Supreme Court Opinions

Format: 10/28/2021
Format: 10/28/2021
Carolyn Coffman, Et Al. v. Armstrong International, Inc., Et Al.
E2017-01985-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Roger A. Page
Trial Court Judge: Judge William T. Ailor

This is a product liability action stemming from occupational exposure to asbestos. Pertinent to this appeal, Mr. and Mrs. Coffman (“Appellees”) asserted claims against the manufacturers of certain equipment (“Equipment Defendants”) under the Tennessee Products Liability Act for failing to warn of dangers for exposure to asbestos-containing products that the Equipment Defendants did not themselves manufacture or sell. The trial court granted summary judgment to the Equipment Defendants and the Court of Appeals reversed. This Court granted the Equipment Defendants’ application in part and directed the parties to address: “Whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the Equipment Defendants had a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others.” We have concluded that the Equipment Defendants had no duty to warn on the facts and law applicable here. We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Knox County Supreme Court 01/04/21
Jared Effler, Et Al. v. Purdue Pharma L.P. Et Al.
E2018-01994-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Sharon G. Lee
Trial Court Judge: Judge John D. McAfee

Declaring that the sale and distribution of illegal drugs affects every community in the country, the Tennessee Legislature enacted the Tennessee Drug Dealer Liability Act, Tennessee Code Annotated sections 29-38-101 to -116. This Act provides a cause of action against a knowing participant in the illegal drug market for injuries caused by illegal drug use. In response to the opioid epidemic in East Tennessee, seven District Attorneys General and two Baby Doe plaintiffs sued several drug companies under the Act. The District Attorneys and the Baby Doe plaintiffs alleged that the drug companies knowingly participated in the illegal drug market by intentionally flooding East Tennessee communities with prescription opioid medications, leading to widespread addiction and diversion of the opioids into the black market. The District Attorneys claimed that the opioid epidemic had damaged the communities in their districts, and the Baby Doe plaintiffs alleged that they were harmed by exposure to opioids in utero. The drug companies moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the pleadings. Their two-fold challenge asserted that the Act did not authorize the District Attorneys to sue for damages and that the Act did not apply to the drug companies’ conduct. The trial court ruled that the Act did not apply and dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals reversed. The issues we decide are whether the District Attorneys had statutory standing to sue under the Act and whether the Act applies to the drug companies based on factual allegations in the complaint that the drug companies knowingly participated in the illegal drug market. We hold that the District Attorneys lack standing because the Act does not name them as parties who can sue under the Act. This leaves the Baby Doe plaintiffs, who alleged facts showing that the drug companies knowingly participated in the illegal drug market by facilitating the marketing or distribution of opioids. Taking these factual allegations as true, as required at this stage of the case, we hold that the Baby Doe plaintiffs have stated a claim against the drug companies under the Act. 

Campbell County Supreme Court 12/17/20
In Re Neveah M.
M2019-00313-SC-R11-PT
Authoring Judge: Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Trial Court Judge: Judge Philip E. Smith

We granted this appeal to settle a split of authority in the Court of Appeals concerning the proper interpretation of a statute that requires a person seeking termination of parental rights to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a “parent or guardian has failed to manifest, by act or omission, an ability and willingness to personally assume legal and physical custody or financial responsibility of the child.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(g)(14) (Supp. 2016); id. (2017 & Supp. 2020). In some decisions, the Court of Appeals has interpreted this language as requiring clear and convincing proof that a parent was both unable and unwilling to personally assume legal and physical custody or financial responsibility of a child. See, e.g., In re Ayden S., No. M2017-01185-COA-R3-PT, 2018 WL 2447044, *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 31, 2018). In other decisions, the Court of Appeals has construed this statute as requiring clear and convincing proof that a parent was either unable or unwilling to personally assume legal and physical custody or financial responsibility of a child. See, e.g., In re Amynn K., No. E2017-01866-COA-R3-PT, 2018 WL 3058280, *14 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 20, 2018). We hold that the statute is ambiguous and that the latter interpretation—the In re Amynn K. interpretation—best effectuates legislative intent. Therefore, we overrule In re Ayden S. and all other Court of Appeals’ decisions inconsistent with our holding herein. Additionally, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals herein, which applied the In re Ayden S. interpretation, and reinstate the judgment of the trial court terminating mother’s parental rights based solely on Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-113(g)(14). In all other respects, the trial court’s judgment remains intact and is reinstated.

Davidson County Supreme Court 12/10/20
Talat Parveen, Et Al. v. ACG South Insurance Agency, LLC, Et Al.
E2018-01759-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Roger A. Page
Trial Court Judge: Judge J. Eddie Lauderback

The present appeal concerns an insurance agent’s alleged negligent failure to procure excess uninsured motorist coverage in accordance with a prospective insured’s instructions. The two insured parties, a married couple, filed suit against their insurance agent and agency after they were denied coverage by the insurance carrier. The trial court found that it was undisputed that the insureds had paid the premium for the policy in effect and applied Tennessee Code Annotated section 56-7-135(b), which provides: “The payment of premium for an insurance contract, or amendment thereto, by an insured shall create a rebuttable presumption that the coverage provided has been accepted by all insureds under the contract.” The trial court determined that the insureds had failed to rebut the statutory presumption that they had accepted the provided coverage, which did not include excess uninsured motorist coverage. Therefore, the trial court granted the insurance agent’s motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed, concluding that the rebuttable presumption does not apply to actions against an insurance agent. We granted the ensuing application for permission to appeal to address whether section 56-7-135(b) applies to create a rebuttable presumption in actions against an insurance agent for negligent failure to procure an insurance policy as directed. Considering the plain language of the statute, we conclude that it does create such a presumption. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the judgment of the trial court granting summary judgment. 

Washington County Supreme Court 12/04/20
State of Tennessee v. Isaiah Styles
E2020-00176-SC-T10B-CO
Authoring Judge: Per Curiam
Trial Court Judge: Judge Kyle A. Hixson

This case is one of three cases decided today by this Court involving a trial judge who previously served as a deputy district attorney general in Knox County at the time the defendants in each case were indicted by the Knox County Grand Jury. After a subsequent appointment to serve as a trial judge in Knox County Criminal Court, the trial judge was assigned to the defendants’ cases. The defendant in this case moved for recusal, arguing that the trial judge previously had supervisory authority over his case as Deputy District Attorney General. The trial judge denied the motion for recusal, and the defendant filed an appeal in the Court of Criminal Appeals pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B, section 2. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial judge’s decision, holding that recusal of the trial judge was necessary. We then granted the State’s accelerated application for permission to appeal to this Court. This Court issued a separate opinion today in State v. Griffin, __ S.W.3d __, __, No. E2020-00327-SC-T10B-CO (Tenn. 2020), which is controlling to the outcome of this case. Specifically, we held in Griffin that the defendant failed to establish that the trial judge’s supervisory responsibilities in his role as a deputy district attorney general were personal or substantial in that case. Id. We hold that the same is true for this case. Therefore, for the reasons provided in Griffin, we reverse the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstate the trial court’s denial of recusal in this case.

Knox County Supreme Court 10/30/20
State of Tennessee v. Raffell Griffin, Et Al.
E2020-00327-SC-T10B-CO
Authoring Judge: Per Curiam
Trial Court Judge: Judge Kyle A. Hixson

The trial judge in this matter served as a deputy district attorney general in Knox County at the time the defendants were indicted by the Knox County Grand Jury. After a subsequent appointment to serve as a trial judge in Knox County Criminal Court, the trial judge was assigned to the defendants’ cases. The defendants moved for recusal, arguing that the trial judge had supervisory authority over their cases as Deputy District Attorney General. The trial judge denied the motions for recusal, and the defendants filed an appeal in the Court of Criminal Appeals pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 10B, section 2. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial judge’s decision, holding that recusal of the trial judge was necessary. We then granted the State’s accelerated application for permission to appeal to this Court. Having thoroughly reviewed the filings of the parties and the applicable law, we conclude that the trial judge’s denial of the motion to recuse was appropriate in this case. Therefore, we reverse the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Knox County Supreme Court 10/30/20
State of Tennessee v. Decosio Jacques Clark
E2020-00416-SC-T10B-CO
Authoring Judge: Per Curiam
Trial Court Judge: Judge Kyle A. Hixson

The defendant in this case is a co-defendant below with the defendants in the matter, State v. Griffin, __ S.W.3d __, __, No. E2020-00327-SC-T10B-CO (Tenn. 2020). This Court issued a separate opinion today in Griffin which is controlling to the outcome of this case. See id. Specifically, we held in Griffin that the trial judge properly denied recusal, even though he served as a Deputy District Attorney General in Knox County at the time the defendants were indicted by the Knox County Grand Jury. Id. For the reasons provided in Griffin, we reverse the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals in this case and reinstate the trial court’s denial of recusal.

Knox County Supreme Court 10/30/20
Crouch Railway Consulting, LLC v. LS Energy Fabrication, LLC
M2017-02540-SC-R11-CV
Authoring Judge: Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge Joseph A. Woodruff


The issue in this appeal is whether a Tennessee court may exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a Texas corporate defendant involved in a contractual dispute with a Tennessee company it chose to perform specialized professional services. A Texas oil-drilling company elected to contract with a Tennessee civil engineering company for custom design and consulting services related to the potential construction of a railcar repair facility in Texas. The Tennessee company performed the services primarily out of its principal place of business in Tennessee. When the Texas company failed to pay in full, the Tennessee company filed a civil action in Tennessee for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The Texas company moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(2). The Williamson County Chancery Court granted the motion, finding (1) that the Texas company lacked the “minimum contacts” necessary for the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction, and (2) that requiring the Texas company to litigate in Tennessee would be unreasonable and unfair. The Court of Appeals reversed, relying primarily on Nicholstone Book Bindery, Inc. v. Chelsea House Publishers, 621 S.W.2d 560 (Tenn. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 994 (1982). Although we find Nicholstone to be consistent with our opinion today, we base our review on contemporary jurisprudence in this area of the law. We hold that, consistent with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Tennessee company established a prima facie case for the valid exercise of personal jurisdiction over the Texas company. Additionally, the exercise of jurisdiction would not be unfair or unreasonable. Therefore, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Williamson County Supreme Court 10/06/20
MARTY HOLLAND v. STATE OF TENNESSEE
W2018-01517-SC-R11-PC
Authoring Judge: Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins
Trial Court Judge: Judge J. Weber McCraw
The Petitioner-appellee, Marty Holland, pled guilty to attempted first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery. As part of the plea, he agreed to serve a seventeen-year sentence. He also agreed to serve the sentence concurrently with a previously imposed federal sentence for an unrelated bank robbery charge and consecutive to a state sentence for an unrelated theft charge. The Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which the post-conviction court denied. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the postconviction court’s denial of the petition but remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing regarding one issue: whether the Petitioner was fully informed of the circumstances of agreeing to serve concurrent state and federal sentences. This issue was not raised by the Petitioner in his post-conviction petition or on appeal, was not argued by either party during the post-conviction hearing or on appeal, and was not decided by the post-conviction court. Based on our review of the law and the record before us on appeal, we hold that the Court of Criminal Appeals was without authority under the Post-Conviction Procedure Act of 1995 to remand this case for consideration of an issue that was not raised by either party. Therefore, we reverse the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals to remand this case, and we reinstate the post-conviction court’s denial of the petition.
 
Hardeman County Supreme Court 10/02/20
Douglas Ralph Beier v. Board of Professional Responsibility of The Supreme Court of Tennessee
E2019-00463-SC-R3-BP
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Senior Judge Robert E. Lee Davies
In this appeal from attorney disciplinary proceedings, the hearing panel of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility determined that the attorney’s conduct in two cases violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. In one case, the hearing panel found that the attorney signed the name of a witness on an affidavit, falsely notarized the signature, and did not disclose to the trial court or opposing counsel that he had signed the witness’s affidavit. In another case, the hearing panel found, the attorney persuaded a client in a probate matter to agree to an unreasonable contingency fee arrangement, took advantage of the client’s disability, misrepresented to the probate court that the client was the decedent’s sole heir, failed to disclose the existence of other heirs, and got the probate court to agree to close the estate without a detailed accounting in order to avoid judicial scrutiny of the unreasonable fee. The hearing panel suspended the law license of the appellant attorney for two years, with three months served as active suspension and the remainder on probation. The attorney and the Board both appealed the hearing panel’s decision to the chancery court. The chancery court affirmed the hearing panel’s findings as to rule violations and aggravating and mitigating factors, but it modified the sanction to two years active suspension. The attorney now appeals to this Court, arguing that his conduct was not dishonest, he did not take advantage of a vulnerable client, and his probate fee arrangement was not unreasonable. We affirm the hearing panel’s factual findings and its findings as to rule violations. In view of the seriousness of the violations, we affirm the chancery court’s modification of the sanction to two years active suspension.
 
Hamblen County Supreme Court 10/02/20
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