Supreme Court Rules Hamilton County Board Exceeded Authority in Ordering Sheriff Pay Changes

August 13, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department Civil Service Board exceeded its statutory authority in ordering Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond to equalize the pay of sergeants in the department.

Six sergeants with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department filed a grievance contending that pay disparities within an established pay range among their rank should be eliminated. When the sheriff refused to end the pay gaps, the sergeants filed an action with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department Civil Service Board. The board ordered the sheriff to equalize all sergeants’ pay in the department.

Sheriff Hammond appealed the board’s decision to the Chancery Court of Hamilton County, contending the board exceeded its legal authority. The chancery court agreed with the sheriff and declared the board’s ruling null and void. On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals said that the board had exceeded its authority, but directed the sheriff to take the necessary steps to eliminate the disparity in sergeants’ pay.

The Tennessee Supreme Court today reversed the Tennessee Court of Appeals and determined that the sheriff did not have to pay all the sergeants the same rate. The Court relied on several statutes, including one that grants the Hamilton County Commission the authority to set the sheriff’s budget. Furthermore, the Supreme Court noted that the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department Civil Service Manual expressly gives the sheriff the power to make individual pay determinations.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the civil service board had exceeded its authority under the law by ordering the sheriff to equalize pay when there was no proof that the sheriff violated state law or terms of the Civil Service Manual.

“Numerous provisions of the Civil Service Manual support the conclusion that the sheriff may exercise discretion in setting the rate of pay for his employees,” wrote Justice Sharon G. Lee for the Court.

Read the Jim Hammond, Sheriff of Hamilton County et al. v. Chris Harvey et al. Opinion, authored by Justice Lee.