Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 09/22/2014
Format: 09/22/2014
Davey Mann et al. v. Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity et al.
W2010-02316-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge John R. McCarroll, Jr.

We accepted this appeal of a personal injury action to determine whether the dismissal of a defendant pursuant to a written order not made final under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 54.02 renders that defendant “not a party to the suit” for purposes of Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119. We answer this question in the affirmative. Because the Court of Appeals upheld the judgment of the trial court dismissing the appellees from the Manns’ second amended complaint as time-barred, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

Shelby County Supreme Court 07/03/12
William S. Lockett, Jr. v. Board of Professional Responsibility
E2011-01170-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Walter C. Kurtz

While working for a law firm in which he was a shareholder, an attorney performed legal services for clients and failed to remit fees owed to the law firm. Members of the law firm confronted the attorney about the misappropriated legal fees shortly after the attorney resigned his position at the law firm to assume elected public office. As a result of his conduct, the attorney pleaded guilty to theft and to willful failure to file income tax returns. During a subsequent investigation, the Board of Professional Responsibility discovered that the attorney had accepted loans from the law firm’s clients while he was employed at the law firm. A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility found that the attorney should be suspended for four years. The attorney appealed, and the chancery court applied additional mitigating factors to reduce the suspension to two years. We hold that the chancery court erred in modifying the judgment without finding that any of the circumstances in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 1.3 applied. We also hold that the hearing panel erred in imputing a conflict of interest to the attorney with respect to the loan from the law firm’s client and in misapplying aggravating and mitigating factors. Despite these errors, we conclude that the length of suspension imposed by the hearing panel is consistent with the sanctions imposed on attorneys for similar conduct. We therefore reverse the chancery court’s reduction of the suspension to two years and affirm the hearing panel’s imposition of a four-year suspension.

Knox County Supreme Court 07/03/12
Gerdau Ameristeel, Inc. v. Steven Ratliff
W2011-00381-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor James F. Butler

An employee viewed the bodies of co-workers who had died as a result of work accidents on two separate occasions in February and April 2008. On June 23, 2008, the employee was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the two incidents. On June 23,2009, the employee requested a benefit review conference. The employer filed a complaint to determine the amount of workers’ compensation benefits due. The employer subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment contending that the statute of limitations commenced on the date of the second accident and that the claim was therefore barred. The employee contended that the statute did not begin to run until the date of his diagnosis and that his claim was timely. The trial court granted the employer’s motion. The employee appealed. We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case for entry of a judgment consistent with the trial court’s alternative findings.
 

Madison County Supreme Court 06/07/12
State of Tennessee v. Guy Alvin Williamson
W2011-00049-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Joseph H. Walker

After an investigatory stop and frisk, the defendant was charged with the unlawful possession of a handgun after a felony conviction and the unlawful possession of a handgun while under the influence of alcohol and was convicted on both counts. The trial court imposed probationary sentences of three years and eleven months, twenty-nine days, respectively. The defendant appealed, arguing that his motion to suppress evidence should have been granted. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. This Court granted the defendant’s application for permission to appeal. Because the investigatory stop and frisk of the defendant was not supported by specific and articulable facts establishing reasonable suspicion that a criminal act was being or about to be committed, the trial court erred by failing to suppress the handgun found by the police and presented as evidence at trial. The judgments of conviction are, therefore, reversed and the cause dismissed.
 

Tipton County Supreme Court 05/31/12
In Re Estate of Ardell Hamilton Trigg
M2009-02107-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge John J. Maddux, Jr.

In this case, we address the following two matters: (1) the proper procedure for obtaining appellate review of a judgment of a probate court created by private act upholding a claim filed by the Bureau of TennCare against the estate of a TennCare recipient and (2) the right of TennCare to obtain reimbursement for properlypaid TennCare benefits from real property owned by the recipient at the time of her death. After the decedent’s will was admitted to probate in the Putnam County Probate Court, TennCare filed a claim against her estate seeking reimbursement for services provided through theTennCare program. The decedent’s personal representative filed an exception to this claim. After the probate court upheld TennCare’s claim, the estate appealed to the Circuit Court for Putnam County. The circuit court determined that the decedent’s real property was not subject to TennCare’s claim, and TennCare appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals held that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the appeal from the probate court and that the appeal should have been filed with the Court of Appeals. Accordingly, it vacated the circuit court’s judgment and affirmed the judgment of the probate court. In re Estate of Trigg, No. M200902107-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 497459, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2011). We granted the estate’s application for permission to appeal to determine whether the circuit court had subject matter jurisdiction over the estate’s appeal from the probate court’s order upholding TennCare’s claim and whether real property owned by the recipient at the time of her death is subject to TennCare’s claims. We have determined that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction over the estate’s appeal from the probate court’s judgment regarding TennCare’s disputed claim and that the real property owned by the decedent at the time of her death is subject to TennCare’s claims for reimbursement.
 

Putnam County Supreme Court 05/30/12
Leonard Gamble v. Sputniks, LLC et al.
M2010-02145-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge C. L. Rogers

In these consolidated cases, the primary issue is whether there is liability insurance coverage for the plaintiffs’ injuries resulting from an altercation on the premises of the insured’s bar and restaurant. The insurer denied coverage and declined to defend the insured based on its determination that there was no coverage under the terms of the policy. We hold that based on the clear terms of the policy agreement, there is no liability coverage because the incident arose from an assault and battery, which was an excluded cause, and because there is no nonexcluded concurrent cause to provide coverage. We further hold that estoppel by judgment does not apply to collaterally estop the insurer from arguing the lack of coverage. The judgment of the trial court is reversed.
 

Sumner County Supreme Court 05/30/12
Donna Clark v. Sputniks, LLC et al.
M2010-02163-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge C. L. Rogers

In these consolidated cases, the primary issue is whether there is liability insurance coverage for the plaintiffs’ injuries resulting from an altercation on the premises of the insured’s bar and restaurant. The insurer denied coverage and declined to defend the insured based on its determination that there was no coverage under the terms of the policy. We hold that based on the clear terms of the policy agreement, there is no liability coverage because the incident arose from an assault and battery, which was an excluded cause, and because there is no nonexcluded concurrent cause to provide coverage. We further hold that estoppel by judgment does not apply to collaterally estop the insurer from arguing the lack of coverage. The judgment of the trial court is reversed.
 

Sumner County Supreme Court 05/30/12
State of Tennessee v. Hubert Glenn Sexton
E2008-00292-SC-DDT-DD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge E. Shayne Sexton

The defendant, tried and convicted of two counts of first degree murder, was sentenced to death for each offense. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. In our review, we have found that the trial court erred by admitting detailed evidence of a prior claim of child sex abuse and by allowing references to the defendant’s refusal to submit to a polygraph examination. Further, the record demonstrates several instances of prosecutorial misconduct during the opening statement and during the final arguments of both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial. Because, however, the defendant admitted to at least three witnesses that he committed the murders and the evidence of guilt was otherwise overwhelming, the errors had no effect on the verdicts rendered at the conclusion of the guilt phase of the trial. Each of the convictions is, therefore, affirmed. Nevertheless, because certain of the inadmissible evidence was particularly inflammatory and the prosecution made several inappropriate comments, the sentences of death must be set aside. The Court of Criminal Appeals is, in consequence, affirmed in part and reversed in part. The cause is remanded to the trial court for new sentencing hearings.
 

Scott County Supreme Court 05/29/12
Danny A. Stewart v. Derrick D. Schofield, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Correction, et al.
M2010-01808-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Carol L. McCoy

We accepted this appeal to clarify the procedures an inmate must follow to dispute the determination of parole eligibility when the inmate is serving consecutive determinate sentences imposed pursuant to the Criminal Sentencing Reform Act of 1989 (“1989 Act”). See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 40-35-101 to -505 (2010 & Supp. 2011). We clarify that the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (“UAPA”) governs an inmate’s challenge to the Tennessee Department of Correction’s (“TDOC”) calculation of a release eligibility date. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 4-5-101 to -325 (2011). Under the UAPA, an inmate must request a declaratory order from TDOC before filing a declaratory action in court. Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-225(b). Petitioner failed to seek a declaratory order from TDOC; thus, the trial court properly dismissed his petition for common law writ of certiorari naming TDOC and TDOC officials. The UAPA does not govern an inmate’s challenge to a decision of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole (“Board”) concerning parole. Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-106(c). Rather, the petition for common law writ of certiorari is the procedural vehicle for bringing such challenges. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-8-101 (2000). While Petitioner also named the Board and Board officials in his petition for common law writ of certiorari, the trial court properly granted their motions to dismiss because the allegations of the petition fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted. The method for calculating release eligibility and custodial parole discussed in Howell v. State, 569 S.W.2d 428 (Tenn. 1978) is not applicable to inmates sentenced pursuant to the 1989 Act and serving consecutive determinate sentences for parole-eligible offenses. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the judgment of the chancery court dismissing the petition is reinstated.
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 05/25/12
Troy Mitchell v. Fayetteville Public Utilities
M2011-00410-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Franklin L. Russell

The trial court awarded workers’ compensation benefits to an injured lineman who had violated a rule requiring the use of protective gloves while in a bucket lift. The employer appealed, contending that the statutory defenses of willful misconduct and, more particularly, the willful failure or refusal to use a safety appliance or device precluded recovery. The appeal was referred to the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel for a hearing and a report of findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-225(e)(3) (2008). After oral argument before the Panel, but before the Panel filed its opinion, the case was transferred to the full Court. Because the evidence establishes that the employee admitted his knowledge of a regularly enforced safety rule, understood the rationale for the rule, and willfully (rather than negligently or recklessly) failed to comply, the injuries he suffered because of the rule violation are not compensable. The judgment of the trial court is, therefore, reversed and the case is dismissed.
 

Lincoln County Supreme Court 05/08/12
Troy Mitchell v. Fayetteville Public Utilities - Dissent
M2011-00410-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Franklin L. Russell

Today the majority adopts Larson’s four-element test for applying the defenses of willful misconduct or willful failure to use a safety device. This test allows an employer to assert the defenses of willful misconduct or willful failure to use a safety device when four elements are satisfied: the employee has actual notice of the employer’s rule, the employee understands that the rule is in place for safety reasons, the employer consistently enforces the rule, and the employee has no valid excuse for violating the rule. I disagree with the majority that the application of Larson’s test compels the conclusion that Mr. Mitchell’s removal of his gloves was a willful failure to comply with his employer’s safety rule. The majority concludes that “[t]he lack of a valid excuse for the failure to use a safety appliance or device, when the first three elements [of Larson’s test] have been satisfied, amounts to willfulness.” Our case law compels a different conclusion.
 

Lincoln County Supreme Court 05/08/12
Earline Waddle v. Lorene B. Elrod
M2009-02142-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Robert E. Corlew, III

In this appeal we must determine whether the Statute of Frauds, Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-2101(a)(4) (Supp.2011),applies to a settlement agreement requiring the transfer of an interest in real property; and, if so, whether emails exchanged by the parties’ attorneys satisfy the Statute of Frauds under the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (“UETA”), Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 47-10-101 to -123 (2001 & Supp. 2011). We hold that the Statute of Frauds applies to settlement agreements requiring the transfer of an interest in real property and that the emails, along with a legal description of the propertycontained in the cross-claim, satisfy the Statute of Frauds. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals enforcing the settlement agreement.
 

Rutherford County Supreme Court 04/24/12
State of Tennessee v. Nelson Aguilar Gomez and Florinda Lopez
M2008-02737-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Cheryl A. Blackburn

A mother and father were jointly tried on two counts of felony murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse as a result of the death of their child. Only the mother testified in her own defense. During direct examination, the mother did not testify about prior incidents in which the father assaulted her. On cross-examination, father’s counsel asked the mother whether she believed the father was capable of “hurting” the victim. The trial court ruled sua sponte that counsel for the father had “opened the door” to cross-examination about the father’s assaults against the mother. The father was convicted of two counts of felony murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse, and the trial court merged the felony murder counts. The mother was convicted of two counts of facilitation of felony murder and two counts of aggravated child abuse, and the trial court merged the facilitation of felony murder counts. The Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed one aggravated child abuse count against the father but affirmed the ruling of the trial court in all other respects. Only the mother appealed. We hold that the evidence of prior assaults by the father was inadmissible and that the parties did not open the door to cross-examination about the father’s assaults against the mother. We reverse the mother’s conviction and remand the case for a new trial.
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/24/12