Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 09/17/2014
Format: 09/17/2014
State of Tennessee v. Michael Shane Springer
W2010-02153-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Clayburn Peeples

In this appeal, we interpret the meaning of the phrase “term of imprisonment” in Articles III and IV of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers (“IAD”), Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 40-31-101 to -108 (2006), and determine whether the defendant is entitled to relief under the IAD. The IAD, a compact between state and federal jurisdictions, provides cooperative procedures for the exchange of prisoners between state and federal jurisdictions so that prisoners can be brought to trial on untried indictments or complaints. Under Article III of the IAD, a prisoner serving a term of imprisonment may request a trial within 180 days after being delivered to another state. Under Article IV of the IAD, an official of one jurisdiction may seek custody of a prisoner serving a term of imprisonment in another jurisdiction, but the prisoner must be tried within 120 days of arrival in that jurisdiction and cannot be “shuttled” back to the original place of imprisonment before the trial. The IAD mandates a dismissal of the indictment for a violation of either Article III or IV. The defendant in this case was arrested on related federal and state charges and taken into federal custody. After the defendant was tried and convicted in federal court, he was indicted by the grand jury in Gibson County on the related state charges. Before being sentenced in federal court, the defendant filed a demand for speedy disposition of the state charges under Article III of the IAD. While the defendant was confined at a federal temporary detention facility after his sentencing in federal court, the Gibson County Sheriff filed a detainer and transported the defendant to Gibson County for an arraignment. After counsel was appointed and the defendant was arraigned, he was transferred back into federal custody. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the state indictment for violations of Articles III and IV of the IAD. The trial court denied the motion. The defendant entered a conditional guilty plea pursuant to Tenn. R. Crim. P. 11 and reserved a certified question of law seeking appellate review of the denial of the motion to dismiss because of the alleged violation of the IAD. The Court of Criminal Appeals, in a divided opinion, affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to dismiss. See State v. Springer, No. W2010-02153-CCA-R3-CD, 2012 WL 603820, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 16, 2012). We hold that for purposes of the IAD, a prisoner who is incarcerated after sentencing is serving a “term of imprisonment.” We further hold that the defendant properly reserved his issues for appeal in the certified question; that the defendant was a federal pretrial detainee at the time he filed a procedurally deficient demand for speedy disposition and is not entitled to relief under Article III; and that the defendant was serving a term of imprisonment when he was transferred, pursuant to a detainer, from the federal temporary detention facility to Gibson County for his arraignment and back to federal custody on the same day. Article IV of the IAD was violated when the defendant was transferred back to the federal detention center before being tried for the state charges. The judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is reversed, the conviction is vacated, and the indictment against the defendant is dismissed with prejudice.

Gibson County Supreme Court 06/24/13
Walter Ray Culp, III v. Board of Professional Responsibility for the Supreme Court of Tennessee
M2012-01816-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Walter C. Kurtz

In this appeal, we review the denial of an attorney’s petition for reinstatement of his law license. The attorney was suspended from the practice of law for five years after he pleaded guilty to attempted extortion in federal court. The extortion arose out of the attorney’s attempt to broker the testimony of a witness in a civil trial for a substantial fee. After serving a nineteen-month prison sentence and a five-year suspension from the practice of law, the attorney petitioned for reinstatement. A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility denied the attorney’s request, finding that the attorney failed to carry his burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence that he had the moral qualifications, competency and learning in law, and that reinstatement would not be detrimental to the integrity and standing of the bar, the administration of justice and subversive to the public interest. The panel considered, among other things, the nature of the crime, that the extortion involved several million dollars, the attorney’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions, and his lack of credibility. The attorney appealed to the Chancery Court for Williamson County. The trial court affirmed the hearing panel’s decision. We affirm the decision of the trial court.

Williamson County Supreme Court 06/24/13
State of Tennessee v. Ledarren S. Hawkins
W2010-01687-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Judge Roy B. Morgan, Jr.

The defendant was convicted in the Circuit Court for Madison County of first degree murder and tampering with physical evidence. On this appeal, the defendant seeks reversal of his first degree murder conviction on the ground that the trial court declined his request for a jury instruction on defense of a third person. He also seeks reversal of his evidence-tampering conviction on the ground that his abandonment of the murder weapon did not amount to tampering with physical evidence. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld his convictions and sentences. State v. Hawkins, No.W2010-01687-CCA-R3-CD, 2012 WL 543048 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 16, 2012). Based on this record, we have determined that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s request for an instruction on defense of a third person. However, we have also determined that the defendant did not tamper with physical evidence in violation of Tenn.Code Ann.§ 39-16-503(a)(1)(2010) by tossing the murder weapon over a short fence where it could be easily observed and recovered. Accordingly, we affirm the defendant’s conviction and sentence for first degree murder and reverse his conviction and sentence for tampering with physical evidence.

Madison County Supreme Court 06/20/13
Herbert S. Moncier v. Board of Professional Responsibility
E2012-00340-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge:

An attorney suspended from the practice of law for eleven months and twenty-nine days,with all but forty-five days of the suspension probated, was assessed costs associated with the proceedings that resulted in his suspension pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 24.3. The attorney timely filed a petition seeking relief from costs, and a panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility convened and conducted a hearing on the petition. The panel denied the petition, and the attorney has appealed to this Court, as permitted by Rule 9, section 24.3. Having carefully and thoroughly considered the record and each of the nine issues raised, we affirm the panel’s decision denying the petition for relief from costs.
 

Supreme Court 05/24/13
State of Tennessee v. Prince Adams
W2009-01492-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge James M. Lammey, Jr.

The defendant was convicted of first degree premeditated murder and received a life sentence. In his appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, he alleged that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction; that a discharged alternate juror improperly communicated with the jury foreman; and that the trial court erred by failing to exclude from the evidence certain photographs and recordings and by failing to provide a special jury instruction on diminished capacity. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence. This Court granted permission to appeal to address whether the communication by the alternate juror to the foreman entitled the defendant to a new trial. Because the State successfully rebutted the presumption of prejudice that accompanies an improper communication with a juror, we find no error and, therefore, affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
 

Shelby County Supreme Court 05/16/13
Walton Cunningham et al. v. Williamson County Hosp. Dist. d/b/a Williamson Med. Ctr. et al.
M2011-00554-SC-S09-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge James G. Martin, III

A husband and wife filed a claim against a county hospital alleging that the negligence of the hospital and its employees caused the death of their son. The claim was filed approximately fifteen months after their son’s death in accordance with the provisions of the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Act. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121 (2012). The county hospital, a governmental entity, filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the claim was filed outside the one-year statute of limitations of the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”). Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-305(b) (2012). The couple responded that their complaint was timely filed because Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) extended the GTLA statute of limitations by 120 days. The trial court denied the hospital’s motion to dismiss but granted an interlocutory appeal under Rule 9 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. The Court of Appeals granted the Rule 9 application and affirmed the trial court’s denial of the hospital’s motion to dismiss. We granted the hospital permission to appeal. We hold that the 120-day extension provided by Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) does not apply to the plaintiffs’ claim brought under the GTLA. We therefore reverse the judgment of the trial court denying the hospital’s motion to dismiss and remand the case to the trial court for entry of an order dismissing Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham’s complaint.

Williamson County Supreme Court 05/09/13
Clifton A. Lake et al. v. The Memphis Landsmen, LLC et al.
W2011-00660-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Gary R. Wade
Trial Court Judge: Judge John R. McCarroll, Jr.

On March 18, 1998, a concrete truck collided with a shuttle bus used to transport passengers between the Memphis International Airport and a nearby rental car facility. A passenger, who suffered a severe brain injury as a result of the collision, and his wife brought suit against the owner of the bus, the manufacturer of the bus, the manufacturer of the bus windows, and the franchisor of the rental car business. They based their claims in negligence and products liability, contending that the bus was unsafe because it was not equipped with passenger seatbelts, because it had side windows made of tempered glass rather than laminated glass, and because it provided perimeter seating instead of forward-facing rows. The trial court granted summary judgment to the window manufacturer and partial summary judgments as to the products liability claims against the bus owner and franchisor, but otherwise denied the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, which asserted that the plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by federal motor vehicle safety standards. Following trial, the jury found that the plaintiffs had sustained damages in the amount of $8,543,630, but assessed 100% of the fault to the corporate owner of the concrete truck, which had reached a settlement with the plaintiffs prior to trial. On appeal, the plaintiffs contended that they were entitled to a new trial, citing twelve grounds for review. As a threshold issue, however, the defendants continued to argue federal preemption of the claims. The Court of Appeals held that Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 205 and 208, 49 C.F.R. §§ 571.205, .208 (1995), preempted the claims based on the lack of passenger seatbelts and the material used in the window glass, and further ruled that the trial court had erred by failing to grant a directed verdict on the perimeter-seating claim because the evidence was insufficient to establish causation. We granted the plaintiffs permission to appeal and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of the intervening decision by the United States Supreme Court in Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131 (2011). On remand, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its prior judgment, concluding that the ruling in Williamson did not affect its previous analysis. The plaintiffs were again granted permission to appeal. Because the seatbelt and window-glass claims are not preempted by federal law and the evidence sufficiently demonstrates causation in fact as to the perimeter seating claim, the judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims of error during the course of the trial.

Shelby County Supreme Court 05/03/13
Glassman, Edwards, Wyatt, Tuttle & Cox, P.C. v. B. J. Wade et al.
W2012-00321-SC-S10-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

A law firm filed suit against a former partner and a former paralegal. Both former employees filed motions to compel arbitration. The trial court consolidated the cases and stayed discovery except as to the issue of whether the cases were subject to arbitration. Subsequently, the trial court ordered the parties to engage in mediation and to disclose “all necessary documents to conduct a meaningful attempt at resolution” despite the prior order limiting discovery. After the trial court denied their motion to vacate the order, the former partner and paralegal sought an extraordinary appeal to the Court of Appeals under Rule 10 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, which was denied. We granted extraordinary appeal. We hold that the trial court erred in ordering discovery without limiting the scope of discovery to the issue of arbitrability, in contravention of the unambiguous language of the Tennessee Uniform Arbitration Act, and erred in referring the parties to mediation in an effort to resolve all issues. We vacate the order of the trial court, and we remand the case to the trial court for a determination on the motions to compel arbitration.

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/30/13
Morgan Keegan & Company, Inc. v. William Hamilton Smythe, III et al.
W2010-01339-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

This case requires us to decide whether Tennessee’s appellate courts possess subject matter jurisdiction to review a trial court’s order that vacates an arbitration award and remands the dispute to a new arbitration panel without expressly declining to confirm the award. An investor pursued a claim against an investment company over losses he incurred due to the failure of some of the company’s bond funds. After a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority arbitration panel ruled in the investor’s favor, the investment company petitioned the Chancery Court for Shelby County to vacate the award based on its belief that two members of the arbitration panel were biased. The trial court, without expressly declining to confirm the award, vacated the award and remanded the case for a second arbitration before a new panel. The investor appealed. The Court of Appeals, on its own motion, dismissed the appeal on the ground that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Morgan Keegan & Co. v. Smythe, No.W2010-01339-COA-R3-CV,2011 WL 5517036, at *8 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 14, 2011). We granted the investor’s application for permission to appeal and now reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals because the trial court’s order is, in fact, an appealable order “denying confirmation of an award” under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-5319(a)(3) (2012).

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/25/13
Marta Vandall v. Aurora Healthcare, LLC - Dissent
W2011-02042-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

I respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision to affirm the trial court’s conclusion that Marta Vandall sustained a compensable work-related injury.
 

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/24/13
Marta Vandall v. Aurora Healthcare, LLC d/b/a Allenbrooke Nursing & Rehab
W2011-02042-SC-R3-WC
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Walter L. Evans

An employee fell while working for her employer and sustained a shoulder fracture. The employer contends that the injury did not arise out of her employment and was an idiopathic fall. The trial court held that the employee sustained the burden of proving that her injury arose out of her employment. We affirm the trial court’s judgment.
 

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/24/13
State of Tennessee v. Nickolus L. Johnson
E2010-00172-SC-DDT-DD
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge R. Jerry Beck

A jury convicted the defendant of premeditated first degree murder for shooting and killing a police officer. As the penalty phase of the trial began, the defendant refused to allow his lawyers to present mental health mitigation evidence. After questioning the defendant about his decision, the trial court directed two mental health experts to evaluate the defendant’s mental competency. After the evaluation, the mental health experts testified that they could not render an opinion as to the defendant’s competency because the defendant had refused to cooperate. The trial court ruled that the defendant had failed to overcome the presumption of competency and was therefore competent to waive the presentation of expert mental health testimony. The State proved the existence of two aggravating circumstances pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 39-13-204 (i)(2) and (9) (2006). The defendant presented testimony from family and  friends. The jury sentenced the defendant to death. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the defendant’s conviction and sentence. State v. Johnson, No. E2010-00172-CCA-R3-DD, 2012 WL 690218 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 5, 2012). We hold that a mentally competent defendant may waive the presentation of mitigation evidence during the penalty phase of a capital trial. We further hold that (1) the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s ruling that the defendant was mentally competent to waive the presentation of mitigation evidence; (2) the trial court did not err in overruling the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based on the State’s improper reference to abortion during its closing argument; (3) the defendant’s challenge to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s death penalty is without merit; and (4) based on our review of the death sentence, as required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206(c) (2010), the death sentence was not imposed in an arbitrary fashion; the evidence supports the jury’s finding of statutory aggravating circumstances; the evidence supports the jury’s finding that the aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating circumstances; and the sentence of death is not excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases. We affirm the defendant’s first degree murder conviction and sentence of death.

Sullivan County Supreme Court 04/19/13
State of Tennessee v. Bobby Lee Robinson et al.
M2009-02450-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Janice M. Holder
Trial Court Judge: Judge Monte Watkins

Police utilized a confidential informant to arrange a drug buy from a co-defendant. At the scheduled time and location, the co-defendant arrived in his truck with the defendant and another passenger. A police takedown resulted in the arrest of the three men. A consensual search of the truck yielded approximately 153 grams of cocaine and 8.6 grams of marijuana in close proximity to where the defendant had been seated. A subsequent consensual search of the co-defendant’s residence, located several miles away, yielded an additional 293.5 grams of cocaine and various items of drug paraphernalia. The State consolidated the weight of the cocaine and charged the defendant with possession with intent to sell 300 grams or more of cocaine, a Class A felony; possession of marijuana; and possession of drug paraphernalia. The jury convicted the defendant of possession with intent to sell 300 grams or more of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia. We hold that although the evidence was sufficient to support a finding that the defendant constructively possessed the cocaine in the co-defendant’s truck, the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that he constructively possessed either the cocaine or the drug paraphernalia in the co-defendant’s residence. Accordingly, we reduce the conviction for possession with intent to sell 300 grams or more of cocaine to possession with intent to sell 26 to 299 grams of cocaine, a Class B felony, and we vacate the conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia. The case is remanded to the trial court for re-sentencing on the reduced offense.

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/19/13