Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 03/03/2015
Format: 03/03/2015
Leonard Edward Smith v. State of Tennessee
E2007-00719-SC-R11-PD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge O. Duane Slone

In this post-conviction appeal Petitioner Leonard Edward Smith challenges his 1985 conviction and life sentence for the first degree felony murder of John Pierce, his 1989 conviction for the first degree felony murder of Novella Webb, and his 1995 death sentence for the Webb murder. We affirm Smith’s conviction and sentence for the Pierce murder, holding that Smith’s post-conviction claims in the Pierce case were barred by the statute of limitations and that the statute should not be equitably tolled. We affirm Smith’s conviction for the Webb murder, holding that Smith did not demonstrate that he suffered prejudice resulting from his counsel’s ineffective assistance in failing to adequately question the potential jurors during voir dire at his 1989 trial in the Webb case regarding their past experiences either as a victim or with a victim of crime. We vacate Smith’s death sentence, holding that Smith’s counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to adequately investigate and present evidence supporting his motion to recuse the judge at his resentencing hearing, which resulted in a denial of Smith’s due process right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal. We further hold that Smith is entitled to a new hearing on the question of whether he was intellectually disabled at the time of the Webb murder because the post-conviction court and the Court of Criminal Appeals applied an incorrect legal standard in determining Smith’s functional intelligence quotient (I.Q.) under the principles recently espoused in Coleman v. State, 341 S.W.3d 221, 230 (Tenn. 2011).

Hamblen County Supreme Court 12/19/11
Michael Lind v. Beaman Dodge, Inc., d/b/a Beaman Dodge Chrysler Jeep, et al.
M2010-01680-SC-S09-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Royce Taylor

The plaintiff, who had purchased a truck from an automobile dealership, filed a products liability suit in 2007 against not only the manufacturer, but also the dealership, as seller. Later, the plaintiff entered a voluntary nonsuit as to the seller and proceeded only against the manufacturer. Over one year after the order granting nonsuit, the manufacturer declared bankruptcy, and, in 2009, the plaintiff again sued the seller, alleging both negligence and strict liability in tort. The seller filed a motion to dismiss, contending that the suit was barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court denied the motion but granted an interlocutory appeal. The Court of Appeals denied the appeal. This Court granted the seller’s application for permission to appeal to consider the application of the saving statute to these unique circumstances. We hold that the plaintiff may proceed under the strict liability claim because that cause of action did not accrue until the manufacturer was judicially declared insolvent. Because, however, the second suit alleged acts of negligence on the part of the seller, an exception to the statutory rule prohibiting products liability suits against sellers, and could have been brought in 2007, the statute of limitations is a bar to recovery under that theory. The judgment of the trial court is, therefore, affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the cause is remanded for trial.
 

Rutherford County Supreme Court 12/15/11
Michael Lind v. Beaman Dodge, Inc., d/b/a Beaman Dodge Chrysler Jeep, et al.- Concurring
M2010-01680-SC-S09-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Royce Taylor

I concur in the judgment of the Court, but I do not join the majority’s conclusion that a product liability action based on strict liability does not accrue against a non-manufacturing seller until the manufacturer “has been judicially declared insolvent.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-106(b) (2000). Rather, I would hold that a product liability cause of action accrues “on the date of the personal injury,” as provided in Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-3-104(b)(1) (2000). However, I would hold that, with respect to claims against a non-manufacturing seller based on strict liability, the one-year statute of limitations is tolled until the manufacturer “has been judicially declared insolvent.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-106(b).
 

Rutherford County Supreme Court 12/15/11
State of Tennessee v. Mark Anthony McNack
W2010-00471-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Donald H. Allen

Upon the defendant’s plea of guilty to theft, the trial court imposed a three-year sentence to be served in the community corrections program. Although the defendant violated a condition of his release shortly after September 30, 2003, the revocation warrant was not filed and issued until ten months later. While revoking the community corrections sentence and ordering the defendant to serve the duration of his sentence in prison, the trial court approved credit for time served only through September 30, 2003, the estimated date of the violation. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, holding that the credit should have extended until the issuance of the revocation warrant. We hold that the filing date of the revocation warrant begins the tolling of sentence credits. The judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is, therefore, affirmed.
 

Madison County Supreme Court 12/13/11
James Q. Holder et al. v. Westgate Resorts Ltd.
E2009-01312-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Richard R. Vance

During a trial of the plaintiffs’ premises liability claim, the trial court excluded as hearsay a portion of the testimony of the defendant’s expert. The expert would have testified that he consulted an authoritative source whose interpretation of the applicable building code was consistent with that of the testifying expert. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and the defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred because the expert’s testimony was admissible pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Evidence 703. The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s error was harmless, however, and affirmed the judgment. We hold that the Court of Appeals improperly applied an amended version of Rule 703 that was not in effect at the time of trial. We hold that the trial court properly excluded as hearsay portions of the proffered testimony of the testifying expert. We vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and affirm the judgment of the trial court.
 

Sevier County Supreme Court 12/12/11
Ray Bell Construction Company, Inc. v. State of Tennessee, Tennessee Department of Transportation
E2009-01803-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Commissioner William O. Shults

A construction company entered into a contract with the State of Tennessee to restructure an interstate interchange. The contract provides that the contract completion date “may be extended in accordance with the Standard Specifications, however, no incentive payment will be made if work is not completed in its entirety by December 15, 2006.” The Claims Commission found that the contract contained a latent ambiguity requiring extrinsic evidence to interpret the contract. The Claims Commission considered extrinsic evidence and concluded that the construction company was entitled to the maximum incentive payment and an extension of the contract completion date. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the Claims Commission. We hold that the contract is unambiguous and does not permit an extension of the incentive date. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the Claims Commission for modification of the final judgment.
 

Supreme Court 12/12/11
84 Lumber Company v. R. Bryan Smith, et al.
E2010-00292-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Jean A. Stanley

The president of a company signed a commercial credit application. The application contained language immediately above the signature line stating that the individual signing the contract personally guaranteed amounts owed to the vendor. The company defaulted on the balance of the account, and the vendor filed suit against both the company and the president. The trial court granted summary judgment to the vendor, holding that the president had signed the contract both personally and in a representative capacity. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the president had signed the contract only in a representative capacity and granted summary judgment to the president. We hold that the application contained explicit language sufficient to bind the president as an individual guarantor of the contract. We reverse the Court of Appeals.
 

Washington County Supreme Court 12/12/11
Roy E. Keough v. State of Tennessee
W2008-01916-SC-R11-PD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Carolyn Blackett

We granted permission to appeal in this post-conviction capital case to consider whether the courts below erred in holding that the state and federal constitutional right against self incrimination does not afford a post-conviction petitioner who chooses to testify the right to limit the scope of the State’s cross-examination. However, we need not decide whether and in what manner the constitutional right against self-incrimination applies in the post conviction context because this appeal can be resolved on non-constitutional grounds. We have concluded that the scope of cross-examination of a post-conviction petitioner is governed by Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 28, section 8(C)(1)(d). The judgments of the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals are vacated, and this matter is remanded for a new post-conviction hearing at which Petitioner shall be afforded the right to testify subject to the limited scope cross-examination provided by Rule 28, section 8(C)(1)(d).

Shelby County Supreme Court 12/09/11
Dorothy King, et al v. Virginia Betts, et al - Concurring
M2009-00117-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman

I concur in Parts I, II, III, V, VI, and VII of the majority opinion. I do not concur in Part IV of the opinion addressing whether federal or state procedural rules should apply to a qualified immunity defense because the issue of whether federal or state procedural law applies is not properly before this Court. See Fayne v. Vincent, 301 S.W.3d 162, 171 (Tenn. 2009).

Davidson County Supreme Court 11/18/11
Dorothy King, et al v. Virginia Betts, et al
M2009-00117-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman

This appeal involves the assertion of the qualified immunity defense in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2008) action filed in state court. A registered nurse employed at a state psychiatric facility publicly disagreed with a change in the facility’s procedures for administering prescription medications at night and on the weekend. When the facility declined to change its procedures, the nurse filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action in the Chancery Court for Davidson County against various officials and employees of the then Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, alleging the existence of a hostile work environment and retaliation for the exercise of her constitutionally protected free speech rights. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the nurse’s First Amendment claim and a motion for judgment on the pleadings asserting qualified immunity. The trial court, after considering the products of two years of discovery, granted both of the defendants’ motions and dismissed the nurse’s complaint. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court with regard to both motions based on its conclusion that material issues of fact precluded both motions. King v. Betts, No. M2009-00117-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 4893590 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 18, 2009). We granted the defendants’ Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application for permission to appeal to address the procedure for the consideration of qualified immunity defenses in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions filed in Tennessee’s courts and to determine whether the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the facts of this case. We have determined that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because the nurse has failed to demonstrate that the defendants’ response to her criticism of the changes in the procedures for administering prescription medications violated a clearly established right.

Davidson County Supreme Court 11/18/11
Henry Zillon Felts v. State of Tennessee
M2009-00639-SC-R11-PC
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Dee David Gay

In this post-conviction appeal, we must determine whether Petitioner Henry Zillon Felts was denied the effective assistance of counsel at his trial for aggravated burglary and attempted first degree murder. The post-conviction court vacated Petitioner’s convictions after concluding that trial counsel’s representation was ineffective because he: (1) pursued self-defense exclusively, rather than pursuing self-defense along with the alternative strategy of convincing the jury to convict Petitioner of the lesser-included offense of attempted voluntary manslaughter, and (2) failed to keep a promise to the jury made during opening statements that Petitioner would testify at trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. We granted the State’s application for permission to appeal. We hold that the courts below erred by concluding that trial counsel performed deficiently. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and remand this case for reinstatement of Petitioner’s convictions.
 

Sumner County Supreme Court 11/10/11
Mark D. Talley v. Board of Professional Responsibility - Concurring
W2010-02072-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor James F. Butler

I concur in the judgment of the Court, but I do not concur in the reasoning of the majority opinion.

Shelby County Supreme Court 10/26/11
Mark D. Talley v. Board of Professional Responsibility
W2010-02072-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor James F. Butler

This appeal involves a disciplinaryproceeding against a Memphis lawyer who pleaded guilty in the Criminal Court for Shelby County to facilitating the felonious violation of the Tennessee Securities Act. After a Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel recommended that he be disbarred, the lawyer filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Chancery Court for Shelby County seeking judicial review of the hearing panel’s decision. The trial court affirmed the recommendation of the hearing panel, and the lawyer appealed to this Court. On appeal, the Board of Professional Responsibility asserts that the lawyer’s petition should be dismissed because his petition for writ of certiorari did not contain the recitation required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-8-106 (2000). For his part, the lawyer asserts that the punishment of disbarment is excessive. We have determined that the lawyer’s deficient petition for writ of certiorari does not prevent the courts from reviewing the hearing panel’s decision. We have also determined that the record fully supports the hearing panel’s findings and that disbarring the lawyer is not an excessive punishment in light of the facts and circumstances of this case.

Shelby County Supreme Court 10/26/11