Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 07/27/2014
Format: 07/27/2014
David Cantrell v. Joe Easterling, Warden
W2009-00985-SC-R11-HC
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Joe Walker

We granted this appeal to determine if the defendant’s four sentences for aggravated rape are illegal because each of the four uniform judgment documents designates the defendant as a “Multiple 35% Range 2” offender and does not designate the defendant as a “Multiple Rapist.” Because the four uniform judgment documents indicate that the defendant is eligible for early release on parole, which is in direct contravention of a statutory provision, we hold that the four sentences are illegal and void. The defendant’s underlying convictions of aggravated rape, which arose from a jury verdict before a court of competent jurisdiction, remain intact. We remand this matter to the sentencing court for the entry of four amended judgment orders, each to set forth the legal sentence on each of the defendant’s four convictions of aggravated rape, including the designation that the defendant is a “Multiple Rapist.”

Hardeman County Supreme Court 08/01/11
Robert Lazar v. J.W. Aluminum
W2010-00659-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor James F. Butler

An employee settled his claim for workers’ compensation benefits. The settlement stated that the award of vocational disability benefits to which the parties agreed was not based on the medical impairment rating of either the treating physician or the employee’s independent medical examiner. After the employee was laid off, he sought reconsideration of his benefits pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-241(d)(1)(B)(iv) (2008). The chancery court declined to use the impairment rating of the treating physician or the independent medical examiner. The court further declined to base its increased award on a rating from an independent medical evaluation of the employee conducted after the settlement by a physician listed in the Medical Impairment Rating registry of the Tennessee Department of Labor. The chancery court instead awarded additional permanent partial disability benefits based on an impairment rating computed from the percentage of permanent partial disability reflected in the settlement. The employer appealed. We affirm the chancery court.

Madison County Supreme Court 07/26/11
Pam Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc.
M2009-01552-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Barbara N. Haynes

In this action alleging retaliatory discharge, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6). The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment, holding that the amended complaint sufficiently stated a cause of action for retaliatory discharge. We address the issue of the proper standard for Tennessee courts to apply in ruling on a Rule 12.02(6) motion to dismiss in light of the United States Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009). We decline to adopt the new Twombly/Iqbal “plausibility” pleading standard and affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Davidson County Supreme Court 07/21/11
Knox County ex rel. Environmental Termite & Pest Control, Inc. v. Arrow Exterminators, Inc. et al.
E2007-02827-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Daryl Fansler

This appeal involves a claim under Tennessee’s False Claims Act. A local vendor of termite control services became suspicious that two of its competitors had overbilled Knox County for termite control services provided to Knox County’s public schools. After confirming its suspicions by obtaining and reviewing public records and by hiring an attorney and private investigator, the vendor presented a detailed report of its findings to county officials who were unaware that the overbilling had occurred. When the County delayed taking remedial action, the vendor filed a qui tam suit authorized by Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-18-104(c) (2005) in the Chancery Court for Knox County. The County joined the vendor’s lawsuit and eventually settled with both of the companies named as defendants in the vendor’s lawsuit. When the qui tam plaintiff sought a share of the County’s settlement with one of the defendants, the County asserted that the qui tam plaintiff was not eligible to receive any of the settlement proceeds. The trial court heard the matter without a jury and held that the qui tam plaintiff was an “original source” for the purpose of Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-18-104(d)(3)(A) and, therefore, was entitled to receive 28% of the settlement proceeds or $71,546.46. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that the qui tam plaintiff was entitled to recover 28% of the value of the settlement proceeds but remanded the case for the purpose of redetermining the value of the settlement proceeds. In re Knox Cnty., Tenn. ex rel. Envtl. Termite & Pest Control, Inc., No. E2007-02827-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 2144478 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 20, 2009). The County filed a Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application on the sole issue of whether the qui tam plaintiff is eligible to recover a portion of the settlement proceeds. We affirm the decisions of both the trial court and the Court of Appeals that the qui tam plaintiff is an “original source” and, therefore, is eligible to receive a portion of the proceeds from the County’s settlement with one of the vendors.

Knox County Supreme Court 07/20/11
Timmy Sykes et al. v. Chattanooga Housing Authority et al.
E2008-00525-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge W. Jeffrey Hollingsworth

The plaintiffs, former employees of the Chattanooga Housing Authority (“CHA”), brought retaliatory discharge actions against the CHA and the Chief of the CHA Public Safety Department, pursuant to the Tennessee Public Protection Act, Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-1-304 (2008 & Supp. 2010), and the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”), Tennessee Code Annotated section 4-21-301 (2005). The trial court granted the defendants summary judgment on all claims. On appeal, the Court of Appeals vacated summary judgment on the THRA claim, finding genuine issues of material fact, and affirmed the trial court’s judgment in all other respects. We affirm the grant of summary judgment on the Tennessee Public Protection Act claims because the undisputed facts establish that the plaintiffs cannot prove the essential element of an exclusive causal relationship between the plaintiffs’ whistleblowing activity and their discharge, as required by the statute. We also affirm the Court of Appeals’ ruling vacating summary judgment in defendants’ favor on the THRA claims because there are genuine issues of disputed fact making summary judgment improper.

Hamilton County Supreme Court 06/24/11
Timmy Sykes et al. v. Chattanooga Housing Authority et al. - Concurring
E2008-00525-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge W. Jeffrey Hollingsworth

The Court has reached a result in this case that is consistent with Kinsler v. Berkline, LLC, 320 S.W.3d 796 (Tenn. 2010) and Gossett v. Tractor Supply Co., 320 S.W.3d 777 (Tenn. 2010). However, as reflected in Chief Justice Clark’s separate opinions in both Kinsler and Gossett, I continue to believe that abandoning the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) framework that had served Tennessee’s courts well for many years in both Whistleblower Act claims and claims under the Tennessee Human Rights Act was a mistake.

Hamilton County Supreme Court 06/24/11
James Crowley et al. v. Wendy Thomas
M2009-01336-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Joseph P. Binkley, Jr.

The plaintiff obtained a judgment against the defendant in the general sessions court. The defendant appealed to the circuit court. In the circuit court, the plaintiff amended his complaint to add an additional plaintiff and an additional cause of action and to seek additional damages. Shortly before trial, the defendant filed a notice dismissing her appeal. The circuit court dismissed the appeal and affirmed the judgment of the general sessions court pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 27-5-107 (2000). We hold that the circuit court properly dismissed the defendant’s appeal and affirmed the general sessions judgment. To preserve the plaintiff’s original cause of action after such dismissal, the plaintiff must perfect an appeal to the circuit court as prescribed by Tennessee Code Annotated section 27-5-108 (2000). We therefore affirm the judgment of the lower courts.

Davidson County Supreme Court 06/17/11
Rudolph Powers v. State of Tennessee
W2008-01346-SC-R11-PC
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Lee V. Coffee

In separate trials, the petitioner was convicted of aggravated rape for an incident occurring in March of 1980 and of aggravated rape and robbery by use of a deadly weapon for an incident occurring in May of the same year. In 2007, the petitioner sought to have deoxyribonucleic acid (“DNA”) analysis performed on the remaining evidence pursuant to the Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act of 2001, arguing that exculpatory results would create a reasonable probability that he would not have been prosecuted or convicted on either charge. The petitioner contended that he could conclusively establish his innocence if the DNA profile developed from the evidence was uploaded into a DNA database and matched another profile in the system. The post-conviction court denied relief. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, holding that DNA analysis was limited to a comparison between the petitioner’s DNA and that collected as a part of the evidence in the case. We granted the petitioner’s application for permission to appeal to determine (1) whether the General Assembly intended to permit petitioners proceeding under the Act to use DNA database matches to satisfy their burden and (2) whether the Court of Criminal Appeals’ interpretation of the statute served to preclude the development of scientific evidence supportive of actual innocence. We hold that the Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act permits access to a DNA database if a positive match between the crime scene DNA and a profile contained within the database would create a reasonable probability that a petitioner would not have been prosecuted or convicted if exculpatory results had been obtained or would have rendered a more favorable verdict or sentence if the results had been previously available. Because the criteria for ordering DNA analysis under the Act are established, the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is reversed and the cause is remanded to the post-conviction court for entry of an order granting DNA analysis.

Shelby County Supreme Court 06/16/11
State of Tennessee v. David Lynn Sisk
E2009-00320-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Ben W. Hooper, II

The defendant was convicted at trial of three offenses: aggravated burglary; theft of $10,000 or more but less than $60,000; and theft of $1,000 or more but less than $10,000. The trial court classified the defendant as a career offender, imposed sentences of fifteen, fifteen, and twelve years respectively, and ordered the twelve-year sentence to be served consecutively, for an effective sentence of twenty-seven years. On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals determined as follows: (1) that the conviction for theft of $1,000 or more but less than $10,000 violated the prohibition against double jeopardy; (2) that, if properly convicted of the remaining offenses, the defendant qualified as a persistent rather than a career offender; and (3) that, in any event, the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions for aggravated burglary and theft of $10,000 or more but less than $60,000. While conceding that the Court of Criminal Appeals had properly set aside the lesser theft conviction and, in consequence, correctly determined that the defendant qualified as a persistent rather than a career offender, the State applied for permission to appeal, arguing that the other two convictions should be reinstated. This Court, applying the standard of review established in State v. Dorantes, 331 S.W.3d 370 (Tenn. 2011), holds that the evidence presented at trial warrants reinstatement of the convictions. The judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is, therefore, affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case is remanded for resentencing in light of this opinion.

Cocke County Supreme Court 06/15/11
In Re: The Honorable John A. Bell, Judge, General Sessions Court of Cocke County, Tennessee
M2010-01447-SC-R3-CJ
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Court of the Judiciary

In this direct appeal of a judicial disciplinary proceeding, we are asked to review the Court of the Judiciary’s decision that Cocke County General Sessions Court Judge John A. Bell violated various canons of the Tennessee Code of Judicial Conduct, resulting in sanctions that included a ninety-day suspension. The Court of the Judiciary found that Judge Bell violated the Code by taking nine months to decide the complainant’s personal injury action, re-hearing the case without disclosing to a new party that he had previously made findings against the new party as to liability and damages, and contacting through an attorney the self-represented complainant while the complainant’s case was still pending before him in General Sessions Court. We affirm the code violations with respect to the delay and the ex parte communication and affirm the sanctions.

Cocke County Supreme Court 06/10/11
City of Harriman, Tennessee v. Roane County Election Commission et al.
E2008-02316-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Frank V. Williams III

Two municipalities sought to annex the same territory outside the urban growth boundaries for both municipalities set forth in the county’s growth plan. One municipality attempted to annex territory that was not within its urban growth boundary by proposing an amendment to the county growth plan and enacting an ordinance annexing the territory. A second municipality annexed the same territory by an annexation referendum pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 6-51-104 to -105 and 6-58-111(d)(2). We granted permission to appeal in this case to address the application of Tennessee Code Annotated sections 6-58-101 to -116 to these municipalities’ annexation efforts. After considering the related statutes, we hold that Tennessee Code Annotated section 6-58-111 requires an amendment to the county growth plan for a municipality to effect an annexation of territory beyond its urban growth boundary by ordinance. We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the chancery court’s order dismissing the case.

Roane County Supreme Court 06/09/11
Evelyn Nye v. Bayer Cropscience, Inc., et al.
E2008-01596-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge W. Neil Thomas, III

In this products liability case, a widow sought compensation for the death of her husband from mesothelioma allegedly caused by exposure to asbestos at his workplace. She sued the company that sold products containing asbestos to her husband’s employer. She based her claim on strict liability and alleged that the seller sold defective products and failed to warn her husband of the products’ health risks. The jury found that the seller was at fault, but that her husband’s employer was the sole cause of his injury and awarded her nothing. The widow appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial based on erroneous jury instructions that more probably than not affected the judgment of the jury. On review, we hold that the seller was subject to suit in strict liability, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-28-106(b) (2000), because none of the products’ manufacturers were subject to service of process. Further, we hold that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that the seller could not be held liable for failure to warn if the jury found that the consumer, identified as the employer, was already aware of any danger in connection with the use of the products or if the employer had been given adequate warnings. This jury instruction was erroneous for two reasons. First, it applied the learned intermediary doctrine, which the courts of this state have limited to medical products and pharmaceuticals. Second, the jury instruction misidentified the consumer as the employer, when the consumer who was required to be warned was the employee, Mr. Nye. Because the error more probably than not affected the judgment of the jury, the judgment of the trial court is reversed and the cause is remanded for a new trial.

Hamilton County Supreme Court 06/07/11
Evelyn Nye v. Bayer Cropscience, Inc., et al. - Concurring/Dissenting
E2008-01596-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge W. Neil Thomas, III

I concur in the majority’s conclusion that the learned intermediary doctrine is not applicable to the facts of this case. I disagree, however, that Pittsburgh Corning Corporation (“Pittsburgh Corning”) and Owens Corning Corporation (“Owens Corning”) were unavailable for service of process and that North Brothers, Inc. (“North Brothers”) therefore is subject to suit in strict liability pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-28-106 (2000).

Hamilton County Supreme Court 06/07/11