Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 09/18/2020
Format: 09/18/2020
Scott Trent Et Al. v. Mountain Commerce Bank Et Al.
E2018-01874-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Jean A. Stanley

The issue presented is whether a quitclaim deed should be equitably reformed when reformation would benefit parties with constructive notice of a title defect and harm the rights of creditors with recorded judgment liens. A husband and wife quitclaimed parcels of real property to limited partnerships. The wife was omitted as a grantor on one of the quitclaim deeds even though she and her husband owned the property as tenants by the entirety. Two banks obtained judgments against the husband and wife and recorded the judgments. The property was later sold, and the purchasers and their lender discovered that the property was subject to the wife’s retained ownership interest and the banks’ recorded judgment liens. To remedy the error, the husband and wife signed a quitclaim deed of correction, referencing the wife’s omission as a grantor on the previous quitclaim deed. The purchasers and their lender then filed this declaratory judgment action asking the trial court to hold, based on mutual mistake, that the corrected quitclaim deed reformed the original quitclaim deed, vested ownership in the limited partnership, divested the wife’s interest, and removed the banks’ judgment liens. The trial court denied reformation, finding that there was no mutual mistake by the husband and the limited partnership who signed the original quitclaim deed. The Court of Appeals affirmed. After considering the equities of the parties, we decline to grant reformation of the quitclaim deed because doing so would deprive the banks of their recorded judgment liens and benefit the purchasers and their lender who acquired the property with constructive notice of the wife’s remaining interest in the property and the banks’ recorded judgment liens. Thus, we need not decide whether reformation is an available remedy to correct a quitclaim deed by adding an omitted grantor. We affirm the judgments of the trial court and the Court of Appeals, based on different reasoning. 

Hamblen County Supreme Court 08/26/20
Brice Cook v. State of Tennessee
W2018-00237-SC-R11-PC
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Lee V. Coffee

The dispositive question in this appeal is whether the post-conviction judge should have recused himself because his impartiality might reasonably be questioned. We answer this question in the affirmative and hold that the post-conviction judge was obligated to recuse himself in this case even though the petitioner failed to file a motion for recusal. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is reversed; the judgment of the post-conviction court is vacated; and this matter is remanded to the trial court for a new post-conviction hearing before a different judge.

Shelby County Supreme Court 08/25/20
Benjamin Lay, Et Al. v. Mark Goins, Et Al. - Concurring In Part and Dissenting In Part
M2020-00832-SC-RDM-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

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
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

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
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

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
Earle J. Fisher, Et Al. v. Tre Hargett, Et Al.
M2020-00831-SC-RDM-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

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
Antonio Howard v. State of Tennessee
W2018-00786-SC-R11-PC
Authoring Judge: Justice Roger A. Page
Trial Court Judge: Judge James M. Lammey, Jr.

In this post-conviction appeal, we clarify the appropriate standard to be applied when a criminal defendant claims ineffective assistance of counsel based on trial counsel’s failure to file a timely motion for new trial. The petitioner, Antonio Howard, was convicted of several offenses, including aggravated rape, especially aggravated robbery, aggravated robbery, and aggravated assault. Following the conviction and sentencing, the petitioner’s trial counsel admittedly failed to file a timely motion for new trial. Consequently, the petitioner was found to have waived several issues on direct appeal. The petitioner filed a petition seeking post-conviction relief claiming, among other things, that counsel was ineffective for failing to file a timely motion for new trial. However, the post-conviction court denied his request, concluding that trial counsel was deficient but that the petitioner was not prejudiced by trial counsel’s deficiency. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the post-conviction court that counsel was deficient for failing to file a timely motion for new trial but, relying on Wallace v. State, 121 S.W.3d 652, 658 (Tenn. 2003), held that the petitioner was presumptively prejudiced by the deficiency. The intermediate appellate court, therefore, concluded that the petitioner was entitled to post-conviction relief in the form of a delayed appeal. We granted the State’s application for permission to appeal to address whether the Court of Criminal Appeals correctly determined that the petitioner was presumptively prejudiced under these circumstances. We conclude that trial counsel’s failure to file a timely motion for new trial does not require a presumption of prejudice, overruling this Court’s previous decision in Wallace. We have determined, therefore, that the post-conviction court properly considered whether the petitioner was prejudiced by his trial counsel’s deficiency, and we find no error in the post-conviction court’s conclusion that he was not. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstate the judgment of the post-conviction court denying
post-conviction relief.

Shelby County Supreme Court 07/16/20
State of Tennessee v. Steve M. Jarman
M2017-01313-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge Larry J. Wallace

Steve M. Jarman (“defendant”) was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the death of his girlfriend, Shelly Heath (“victim”). At trial, the State was permitted to introduce evidence that the defendant allegedly assaulted the victim two years prior to her death, an act for which he was tried and acquitted. The defendant appealed his conviction, and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed based, in part, on the acquitted-act evidence being used at trial. We accepted the State’s appeal to consider two issues: (1) whether the rule announced in State v. Holman, 611 S.W.2d 411 (Tenn. 1981), which prohibits the use of acquitted-act evidence against a defendant at a subsequent trial, should be overruled, and (2) if so, whether the trial court properly admitted the acquitted-act evidence as a prior bad act under Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b). After a thorough review of the case law in this area and the record before us on appeal, we expressly overrule our decision in Holman to the extent that it prohibits the use of acquitted-act evidence against a defendant in a subsequent trial under all circumstances. Additionally, we hold that it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to admit the acquitted-act evidence, pursuant to Rule 404(b), under the theory that it was relevant to show the defendant’s intent. We also hold that additional errors in admitting threats made by the defendant against the victim or the victim’s sister, not at issue in this appeal, were harmless. For reasons stated herein, we reverse the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision and reinstate the defendant’s conviction.

Dickson County Supreme Court 07/06/20
David New v. Lavinia Dumitrache, Et Al.
W2017-00776-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor JoeDae L. Jenkins

A general sessions court entered a one-year order of protection prohibiting the plaintiff from having contact with the defendants, who are the plaintiff’s ex-wife and the couple’s minor child. The plaintiff failed to appeal the order within ten days as required by statute. Forty-two days later, he filed a document in the chancery court titled “Petition to Enroll and Certify A Foreign Judgment and Appeal in Nature of Writ of Error.” The plaintiff attached to his pleading an incomplete copy of the couple’s 2008 Texas divorce decree that granted him parenting time with the minor child and asked the chancery court to hold a new hearing and determine whether the general sessions court erred by issuing the order of protection. The plaintiff later filed a motion asking for interim parenting time with the child. The defendants filed a notice of limited appearance, and among other things, asked the chancery court to dismiss the action for lack of personal and subject matter jurisdiction. They also requested attorney’s fees and costs incurred in defending the action, relying on statutes to support these requests. The chancery court dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding the appeal untimely and the method of appeal obsolete, and also determining that the petition for enrollment was defective on its face because the defendant had attached an incomplete copy of the Texas decree. The chancery court initially denied the defendants’ request for attorney’s fees and costs but granted their motion to alter or amend and ultimately awarded attorney’s fees and costs totaling $25,398.21. The plaintiff appealed, challenging only the award of attorney’s fees. The defendants asked for an award of attorney’s fees incurred on appeal. Before reaching these issues, however, the Court of Appeals sua sponte held that the chancery court erred by dismissing the appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, ruling that the “writ of error remains an avenue for review of judgments of general sessions courts.” Rather than remanding the matter to the chancery court for consideration of the merits of the plaintiff’s writ of error appeal, however, the Court of Appeals also addressed the defendants’ challenge to the award of attorney’s fees. The intermediate appellate court ruled that a statute authorized the chancery court to award the defendants’ attorney’s fees for defending against the plaintiff’s writ of error appeal but not for fees incurred defending against the plaintiff’s petition to enroll the Texas divorce decree. As a result, the Court of Appeals vacated the award of attorney’s fees and remanded to the chancery court for a hearing and a determination of the fees incurred solely in defense of the plaintiff’s writ of error appeal. The Court of Appeals denied the defendants’ request for attorney’s fees on appeal. This Court granted the defendants’ application for permission to appeal. We hold that the chancery court correctly concluded that the writ of error is no longer a viable method of appeal in this State and dismissed the untimely appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We also hold that the chancery court correctly dismissed the plaintiff’s request to enroll the Texas decree because he provided an incomplete copy of the decree. Finally, we hold that the chancery court correctly awarded the defendants’ attorney’s fees for defending against the plaintiff’s pleading and did not err by failing to limit the award to the writ of error appeal. For these reasons, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, reinstate the judgment of the chancery court in its entirety, and remand to the chancery court for a determination of the reasonable attorney’s fees the defendants have incurred and should be awarded for this appeal.

Shelby County Supreme Court 06/29/20
Stephen P. Geller v. Henry County Board of Education
W2017-01678-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Judge Carma Dennis McGee

In this appeal, we apply the Teacher Tenure Act to the transfer of a tenured teacher, working as a school administrator, for lack of proper credentialing. The plaintiff school administrator challenges the decision of the director of schools to transfer him to a teaching position because the plaintiff did not have an administrator license. The trial court upheld the transfer. The Court of Appeals reversed. It held that a regulation required the director to review the administrative duties the plaintiff had performed in the past in order to determine whether an administrator license was required, and that the director’s failure to do so rendered his transfer decision arbitrary and capricious. Under Tennessee caselaw, judicial review of a school system director’s decision to transfer a teacher must be conducted in light of the director’s broad discretion to make such decisions. The proof showed that the director and the board of the school system had established certain priorities for its administrators. Absent an administrator license, in the upcoming school year, the regulation would have precluded the plaintiff from performing duties consistent with the school system’s priorities. Consequently, the director’s failure to consider the plaintiff’s past work did not render the transfer decision either arbitrary or capricious. Under these circumstances, we hold that the plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proving that the transfer decision was not made in good faith and was arbitrary, capricious, or improperly motivated. We reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and affirm the trial court’s judgment in favor of the school board.

Henry County Supreme Court 06/15/20
Joshua Keller v. Janice Casteel et al.
E2017-01020-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Chancellor Jerri Bryant

We granted permission to appeal in this case to address when an employee handbook may create a property interest entitled to due process protection. After the petitioner municipal firefighter pled guilty to a criminal charge, his employment was terminated. The firefighter filed a complaint for judicial review of the termination, asserting a due process claim based on the municipality’s personnel manual. The trial court and the Court of Appeals both held that the personnel manual gave the firefighter a property interest entitled to due process protection. We reverse that holding. In Tennessee, employment is presumed to be at-will. Employers, including governmental employers, may adopt policies and procedures to promote efficiencies and fair, consistent treatment of employees, and may put those policies and procedures in employee manuals or handbooks. In the absence of specific language showing the employer’s intent to be contractually bound, such policies and procedures do not change employees’ at-will status and do not create a constitutionally protectable property interest. In this case, the municipality’s personnel manual included an explicit statement that the municipality did not intend the procedures to be binding or constitute any type of contract. Such disclaimers preclude any finding that the employer intended to be bound by the terms of the employee handbook. Accordingly, we decline to hold that the employee handbook converted the employee’s at-will employment into a property interest entitled to due process protection.

Bradley County Supreme Court 06/12/20
Lataisha M. Jackson v. Charles Anthony Burrell, et al.
W2018-00057-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Valerie L. Smith

The question presented in this health care liability case is whether the plaintiff’s claim against a salon for negligent training, supervision, and retention of a massage therapist should be dismissed because the plaintiff did not file a certificate of good faith with her complaint under section 29-26-122 of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act (“the Act”). Our answer depends on whether the common knowledge exception applies— that is, whether laypersons using their common knowledge and without expert testimony could decide whether the salon was negligent. If the common knowledge exception does not come into play and expert testimony is necessary, then the plaintiff needed to file a certificate of good faith with her complaint certifying that her negligence claim was supported by a competent expert witness and that there was a good faith basis for the claim. Here, the plaintiff alleged that a massage therapist working for the salon sexually assaulted her during a massage. In support of her claim of negligent training, supervision, and retention, the plaintiff presented evidence that before her assault, the salon had received complaints from two customers that the massage therapist had acted inappropriately and made them feel uncomfortable. The trial court granted summary judgment to the salon because the plaintiff had not filed a certificate of good faith. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the plaintiff had waived the common knowledge exception and that, in any event, expert testimony was necessary. We reverse and hold that 1) the plaintiff did not waive the common knowledge exception; and 2) the plaintiff’s claim against the salon for negligent training, supervision, and retention of the massage therapist was within the common knowledge of laypersons and did not require expert testimony about the standard of care in the massage industry. Thus, the plaintiff did not have to present expert proof to establish her negligence claim against the salon. It follows then that the plaintiff had no reason to file a certificate of good faith under section 29-26- 122, and her claim is not subject to dismissal for noncompliance with this section. The trial court’s award of summary judgment is vacated.

Shelby County Supreme Court 06/12/20
Roy Franks et al. v. Tiffany Sykes et al.
W2018-00654-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Kyle Atkins

A person who is injured because of an unfair or deceptive act or practice that affects the conduct of any trade or commerce has a cause of action under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act of 1977 (“the Act”), Tennessee Code Annotated sections 47- 18-101 to -132 (2013 & Supp. 2019). We granted review to determine whether the Act applies to the business aspects of a health care provider’s practice. The plaintiffs were injured in car accidents and received hospital medical services. The hospitals did not bill the plaintiffs’ health insurance companies but filed hospital liens against the plaintiffs’ claims for damages arising from the accidents. The hospital liens were for the full amount of the hospital bills with no reduction for the plaintiffs’ health insurance benefits. The plaintiffs sued the hospitals, asserting the filing of undiscounted hospital liens was an unlawful practice under the Act. The trial court dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs had failed to state a cause of action. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the Act did not apply to a claim in which the underlying transactions involved medical treatment. We hold that the Act applies to health care providers when they are acting in their business capacities. The plaintiffs, who were consumers of medical services, may state a claim under the Act against the hospitals for conduct arising out of the hospitals’ business practices. We reverse and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Madison County Supreme Court 05/01/20
State of Tennessee v. Antonio Benson
W2017-01119-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Roger A. Page
Trial Court Judge: Judge Lee V. Coffee

The defendant, Antonio Benson, was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, the defendant contended that the proof at trial fairly raised the issue of whether or not he killed the victim in self-defense and that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that self-defense should have been charged and concluded that the error was not harmless. The intermediate court therefore reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. We granted this appeal to clarify the gatekeeping function of a trial court when assessing whether self-defense has been fairly raised by the proof and to consider the quantum of proof necessary for a court to charge a jury on selfdefense. We hold that self-defense was not fairly raised by the proof in this case because the defendant was not lawfully defending himself when he killed the victim. We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Shelby County Supreme Court 04/30/20
Melissa Martin et al v. Rolling Hills Hospital, LLC et al (Concur in Part;Dissent in Part)
M2016-02214-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Judge Michael Binkley

I agree with the majority’s clarification of the role of prejudice in the substantial compliance analysis required when a defendant challenges the plaintiff’s adherence to subsection (a)(2) of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121 (Supp. 2019) (“Section 121”).

Williamson County Supreme Court 04/29/20
Melissa Martin et al v. Rolling Hills Hospital, LLC et al
M2016-02214-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Michael Binkley

We granted permission to appeal to clarify the role of prejudice in a court’s determination of whether a plaintiff in a health care liability action substantially complied with the statutory pre-suit notice requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121 (Supp. 2019) (“Section 121”) and to clarify the burdens each party bears when seeking to establish, or to challenge, compliance with Section 121. We hold that prejudice is relevant to the determination of whether a plaintiff substantially complied with Section 121, but it is not a separate and independent analytical element. We also hold that a plaintiff bears the initial burden of either attaching documents to her health care liability complaint demonstrating compliance with Section 121 or of alleging facts in the complaint demonstrating extraordinary cause sufficient to excuse any noncompliance with Section 121. A defendant seeking to challenge a plaintiff’s compliance with Section 121 must file a Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. See Myers v. AMISUB (SFH), Inc., 382 S.W.3d 300, 307 (Tenn. 2012). A defendant’s Rule 12.02(6) motion must include allegations that identify the plaintiff’s noncompliance and explain “the extent and significance of the plaintiff’s errors and omissions and whether the defendant was prejudiced by the plaintiff’s noncompliance.” Stevens ex rel. Stevens v. Hickman Cmty. Health Care Servs., Inc., 418 S.W.3d 547, 556 (Tenn. 2013). One means of satisfying this burden is to allege that a plaintiff’s Section 121(a)(2)(E) medical authorization lacks one or more of the six core elements federal law requires for compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”). See Pub. L. No. 104-191, 110 Stat. 1936 (1996) (codified as amended in scattered sections of 18, 26, 29, and 42 of the United States Code). Once a defendant files a Rule 12.02 motion that satisfies this prima facie showing, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff either to establish substantial compliance with Section 121—which includes the burden of demonstrating that the noncompliance did not prejudice the defense—or to demonstrate extraordinary cause that excuses any noncompliance. In this case, the defendants met their burden by showing that the plaintiffs’ medical authorizations lacked three of the six core elements federal law requires for HIPAA compliance. This showing shifted the burden to the plaintiffs, and they failed to establish either substantial compliance or extraordinary cause to excuse their noncompliance. As a result of this noncompliance with Section 121(a)(2)(E), the plaintiffs were not entitled to the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations. Therefore, their first lawsuit, filed after the oneyear statute of limitations expired, was not “commenced within the time limited by a rule or statute of limitation,” Tenn. Code Ann.
§ 28-1-105(a) (2017), so the plaintiffs cannot rely on the one-year savings statute to establish the timeliness of this lawsuit. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the trial court’s judgment dismissing the plaintiffs’ health care liability action as time-barred.

Williamson County Supreme Court 04/29/20
George H. Thompson, III v. Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee
M2018-02216-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Roger A. Page
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Don R. Ash

This is an attorney discipline proceeding concerning attorney George H. Thompson, III, and his representation of a client in her personal injury action. After filing a nonsuit on his client’s behalf, the attorney failed to refile the case in a timely manner, which resulted in the client’s claim being barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The attorney later admitted his error and paid the client a sum of money to settle her potential claim against him; however, the attorney failed to advise the client in writing that she should seek independent legal counsel in reaching a settlement. The Board of Professional Responsibility (“Board”) filed a petition for discipline against the attorney, and a hearing panel (“Panel”) imposed a sanction of a one-year suspension with thirty days to be served as an active suspension and the remainder to be served on probation with conditions. The attorney sought review of the Panel’s decision in chancery court, and upon its review, the chancery court affirmed the Panel’s decision. The attorney has now filed a direct appeal to this Court. Following a thorough review of the record and applicable legal authorities, we affirm the judgment of the chancery court.

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/28/20
Vickie S. Young, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Randall Josh Young, Deceased v. Frist Cardiology, PLLC ET AL.
M2019-00316-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Joseph P. Binkley, Jr.

We granted review to determine whether a doctor is qualified to testify in a health care liability case as an expert witness under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26- 115(b) when the doctor was not licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee or a contiguous state within one year of the alleged injury or wrongful conduct, but was practicing under a licensure exemption. Section 29-26-115(b) provides that a doctor is competent to testify as an expert witness only if the doctor is licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee or a contiguous state and the doctor was practicing medicine in Tennessee or a contiguous state during the year before the date of the alleged injury or wrongful conduct. We hold that under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-115(b), a doctor, who was permitted to practice medicine in Tennessee under a statutory licensure exemption but was not licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee or a contiguous state during the year before the date of the alleged injury or wrongful conduct, does not meet the requirements of section 29-26-115(b) to testify as an expert witness in a health care liability action. We reverse and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Davidson County Supreme Court 04/20/20
Ken Smith Auto Parts v. Michael F. Thomas
E2018-00928-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Judge Ward Jeffrey Hollingsworth

We granted permission to appeal in order to clarify the procedure circuit courts must follow when an original defendant in general sessions court appeals an adverse general sessions judgment to circuit court but then fails to appear for the de novo circuit court trial to prosecute his appeal.  In this case, when the defendant/appellant failed to appear in circuit court to prosecute his appeal, the circuit court dismissed the appeal and remanded the case to the general sessions court for execution of the general sessions judgment.  We hold this was error.  Under Tennessee Code Annotated sections 27-5-106 and -107, the circuit court should have instead entered its own default judgment against the defendant/appellant in the amount of the general sessions judgment, subject to execution in the circuit court, and assessed costs against the defendant/appellant and his sureties.  We also hold that, after the circuit court dismissed the appeal and remanded to general sessions court, the circuit court had subject matter jurisdiction under Rules 59 and 60 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure to grant the defendant/appellant’s timely motion to set aside its prior order.  The decision to grant or deny the defendant/appellant’s post-judgment motion was within the circuit court’s discretion.  Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.  

Hamilton County Supreme Court 04/17/20
In Re: Cumberland Bail Bonding
M2017-02172-SC-R11-CD
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Larry B. Stanley, Jr.

We granted this appeal to determine whether a trial court may suspend a bonding company for violating a local rule of court requiring an agent of the bonding company to be present at court appearances of defendants for whom the bonding company serves as surety. We conclude that the local rule does not conflict with state statutes and is not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, and that the trial court did not err by suspending the bonding company for violating the local rule. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is reversed, and the judgment of the trial court is reinstated. 

Van Buren County Supreme Court 04/06/20
Rhonda Willeford, Et Al. v. Timothy P. Klepper, M. D., Et Al. - Concurring In Part and Dissenting In Part
M2016-01491-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Judge Jonathan L. Young

I concur in much of the majority’s excellent analysis, in its framing of the issues, and in its stated decision to adopt a substantive-versus-procedural test for whether a statute violates the separation of powers clause. I write separately because I must dissent from the majority’s holding that Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(f) is unconstitutional only to the limited extent that it makes ex parte interviews mandatory instead of permissive. I see no way to avoid holding that the statute is unconstitutional in its entirety.

Overton County Supreme Court 02/28/20
Rhonda Willeford, Et Al. v. Timothy P. Klepper, M. D., Et Al.
M2016-01491-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge Jonathan L. Young

We granted review in this case to determine whether Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(f) violates the separation of powers clause in the Tennessee Constitution. The statutory provision allows defense counsel to conduct ex parte interviews with patients’ non-party treating healthcare providers in the course of discovery in a healthcare liability lawsuit. We hold that section 29-26-121(f) is unconstitutional as enacted, to the limited extent that it divests trial courts of their inherent discretion over discovery. We also conclude that the statute can be elided to make it permissive and not mandatory upon trial courts. As such, we hold that the elided statute is constitutional. We vacate the trial court’s qualified protective order entered in this case and remand the case to the trial court for reconsideration based on the guidance set forth in this opinion. 

Overton County Supreme Court 02/28/20
Jodi McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC - Dissenting
M2019-00511-SC-R23-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge Eli Richardson

The Tennessee Constitution guarantees that the “right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102 (2012) (“the damages cap statute”), which forbids awards for noneconomic damages that exceed $750,000 (or $1,000,000 in catastrophic injury cases), is an unconstitutional invasion of the right to trial by jury. Thus, it cannot stand.  

Supreme Court 02/26/20
Jodi McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC - Dissenting
M2019-00511-SC-R23-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Eli Richardson

I dissent. I would hold that Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102(e) (2012) violates article I, section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution by usurping the jury’s essential and constitutionally protected fact-finding function.  

Supreme Court 02/26/20
Jodi McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC - Concurring
M2019-00511-SC-R23-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Judge Eli Richardson

I join fully in the majority’s conclusion that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages enacted by our legislature does not violate either the separation of powers clause or the equal protection clause in the Tennessee Constitution. A much closer question is presented on whether the statutory cap violates the clause in the Tennessee Constitution guaranteeing a right to trial by jury. I agree with the majority’s analysis and conclusion on this issue but write separately to further explain my reasoning. 

Supreme Court 02/26/20