoked from appealing the parole board’s decision because he owed $1,449.15 in court costs from prior cases).  Having now reviewed the record on appeal and the relevant statutory provisions, I am convinced that the statute does not apply to authorize dismissal of Mr. Hughes’s appeal.  As a result, I have concluded, like Justice Lee, that it is unnecessary to address the constitutionality of this statute in this appeal.  See West v. Schofield, 468 S.W.3d 482, 493–94 (Tenn. 2015)(“[C]ourts decide constitutional issues only when necessary.”).  Therefore, while I do not disagree with the majority’s discussion of the relevant constitutional principles or take issue with the outcome the majority reaches on the constitutionality of the statute, I am unable to join the majority decision affirming the dismissal of the petitioner’s appeal.  Rather, I would hold that dismissing an inmate’s claim based on Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-812 is permissible only if the record establishes that the inmates’ outstanding court costs were assessed against the inmate “under this part,” meaning in a manner consistent with Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-808(b).Because the record on appeal fails to establish that costs of the divorce action were assessed against Mr. Hughes “under this part,” consistently with section 41-21-808(b), I would reverse the dismissal and remand to the trial court for consideration of Mr. Hughes’s petition for certiorari on the merits.

Davidson County Supreme Court 03/23/17
Reginald Dion Hughes v. Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole (Dissent)
M2015-00722-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ellen H. Lyle

The Court bars Mr. Hughes’s access to the courthouse based on its interpretation of Tennessee Code Annotated sections 41-21-801 to -818, an act that adopted procedures and penalties for prison inmates who file frivolous or malicious lawsuits. As noted by the Court, the purpose of this act was to “offset the tide of frivolous inmate litigation filtering through the court system.” Under this act, a trial court may dismiss an inmate’s claim upon a finding that the claim is frivolous or malicious or if the inmate has previously filed three or more claims found to be frivolous or malicious. The specific section at issue is section 41-21-812(a), which provides that “on notice of assessment of any fees, taxes, costs and expenses under this part, a clerk of a court may not accept for filing another claim by the same inmate until prior fees, taxes, costs and other expenses are paid in full.” Id. (emphasis added).

Davidson County Supreme Court 03/23/17