Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Terminated Preferred Service State Employees Bear the Burden of Proof in Appeal of Dismissal

September 14, 2017

In 2012, the Tennessee General Assembly adopted the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability, and Management Act of 2012 (“TEAM Act”), which comprehensively addressed the hiring and termination of state employees. The TEAM Act replaced the prior Civil Service Act. The TEAM Act established two categories of state employees, executive service employees and preferred service employees. The Tennessee Supreme Court now has determined that the TEAM Act does not create a protected property interest for preferred service employees for continued employment in their positions and that preferred service employees challenging a dismissal bear the burden of proof during the appeals process.

The case arose when the defendant, Mr. Pressley, a preferred service employee of the Tennessee Department of Correction (“Department”), received notification from the prison warden that his employment had been terminated.  The letter of notification alleged that Mr. Pressley had allowed inmates to steal a large quantity of food from the prison kitchen while he was supervising the cleaning of the kitchen, in violation of applicable rules and procedures.  Mr. Pressley sought review of his dismissal under the provisions of the TEAM Act. Mr. Pressley’s termination was upheld in the first two stages of review, but in the third stage before the Board of Review (“Board”), an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) determined that the Department, not the employee, bore the burden of proof. In reliance upon this ruling by the ALJ, the Board concluded that the Department failed to meet its burden on all but one charge. Both parties challenged the Board’s decision in Chancery Court. The Chancery Court concluded that the Board erred in placing the burden of proof on the Department. The Court of Appeals then reversed the Chancery Court, determining that preferred service employees have a protected property interest in continued employment. As a result, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Department does bear the burden of proof.

The Supreme Court granted the Department’s appeal to determine which party bears the burden of proof in challenges to a dismissal or a suspension under the TEAM Act. As a part of the analysis of that issue, the Court had to determine whether preferred service employees maintain a protected property interest in their continued employment.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, the Court first determined that preferred service employees are not entitled to a protected property interest in their State employment.  In reaching this conclusion, the Court specifically noted that the prior Civil Service Act contained a provision that expressly granted a civil service employee a property right in continued state employment.  The TEAM Act, on the other hand, contains no such provision. The Court also held that, based upon the provisions of the TEAM Act, Mr. Pressley, rather than the Department, bore the burden of proof before the Board. As a result, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the Board to apply the appropriate burden of proof.

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in Tennessee Department of Correction v. David Pressley, authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.