Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 08/01/2014
Format: 08/01/2014
State of Tennessee v. Wanda F. Russell
M2010-00852-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge David M. Bragg

A defendant was indicted on four counts of theft. At trial, the trial court ruled that the defendant’s prior misdemeanor convictions for passing worthless checks were admissible to impeach her credibility pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Evidence 609, which states that a conviction punishable by less than one year of imprisonment is admissible if the crime involves dishonesty or false statement. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-121 (2010). The defendant elected not to testify, and the jury convicted her on three of the four counts of theft. We hold that the crime of passing worthless checks involves an element of dishonesty or false statement and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it determined that the defendant’s prior convictions could be used to impeach her credibility if she testified. We affirm the decision of the trial court.
 

Rutherford County Supreme Court 10/01/12
Fred T. Hanzelik v. Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee
E2011-01886-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Walter C. Kurtz

This direct appeal involves a disciplinary proceeding against a Chattanooga lawyer arising out of his representation of two clients. A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility determined that the lawyer should be suspended from the practice of law for forty-five days. Following the lawyer’s appeal to the Chancery Court for Hamilton County, the trial court upheld the lawyer’s forty-five-day suspension after finding that the record supported the hearing panel’s findings that the lawyer had attempted to bill one client twice, had breached his ethical obligations to another client, and had failed to cooperate with the Board of Professional Responsibility during its extended investigation into his conduct. On this appeal, the lawyer insists (1) that the evidence does not support the hearing panel’s findings, (2) that the hearing panel erred by receiving into evidence a videotaped deposition given by one of his clients, (3) that the hearing panel failed to properly apply the American Bar Association Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions, and (4) that the hearing panel failed to consider the discipline imposed on other lawyers for similar infractions. Based on our review of the record, we, like the trial court, affirm the hearing panel’s decision to suspend the lawyer’s license to practice law for forty-five days.

Hamilton County Supreme Court 09/27/12
Christian Heyne et al. v. Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education
M2010-00237-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

This appeal involves the scope of the procedural due process rights of a public high school student facing discipline for an infraction of school rules of conduct. After injuring a younger student with his automobile on school property, the student was cited for an infraction of the student conduct rule proscribing reckless endangerment. The principal’s decision to suspend the student for ten days was upheld by a hearing board and a designee of the director of schools, and the school board declined to review the matter. Thereafter, the student and his family filed a petition for common-law writ of certiorari in the Chancery Court for Davidson County seeking judicial review of the disciplinary decision. Following a hearing during which the trial court  permitted the student and his family to present evidence regarding allegedly arbitrary, capricious, and illegal conduct by school officials that was not reflected in the record of the disciplinary proceedings, the trial court found that the school officials had violated the student’s procedural due process rights because one official had performed both prosecutorial and decision-making functions and because this official was biased against the student. The trial court also determined that the evidence did not support the conclusion that the student’s conduct amounted to reckless endangerment. Accordingly, the trial court directed the school system to expunge the student’s record and awarded the student and his family $371,845.25 in attorneys’ fees and $25,626.27 in costs. The Board of Education appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgments. Heyne v. Metropolitan Nashville Bd. of Pub. Educ., No. M2010-00237-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 1744239 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 6, 2011). We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Davidson County Supreme Court 09/27/12
State of Tennessee v. Susan Renee Bise
E2011-00005-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge John F. Dugger, Jr.

Following a burglary in Greene County, the defendant was charged with two counts of aggravated burglary and two counts of theft of property. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned verdicts of guilt for one count of facilitation of aggravated burglary and for two counts of theft of property. After finding the presence of one enhancement factor, the trial court imposed concurrent three-year sentences for each offense. The Court of Criminal Appeals found that the enhancement factor did not apply and reduced each of the sentences to two years. Because we find that a sentence imposed by a trial court should be upheld so long as it is within the appropriate sentencing range and is otherwise in compliance with the purposes and principles of the sentencing statute, we reverse the sentence modification by the Court of Criminal Appeals and, upon review under an abuse of discretion standard with a presumption of reasonableness, reinstate the sentence imposed by the trial court.

Greene County Supreme Court 09/26/12
Rondal Akers et al. v. Prime Succession of Tennessee, Inc. et al.
E2009-02203-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge William Neil Thomas, III, by interchange

Dr. Rondal D. Akers, Jr. and Lucinda Akers sued T. Ray Brent Marsh for the alleged
mishandling of their deceased son’s body, which had been sent to Mr. Marsh’s crematorium
for cremation. Following a jury verdict for the Akerses, the trial court entered judgment
against Mr. Marsh based on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim but granted
his motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the Akerses’ Tennessee Consumer
Protection Act (“TCPA”) and bailment claims. The Court of Appeals affirmed. We hold the
trial court did not err in (1) holding Mr. Marsh liable for intentional infliction of emotional
distress in the amount of the jury verdict; (2) instructing the jury that they were permitted to
draw a negative inference resulting from Mr. Marsh’s invocation of his Fifth Amendment
privilege during questioning; and (3) dismissing the TCPA and bailment claims. The
judgments of the trial court and the Court of Appeals are affirmed.

Bradley County Supreme Court 09/21/12
Lacey Chapman v. Davita, Inc.
M2011-02674-SC-R10-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge F. Lee Russell

An employee filed a request for assistance with the Tennessee Department of Labor after she was injured at her workplace. After approximately six months of inaction by the Department, the employee filed a complaint for workers’ compensation benefits against her employer in Marshall County Circuit Court. The employer responded with a motion to dismiss asserting that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the parties had not participated in the benefit review conference process. The trial judge did not dismiss the complaint but ordered the case to be held in abeyance pending further orders of the court. On extraordinary appeal to this Court, we hold that the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction of the case because the employee did not exhaust the benefit review conference process before filing suit as required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-203 (2008). The judgment of the trial court is reversed, and the employee’s complaint is dismissed without prejudice.

Marshall County Supreme Court 09/21/12
Ready Mix, USA, LLC v. Jefferson County, Tennessee
E2010-00547-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood

The plaintiff, a producer of construction aggregates, acquired property with proven reserves for mining and quarrying operations. Afterward, Jefferson County enacted a comprehensive zoning ordinance limiting the use of the property to agricultural purposes. Before the passage of the ordinance, the plaintiff undertook various activities designed to establish business operations. When the county issued a stop work order, the plaintiff, without first receiving a decision from the county’s board of zoning appeals, filed a declaratory judgment action arguing that the portion of the property not previously subject to zoning qualified as a pre-existing non-conforming use, protected by Tennessee Code Annotated section 13-7-208 (1992). After concluding that the plaintiff was not required to exhaust its administrative remedies, the trial court ruled that the business activities on the property were “in operation” at the effective date of the ordinance for purposes of grandfather protection under section 137-208. Because the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the judgment was set aside. We hold that the trial court, under these circumstances, did not err by ruling that the plaintiff was not required to exhaust the administrative remedies. We further hold that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that the plaintiff had established operations sufficient to qualify for protection under Tennessee Code Annotated section 13-7-208.

Jefferson County Supreme Court 08/30/12
Ready Mix, USA, LLC v. Jefferson County, Tennessee - Concur
E2010-00547-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood

I concur with the Court’s conclusion that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that Ready Mix, USA, LLC’s activities on its property established pre-existing use and, therefore, qualify for protection under Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-208 (2011). I base my decision entirely on our prior precedents construing Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-208 without any consideration, directly or indirectly, of the diminishing assets doctrine.
 

Jefferson County Supreme Court 08/30/12
Elliot H. Himmelfarb, M.D., et al. v. Tracy R. Allain
M2010-02401-SC-S10-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Robbie T. Beal

A patient discovered that a guide wire had been left in her vein during a prior medical procedure. She filed a medical malpractice action against the doctors who performed the procedure and the hospital where the procedure was performed. The patient voluntarily dismissed the medical malpractice suit pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 41 when she was informed that another party was responsible for the presence of the guide wire. The doctors named in the original suitf iled a malicious prosecution action against the patient. The patient filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that the doctors could not prove that the prior suit had been terminated in their favor. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial. We hold that a voluntary nonsuit taken pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 41 is not a favorable termination on the merits for purposes of a malicious prosecution claim. We reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the trial court for entry of summary judgment in favor of the patient and for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Williamson County Supreme Court 08/28/12
State of Tennessee v. Charles E. Lowe-Kelley
M2010-00500-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Stella Hargrove

A defendant was sentenced following his conviction on two counts of first degree murder and nine counts of attempted first degree murder. Eighteen days later, his attorney filed a motion requesting a new trial and withdrew as counsel. The motion contained no specific grounds for relief. The trial court appointed replacement counsel. Several months later, replacement counsel amended the motion for new trial to allege specific grounds for relief. The trial court denied the amended motion for new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the original motion for new trial was a nullity because it contained no grounds for relief and that the trial court therefore did not have jurisdiction to permit the amendment of the motion for new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals therefore considered the defendant’s specific grounds for relief as waived. We hold that the original motion for new trial met the requirements of Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 despite its failure to allege specific grounds for relief and that the trial court retained jurisdiction to permit the amendment of the motion. The cause is remanded to the Court of Criminal Appeals to consider the defendant’s appeal of the denial of his amended motion for new trial.
 

Maury County Supreme Court 08/28/12
State of Tennessee v. Wayne Donaldson
M2010-00690-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge Cheryl A. Blackburn

An officer stopped the defendant for a traffic violation. When the officer ordered the defendant out of his vehicle to sign the citation, he observed what appeared to be a bag of cocaine on the floorboard of the driver’s side. Charged with possession with intent to sell or deliver twenty-six grams or more of cocaine in a school zone, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence as the product of an unlawful seizure. The trial court sustained the motion, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. This Court granted the State’s application for permission to appeal. Because an officer, after making a lawful stop for a traffic violation, may routinely direct the driver outside of the vehicle, the order of suppression is reversed, and the cause is remanded for trial.
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 08/24/12
State of Tennessee v. Michael Farmer and Anthony Clark - Concur
W2009-02281-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge John T. Fowlkes, Jr.

I concur with the Court’s conclusions that all gunshot wounds do not necessarily cause bodily injury that involves a “substantial risk of death” for the purpose of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-106(a)(34)(A) (2010). I also agree that the State failed to present sufficient evidence that the particular gunshot wound Mr. Westbrooks received involved a substantial risk of death. Accordingly, I join the Court’s decision to vacate Messrs. Farmer’s and Turner’s convictions for especially aggravated robbery and to remand for resentencing for aggravated robbery. I have chosen to write separately to highlight the important role that expert medical testimony must play in many cases in which the State must establish that the injury to the victim carried with it a substantial risk of death.

Shelby County Supreme Court 08/22/12
State of Tennessee v. Michael Farmer and Anthony Clark
W2009-02281-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge John T. Fowlkes, Jr.

During a robbery, one of the defendants shot the victim in the leg. Although the bullet passed through the victim’s leg, the wound required minimal medical treatment and did not cause the victim to suffer a loss of consciousness, extreme pain, disfigurement, or impairment. The defendants were convicted of especially aggravated robbery and aggravated robbery. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions. We modify the convictions for especially aggravated robbery to convictions for aggravated robbery because the victim did not suffer a serious bodily injury as required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-403 (2010) and remand to the trial court for resentencing.

Shelby County Supreme Court 08/22/12