Appellate Court Opinions

Format: 09/18/2020
Format: 09/18/2020
In Re Estate of Gloria Kay Murphy-Wallace
E2020-00464-COA-R3-CV

This is an appeal of a suit contesting the validity of a Last Will and Testament. Because the notice of appeal was not timely filed, this Court lacks jurisdiction to consider this appeal.

Hamblen County Court of Appeals 08/11/20
State of Tennessee v. Jeffrey Wayne Haithcote
M2018-01943-CCA-R3-CD

The Appellant, Jeffrey Wayne Haithcote, pled guilty in the Bedford County Circuit Court to two counts of selling heroin and one count of possessing heroin with intent to sell, Class B felonies. As a condition of his pleas, he reserved certified questions of law concerning whether the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the search of his residence because the affidavit underlying the search warrant did not establish probable cause. Upon review, we affirm the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.

Bedford County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/11/20
Richard Michelhaugh Et Al. v. Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC
E2019-00361-COA-R3-CV

This appeal arises from a dispute over vacation benefits. The plaintiffs allege that their employer deprived them of earned vacation time when it changed its vacation policy. The plaintiffs moved for class certification, and the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment. After hearing both motions, the trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice and denied the motion for class certification. The plaintiffs appeal. We affirm the trial court’s ruling.

Anderson County Court of Appeals 08/11/20
Vernell Lynn Carpenter Lewis v. William Billy Lewis
W2019-00542-COA-R3-CV

The sole issue in this appeal concerns the trial court’s decision to classify residential property as the wife’s separate asset. The trial court made its decision upon finding the wife purchased the property prior to the marriage, titled it in her name only, and paid the mortgage and expenses to maintain the property with money she earned during the marriage and with only occasional assistance from the husband. This appeal followed. The husband contends the property should have been classified as a marital asset because the couple resided there as husband and wife for ten years; the money the wife earned during the marriage was marital property; and he made substantial contributions to maintaining the property and paying expenses. We have determined that the funds the wife used to pay the mortgage and expenses were marital assets because they were earned during the marriage. Moreover, the couple used the property as their marital residence during their ten-year marriage, and the husband provided some, albeit modest, assistance in maintaining the property. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the trial court and hold that the property shall be classified as a marital asset. Based on this decision, we vacate the division of the marital estate and remand for the trial court to determine the value of the marital assets, equitably divide those assets, and enter judgment accordingly. The husband also contends the trial court’s discovery sanction against the wife was insufficient. Finding no error with this discretionary decision, we affirm the sanction imposed by the trial court.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 08/11/20
State of Tennessee v. Demarius Jerome Pitts
M2019-00866-CCA-R3-CD

Defendant, Demarius Jerome Pitts, pleaded guilty to possession of a Schedule IV drug with intent to sell or deliver. After denying judicial diversion, the trial court sentenced Defendant to serve three years to be suspended to supervised probation. On appeal, Defendant contends that the trial court erred when it denied his request for judicial diversion. After review, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Williamson County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/10/20
Derrick D. Carr v. State of Tennessee
M2019-00201-CCA-R3-PC

Petitioner, Derrick D. Carr, was indicted by a Wilson County grand jury for two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, one count of especially aggravated robbery, and two counts of reckless endangerment involving a deadly weapon. Pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement, Petitioner pled guilty to second-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder and received concurrent twenty-five-year prison sentences. Petitioner subsequently filed a timely pro se petition for post-conviction relief claiming that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel and that he had newly discovered evidence from one of the victims. After an evidentiary hearing, the post-conviction court denied the petition. After a careful review of the record, we affirm.

Wilson County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/10/20
Vaughn Harris a.k.a. Vaughn Sherwin Harris v. State of Tennessee
M2019-01873-CCA-R3-PC

On September 3, 2019, Vaughn Harris, Petitioner, filed pro se petitions for post-conviction relief in three Davidson County cases. The petitions were filed years after the one-year statute of limitations in Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-30-102(a) had expired. The post-conviction courts summarily dismissed the petitions as untimely. Petitioner appealed claiming that the statutory exceptions in Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-30-102(b) provided jurisdiction for the post-conviction courts to consider the petitions and/or that he was entitled to due process tolling of the statute of limitations. Pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 16(b), we ordered the three appeals to be consolidated because they involved “common questions of law and/or common facts.” After review of the record and applicable law, we affirm the summary dismissal in all three cases.

Davidson County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/07/20
State of Tennessee v. Charles Thomas Johnson
M2019-00707-CCA-R3-CD

The Defendant, Charles Thomas Johnson, was convicted by a Lincoln County Circuit Court jury of possession of heroin with the intent to sell, possession of heroin with the intent to deliver, possession with the intent to sell 0.5 gram or more of cocaine, and possession with the intent to deliver 0.5 gram or more of cocaine, Class B felonies. See T.C.A. § 39-17-417 (2018). After the appropriate merger, the trial court imposed consecutive terms of twelve years for possession with the intent to sell heroin and eight years for possession with the intent to sell cocaine, for an effective twenty years’ confinement. The trial court ordered the Defendant to serve his effective sentence consecutively to a conviction in an unrelated case. On appeal, the Defendant contends that (1) the evidence is insufficient to support his convictions, (2) the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss pursuant to State v. Ferguson, 2 S.W.3d 912 (Tenn. 1999), based on lost or destroyed evidence, and (3) the trial court erred by denying his request for alternative sentencing and by imposing consecutive service. We affirm the judgments of the trial court.

Lincoln County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/07/20
State of Tennessee v. Donte Davis
M2019-01314-CCA-R3-CD

Donte Anton Davis, Defendant, was indicted by a Coffee County grand jury for violation of the Sex Offender Registry. Defendant entered a guilty plea, and the trial court sentenced Defendant as a career offender to serve six years in confinement. Defendant filed a timely notice of appeal and argues that his sentence was excessive and that the trial court failed to include specific findings to support its denial of the mandatory minimum sentence. The State argues that the trial court exercised proper discretion and sentenced Defendant appropriately. After a thorough review of the record, we find no error in the judgment of the trial court.

Coffee County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/07/20
In Re Nakayia S. Et Al.
M2019-00644-COA-R3-PT

This is the second appeal by a father of the termination of his parental rights to his two minor children. The trial court determined that termination of the father’s rights was in the best interest of the children after finding he failed to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody of the children and abandoned them by engaging in conduct that exhibited a wanton disregard for their welfare. In the first appeal, we vacated the judgment of the trial court because its findings of fact failed to comply with the mandate in Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(k) and remanded for the trial court to make additional findings of fact on two grounds—abandonment by wanton disregard and failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody of or financial responsibility for the children—and on whether termination of the father’s parental rights was in the children’s best interests See In re Nakayia S., No. M2017-01694-COA-R3-PT, 2018 WL 4462651, at *5–6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 18, 2018). In this appeal, the father contends the court improperly based its decision on one child’s out of court allegations of abuse, and he asserts that he manifested ability and willingness to assume custody by complying with the permanency plan requirements. We have determined that the child’s statements were properly admitted under Tennessee Rule of Evidence 803, and the preponderance of the evidence is not against the trial court’s findings, which amount to clear and convincing evidence of the elements necessary to terminate the father’s parental rights. Accordingly, we affirm the termination of the father’s parental rights.

Jackson County Court of Appeals 08/07/20
In Re Adalee H.
M2019-00949-COA-R3-PT

In this parental termination case, the trial court found two statutory grounds for termination of a father’s parental rights: severe child abuse and failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody. The trial court also found that termination of the father’s parental rights was in his child’s best interest. Because the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support the grounds for termination and the best interest determination, we affirm. 

White County Court of Appeals 08/07/20
In Re B.M. Et Al.
E2019-02013-COA-R3-JV

This case involves alleged child abuse by the mother’s paramour. After receiving a referral for potential child abuse, the Department of Children’s Services filed a dependency and neglect petition seeking injunctive relief, an ex parte order, and to transfer temporary legal custody of two minor children. After a hearing on the petition, the juvenile court found that the paramour committed severe child abuse. The paramour appealed to the circuit court. The circuit court also found there was clear and convincing evidence to show the paramour committed severe child abuse and that the abused child was dependent and neglected. We affirm the circuit court’s findings and remand.

Jefferson County Court of Appeals 08/07/20
Hudson, Holeyfield & Banks, G.P. v. MNR Hospitality, LLC
W2019-00123-COA-R3-CV

This case involves a lease that allowed a restaurant to operate inside a hotel building. During the term of the lease, the original
owner-lessor sold the hotel building to a successor, who then sold the hotel building to the appellant. The appellant tried to “buy out” the tenant and cancel the lease, but the tenant refused. The appellant proceeded with demolition of the interior of the hotel. Thereafter, the tenant experienced a series of problems with the building, including major water leaks, lack of climate control, and other problems, which led the tenant to file this lawsuit. After a three-day bench trial, the trial court concluded that the appellant maintained the premises in an uninhabitable state, amounting to a constructive eviction of the tenant. The trial court found that the appellant repeatedly and intentionally disturbed the tenant’s quiet enjoyment of the premises through its failure to maintain climate control in the hotel, failure to maintain windows and doors in the building, and allowing the building to be closed by Shelby County Code Enforcement for approximately six months. It found that the appellant engaged in extreme, outrageous, and intentional conduct intended to destroy the tenant’s business and drive the tenant to vacate the premises, constituting an unlawful ouster of the tenant and retaliatory eviction. The trial court calculated the tenant’s lost profits for the remaining term of the lease at $595,025. Due to the extremity of the appellant’s actions, the trial court also awarded the tenant punitive damages. On appeal, the appellant does not challenge the trial court’s findings regarding liability on the underlying causes of action. It only challenges the calculation of the award of lost profits and the award of punitive damages. For the following reasons, we affirm the award of lost profits as modified but vacate and remand for further proceedings regarding punitive damages.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 08/07/20
State of Tennessee v. Charles Meriweather
M2019-01779-CCA-R3-CD

On March 4, 2011, Charles Meriweather, Defendant, entered negotiated pleas of guilty to two Class B felony drug offenses and was sentenced to consecutive terms of twelve-years. The effective twenty-four-year sentence was also ordered to be served consecutively to a federal sentence. The judgments provided that the sentences would be served in a “community based alternative” and required Defendant to report to the community corrections officer within seventy-two hours of his release from federal custody. Defendant was arrested in 2018 on drug and weapons charges. Following a revocation hearing, the trial court revoked Defendant’s probation and ordered Defendant to serve his sentences in the Department of Correction. Defendant claims that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering his sentences to be served. After a thorough review of the record and applicable case law, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

Davidson County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/06/20
Dorothy Eskridge Et Al. v. NHC Healthcare Farragut, LLC, Et Al.
E2019-01671-COA-R3-CV

This appeal arises from a healthcare liability action. In these proceedings, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendants in January 2018. The Trial Court issued summonses the following day, and the plaintiff’s attorney took the summonses to serve through private process instead of through the local sheriff’s department. Service was subsequently completed on the defendants’ registered agent eighty-nine days after issuance of the summonses. The defendants filed an answer raising as an affirmative defense that the defendants had not been properly served with process pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 4. The returns for the original summonses were not filed with the Trial Court until January 2019. The plaintiff filed a motion to strike the defendants’ affirmative defense alleging that the defendants had not sufficiently pled it pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 8.03. Thereafter, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 4.01(3) and 12.02(4)-(5), alleging intentional delay of process, insufficient service of process, and insufficient process. The Trial Court denied the plaintiff’s motion to strike the affirmative defense and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The plaintiff appeals. Upon a review of the record, we affirm the Trial Court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to strike but reverse the Trial Court’s grant of the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Knox County Court of Appeals 08/06/20
In Re Conservatorship of Betty A. Winston
W2019-01134-COA-R3-CV

This appeal involves a conservatorship proceeding between two sisters with regard to their mother. The appealing sister argues that the trial court’s order was deficient in several respects and that the trial court abused its discretion in naming the other sister as conservator, rather than a public guardian. Discerning no abuse of discretion, we affirm.

Madison County Court of Appeals 08/06/20
Forcum-Lannom, Inc. v. Sake Japanese Steakhouse, Inc.
W2019-02095-COA-R3-CV

Appellant filed a detainer action against Appellee, seeking possession of commercial property. The lawsuit was premised on Appellant’s assertion that Appellee breached the commercial lease, under which it purportedly leased Appellant’s property. Appellee, however, is not a party to the lease. As such, the judgment for breach and for back rents entered against Appellee is of no force or effect. Vacated and remanded.

Dyer County Court of Appeals 08/06/20
Jenny M. Ruzzene v. Dieontea M. Stewart
E2019-00291-COA-R3-CV

The Appellant appeals the entry of an order of protection that was entered against him. Because that order of protection has expired, we dismiss the appeal as moot.

Knox County Court of Appeals 08/06/20
Alberto Conde-Valentino v. State of Tennessee
M2019-00617-CCA-R3-PC

The Petitioner, Alberto Conde-Valentino, appeals the Davidson County Criminal Court’s denial of his petition for post-conviction relief, seeking relief from his convictions of first degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery and resulting effective sentence of life in confinement. On appeal, the Petitioner contends that he received the ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Based upon the record and the parties’ briefs, we affirm the judgment of the post-conviction court.

Davidson County Court of Criminal Appeals 08/06/20
Nedra R. Hastings v. Larry M. Hastings, Jr.
W2020-00989-COA-T10B-CV

This is an interlocutory appeal as of right, pursuant to Rule 10B of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, filed by Nedra R. Hastings (“Petitioner”), seeking to recuse a special judge in this case involving child support matters. Having reviewed the petition for recusal appeal filed by Petitioner, and finding it fatally deficient, we dismiss the appeal.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 08/06/20
Jeffrey Clay Davis v. Vanderbilt University Medical Center
M2019-01860-COA-R3-CV

A medical center employee sued the medical center under the Tennessee Public Protection Act (“the TPPA”) asserting that his employment was terminated because he refused to remain silent about the medical center’s failure to enact policies to safeguard its employees from workplace violence. The medical center moved to dismiss the employee’s complaint for failure to state a claim, and the trial court granted the motion. We conclude that the employee’s complaint satisfies the TPPA’s “illegal act” requirement because it alleges the violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause and describes activities that implicate important public policy concerns. Therefore, we reverse the trial court’s dismissal.

Davidson County Court of Appeals 08/05/20
Earle J. Fisher, Et Al. v. Tre Hargett, Et Al.
M2020-00831-SC-RDM-CV

We assumed jurisdiction over these appeals pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d)(1) (2009 & Supp. 2019) and Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court and ordered expedited briefing and oral argument. The issue we must determine is whether the trial court properly issued a temporary injunction enjoining the State from enforcing its current construction of the eligibility requirements for absentee voting stated in Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D) (2014 & Supp. 2019). The injunction temporarily mandated the State to provide any eligible Tennessee voter, who applies to vote by mail in order to avoid transmission or contraction of COVID-19, an absentee ballot in upcoming elections during the pendency of pandemic circumstances. The injunction further mandated the State to implement the construction and application of Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D) that any qualified voter who determines it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in-person at a polling place due to the COVID-19 situation shall be eligible to check the box on the absentee ballot application that ‟the person is hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and because of such condition, the person is unable to appear at the person’s polling place on election day; or the person is a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person,” and have that absentee voting request duly processed by the State in accordance with Tennessee law. At oral argument before this Court, the State conceded that, under its interpretation of Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D), persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it (“persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19”), as well as those who are caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, already are eligible to vote absentee by mail. We hold that injunctive relief is not necessary with respect to such plaintiffs and persons. We instruct the State to ensure that appropriate guidance, consistent with the State’s acknowledged interpretation, is provided to Tennessee registered voters with respect to the eligibility of such persons to vote absentee by mail in advance of the November 2020 election.

With respect to those plaintiffs and persons who do not have special vulnerability to COVID-19 or who are not caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, we hold that the trial court erred in issuing the temporary injunction. Accordingly, we vacate the temporary injunction. Recognizing that absentee ballots already have been cast for the August 6, 2020 election consistent with the trial court’s temporary injunction, and mindful of the goal of avoiding alterations to election rules on the eve of an election, the absentee ballots of all Tennessee registered voters who timely requested and submitted an absentee ballot by mail for the August 6, 2020 election pursuant to the trial court’s temporary injunction and which absentee ballots otherwise meet the requirements of the absentee voting statutes shall be duly counted. These cases are remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

This opinion is not subject to rehearing under Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 39, and the Clerk is directed to certify this opinion as final and to immediately issue the mandate.

Davidson County Supreme Court 08/05/20
Earle J. Fisher, Et Al. v. Tre Hargett, Et Al. - Concurring In Part and Dissenting In Part
M2020-00831-SC-RDM-CV

Under the majority’s decision, qualified Tennessee voters can now vote by absentee mail ballot if voters, in their discretion, determine they have underlying medical or health conditions that make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or if they are vulnerable to greater health risks should they contract COVID-19, or if they care for someone with such a condition.1 I concur in part because I welcome this result as to those plaintiffs, and I agree with much of what the majority has to say about the rest. This cascade of agreement includes: the presumption of constitutionality afforded to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D); the application of the Anderson-Burdick standard of review; the moderate burden on the right to vote of those plaintiffs who do not have (or care for someone with) an underlying condition; and the lack of persuasiveness of the Defendants’ evidence of voter fraud. And yet I must dissent.
 

Davidson County Supreme Court 08/05/20
Benjamin Lay, Et Al. v. Mark Goins, Et Al.
M2020-00832-SC-RDM-CV

We assumed jurisdiction over these appeals pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d)(1) (2009 & Supp. 2019) and Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court and ordered expedited briefing and oral argument. The issue we must determine is whether the trial court properly issued a temporary injunction enjoining the State from enforcing its current construction of the eligibility requirements for absentee voting stated in Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D) (2014 & Supp. 2019). The injunction temporarily mandated the State to provide any eligible Tennessee voter, who applies to vote by mail in order to avoid transmission or contraction of COVID-19, an absentee ballot in upcoming elections during the pendency of pandemic circumstances. The injunction further mandated the State to implement the construction and application of Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D) that any qualified voter who determines it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in-person at a polling place due to the COVID-19 situation shall be eligible to check the box on the absentee ballot application that ‟the person is hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and because of such condition, the person is unable to appear at the person’s polling place on election day; or the person is a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person,” and have that absentee voting request duly processed by the State in accordance with Tennessee law. At oral argument before this Court, the State conceded that, under its interpretation of Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D), persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it (“persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19”), as well as those who are caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, already are eligible to vote absentee by mail. We hold that injunctive relief is not necessary with respect to such plaintiffs and persons. We instruct the State to ensure that appropriate guidance, consistent with the State’s acknowledged interpretation, is provided to Tennessee registered voters with respect to the eligibility of such persons to vote absentee by mail in advance of the November 2020 election.

With respect to those plaintiffs and persons who do not have special vulnerability to COVID-19 or who are not caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, we hold that the trial court erred in issuing the temporary injunction. Accordingly, we vacate the temporary injunction. Recognizing that absentee ballots already have been cast for the August 6, 2020 election consistent with the trial court’s temporary injunction, and mindful of the goal of avoiding alterations to election rules on the eve of an election, the absentee ballots of all Tennessee registered voters who timely requested and submitted an absentee ballot by mail for the August 6, 2020 election pursuant to the trial court’s temporary injunction and which absentee ballots otherwise meet the requirements of the absentee voting statutes shall be duly counted. These cases are remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

This opinion is not subject to rehearing under Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 39, and the Clerk is directed to certify this opinion as final and to immediately issue the mandate.
  

Davidson County Supreme Court 08/05/20
Benjamin Lay, Et Al. v. Mark Goins, Et Al. - Concurring In Part and Dissenting In Part
M2020-00832-SC-RDM-CV

Under the majority’s decision, qualified Tennessee voters can now vote by absentee mail ballot if voters, in their discretion, determine they have underlying medical or health conditions that make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or if they are vulnerable to greater health risks should they contract COVID-19, or if they care for someone with such a condition.1 I concur in part because I welcome this result as to those plaintiffs, and I agree with much of what the majority has to say about the rest. This cascade of agreement includes: the presumption of constitutionality afforded to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D); the application of the Anderson-Burdick standard of review; the moderate burden on the right to vote of those plaintiffs who do not have (or care for someone with) an underlying condition; and the lack of persuasiveness of the Defendants’ evidence of voter fraud. And yet I must dissent.

Davidson County Supreme Court 08/05/20