Supreme Court Rules Shelby County Firefighter Received Sufficient Notice Of Reasons For Termination

March 18, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that Shelby County firefighter Paul Zachary Moss received sufficient notice of the reasons for his termination to satisfy constitutional due process requirements.

While off duty from his job as a firefighter, Moss went to a political rally after consuming alcohol, got into a fight with two men, pointed a gun at them, and threatened to kill them. He was arrested at the scene and later indicted on two counts of aggravated assault. Moss entered an Alford guilty plea to one count of aggravated assault and the other count was dismissed. By entering an Alford plea, Moss pleaded guilty but did not admit to committing the criminal act. He was placed on judicial diversion.

The Shelby County Fire Department gave Moss written notice that he was facing possible termination because he had violated two fire department rules by failing to report his arrest and for being convicted of a felony. Moss was given an opportunity to attend a meeting with fire department officials to present reasons why he should not be disciplined. At the meeting, fire department officials asked Moss about his conduct at the rally and about a previous unreported arrest and assault complaint against him. The day after the meeting, Moss was fired for reasons that included his violation of fire department rules; his aggressive, reckless and irresponsible conduct at the rally; and his untruthfulness during the meeting.

Moss appealed and the Shelby County Civil Service Merit Board upheld the termination. Moss then appealed to the Shelby County Chancery Court, which affirmed the Board’s decision. Moss then took the case to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the chancery court’s judgment, finding that Moss had not received adequate notice of the grounds for his termination.

The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted review of the case at the request of the Shelby County Civil Service Merit Board. The Supreme Court explained that Moss had the right to notice of the charges against him and an opportunity for a hearing before he was fired from his job. Moss should have received sufficient notice to allow him an opportunity to prepare for the hearing. To determine whether an employee received sufficient notice, a court reviews both the pre-termination and post-termination procedures that were used. Here, prior to Moss’s hearing before the Board, the fire department had sent Moss a letter advising him of his possible termination for violating two rules; the fire department conducted a meeting when Moss was asked about the fight at the rally, a previous arrest, and a police report about an alleged assault; and the fire department gave Moss a termination letter detailing the facts that supported the decision to fire him which included his misconduct at the rally and his untruthfulness at the meeting.

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Supreme Court ruled that based on the pre-termination and
post-termination procedures, Moss had received sufficient notice of the reasons for his termination and had an opportunity to prepare for and participate in a hearing. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to resolve the remaining issues on appeal.

To read the unanimous opinion of the Court in Paul Zachary Moss v. Shelby County Civil Service Merit Board, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of tncourts.gov.