Appellate Court Opinions

Format: 03/03/2021
Format: 03/03/2021
Franklin Real Estate Group, Inc. v. Spero Dei Church
M2019--1691-COA-R3-CV

A real estate broker filed a complaint against a client alleging that the client breached the parties’ brokerage agreement by purchasing a property and not paying a commission to the broker.  The client filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that the brokerage agreement was void for vagueness because one of its provisions was illogical.  The trial court disagreed with the client after concluding that any confusion was due to a simple drafting error.  The trial court reformed the brokerage agreement to reflect the parties’ intentions and determined that the client breached the brokerage agreement as reformed. The trial court then, sua sponte, granted summary judgment to the real estate broker.  We affirm.

Davidson County Court of Appeals 01/27/21
State of Tennessee v. Jack Edward Thomas
E2020-00044-CCA-R3-CD

The Defendant, Jack Edward Thomas, pled guilty to arson and received a five-year sentence, with one year of incarceration to be followed by four years of probation. Following a hearing, the trial court ordered restitution in the amount of $4,320, with the Defendant to make installment payments of $90 per month. The Defendant appeals the restitution award, arguing that the State failed to present sufficient evidence of the victim’s pecuniary loss because the victim’s testimony was uncertain and unreliable. The Defendant also asserts that the judgment form erroneously reflects a restitution award of $7,000, which was the victim’s total pecuniary loss as determined by the trial court, because it exceeded the total amount the trial court found that the Defendant was able to pay in $90 per month installments for four years ($4,320). After reviewing the record, we conclude that the State introduced inadequate proof regarding the valuation of the loss. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new restitution hearing. The Defendant’s alternative argument regarding correction of the judgment form is rendered moot, though it does have merit.

McMinn County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/26/21
Clarissa Bidwell, Ex Rel James Bidwell Et Al. v. Timothy A. Strait MD Et Al.
E2018-02211-SC-R11-CV

James Bidwell filed this health care liability action individually and on behalf of his deceased wife, Clarissa Bidwell, and her estate against Drs. Timothy Strait and Jeffrey Colburn (“the physician Defendants”) and the entities he believed to be their employers—The Neurosurgical Group of Chattanooga, P.C., EmCare Inc., and Envision Healthcare Corporation.  Mr. Bidwell timely provided pre-suit notice to the named defendants and timely filed his lawsuit.  Mr. Bidwell did not provide Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority (“Erlanger”) with pre-suit notice, nor did he name Erlanger as a defendant.  Furthermore, Dr. Strait and Dr. Colburn did not provide Mr. Bidwell written notice of Erlanger as their correct employer within thirty days of receiving pre-suit notice.  See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(5).  Dr. Strait answered Mr. Bidwell’s complaint, denying the allegations made against him and asserting that he was employed by Erlanger at all relevant times.  Dr. Colburn similarly answered, denying the allegations made against him and that either EmCare Inc. or Envision Healthcare Corporation was his employer.  Drs. Strait and Colburn then moved for summary judgment arguing that, pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act, no judgment could be rendered against them because Mr. Bidwell had failed to name as a defendant their actual employer, Erlanger.  See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b).  Within ninety days of Dr. Strait’s and Dr. Colburn’s answers, Mr. Bidwell filed two motions for leave to amend his complaint to add Erlanger as a defendant.  Mr. Bidwell relied on Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119, which provides a plaintiff with a ninety-day “grace period” within which to amend a complaint when comparative fault “is or becomes an issue,” and section 29-26-121(a)(5), which he argued required the physician Defendants to notify him of Erlanger within thirty days of receiving pre-suit notice.  The trial court granted Dr. Strait’s and Dr. Colburn’s motions for summary judgment, finding that Mr. Bidwell’s motions to amend were futile because he had not provided Erlanger with pre-suit notice.  Mr. Bidwell appealed, and the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s orders granting summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.  Dr. Strait and Dr. Colburn subsequently filed an application for permission to appeal with this Court.  We hold that, although the physician Defendants failed to comply with section Tennessee Code Annotated 29-26-121(a)(5), the statute provides no remedy for noncompliance, and their noncompliance does not constitute extraordinary cause sufficient to excuse Mr. Bidwell’s failure to provide Erlanger with pre-suit notice.  However, we additionally hold that Dr. Strait’s and Dr. Colburn’s answers sufficiently asserted Erlanger’s comparative fault.  Therefore, Mr. Bidwell was entitled to amend his complaint to name Erlanger as a defendant pursuant to section 20-1-119, so long as he amended his complaint and caused process to issue to Erlanger within ninety days of Dr. Strait’s answer—the first answer alleging Erlanger’s fault.  Because section 20-1-119 applied, Mr. Bidwell was not obligated to provide Erlanger with pre-suit notice under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c).  We conclude that, because the record on appeal reflects that Mr. Bidwell failed to file an amended complaint and cause process to issue, he is not entitled to amend his complaint to add Erlanger as a defendant.  Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the Court of Appeals on the grounds stated herein and reinstate the trial court’s orders granting the physician Defendants’ motions for summary judgment and denying the Plaintiff’s motions to amend. 

Hamilton County Supreme Court 01/26/21
Clarissa Bidwell, Ex Rel James Bidwell Et Al. v. Timothy A. Strait MD Et Al. - Concurring In Part, Dissenting In Part
E2018-02211-SC-R11-CV

I agree with the majority that the Defendants, Dr. Timothy Strait and Dr. Jeffrey Colburn, are entitled to summary judgment. It is a harsh and unfortunate result. The Defendants did not comply with the notice requirement of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(5) and gained a tactical advantage which allowed them to win this case. While I agree with the result, I disagree that the Defendants sufficiently alleged comparative fault in their answers so that the Plaintiff had ninety days to amend his complaint under Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-1-119.

Hamilton County Supreme Court 01/26/21
Clarissa Bidwell, Ex Rel James Bidwell Et Al. v. Timothy A. Strait MD Et Al. - Concurring Separately
E2018-02211-SC-R11-CV

I concur in the well-reasoned majority opinion but write separately on the issue of “extraordinary cause” to excuse failure to give pre-suit notice under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(b) (“The court has discretion to excuse compliance with this section only for extraordinary cause shown.”).

Hamilton County Supreme Court 01/26/21
Devin Torquin Watkins v. State of Tennessee
E2020-00090-CCA-R3-PC

The Petitioner, Devin Torquin Watkins, appeals the denial of his petition for postconviction relief, arguing that the post-conviction court erred in finding that he received effective assistance of counsel. Following our review, we affirm the judgment of the postconviction court denying the petition.

Knox County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/26/21
Charles Hampton v. State of Tennessee
W2019-01372-CCA-R3-PC

The Petitioner, Charles Hampton, appeals the denial of post-conviction relief from his conviction for first degree premeditated murder, arguing (1) the post-conviction court erred in refusing to consider an expert’s testimony, (2) trial counsel was ineffective in failing to seek the suppression of the Petitioner’s statements to police, and (3) his mandatory life sentence as a juvenile offender is unconstitutional because it is the “functional equivalent” of life without parole. After review, we affirm the judgment of the
post-conviction court.

Shelby County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/26/21
Michael Bland v. State of Tennessee
W2020-00454-CCA-R3-PC

Michael Bland, Petitioner, was indicted for and convicted of first-degree murder. Petitioner received a life sentence. This Court affirmed Petitioner’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal, and our supreme court denied further appellate review. State v. Michael Bland, No. W2014-00991-CCA-R3-CD, 2015 WL 3793697, *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. June 16, 2015), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Oct. 15, 2015). Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief in which he raised claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. After an evidentiary hearing, the post-conviction court denied relief. Finding no error, we affirm the judgment of the post-conviction court.

Shelby County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/26/21
State of Tennessee v. Floyd Antonius Taylor
W2020-00103-CCA-R3-CD

Defendant, Floyd Antonius Taylor, was indicted for two counts of delivery of a Schedule II controlled substance of .5 grams or more, with the second count occurring within a drug-free zone. The counts were severed, and Defendant received a jury trial on Count 2. The jury found Defendant guilty as charged. Count 1 was subsequently dismissed. Defendant received a fifteen-year sentence. Defendant filed a motion for new trial, which the trial court denied. Defendant filed a notice of appeal and argues that certain evidence was inadmissible under Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b) and that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions. After a thorough review of the record, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Tipton County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/26/21
Colonial Pipeline Company v. TN State Board Of Equalization
M2020-00247-COA-R12-CV

An interstate pipeline company filed this direct appeal from a decision of the Tennessee Board of Equalization rejecting the company’s claims for equalization relief. Having considered the company’s arguments that Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-501(10)(B)(iii) has been inconsistently applied, we affirm the Board’s decision.  

Court of Appeals 01/25/21
In Re Azariah R. et al.
E2020-01034-COA-R3-PT

This appeal concerns the termination of a mother’s parental rights. The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) filed a petition in the Juvenile Court for Cocke County (“the Juvenile Court”) seeking to terminate the parental rights of Shauntel C. (“Mother”) to her minor children Azariah R. and Ahleigha C. (“Azariah” and “Ahleigha” respectively; “the Children” collectively). After a hearing, the Juvenile Court entered an order terminating Mother’s parental rights to the Children. Mother appeals, arguing that the Juvenile Court erred in its best interest determination by failing to account for her improvements over the course of the case. Although we reverse the ground of failure to visit, we affirm the grounds of substantial noncompliance with the permanency plan and failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody. We also affirm the Juvenile Court’s best interest determination, finding Mother’s improved efforts in some areas to be real but insufficient. We thus affirm, in part, and reverse, in part, resulting in our affirming the termination of Mother’s parental rights to the Children.

Cocke County Court of Appeals 01/25/21
In Re Investigation Of Law Solutions Chicago, LLC
M2020-00411-COA-R3-CV

The trial court granted the Tennessee Attorney General’s petition seeking to compel the respondent corporation, Law Solutions Chicago LLC d/b/a UpRight Law (“UpRight”), to provide information regarding the identities of consumers who had paid for but allegedly not received UpRight’s services. In so ruling, the trial court determined that the attorney general had established that UpRight’s practices, if proven, would likely constitute violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. The trial court also determined that the information sought was not protected by the attorney-client privilege. UpRight has appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm the trial court’s ruling.

Davidson County Court of Appeals 01/22/21
Darla Jo Adams Audirsch v. Griffin Lynn Audirsch
M2020-00279-COA-R3-CV

The Appellant, who is the former spouse of the Appellee, appeals the trial court’s denial of his motion for “Rule 60” relief seeking residential time with the Appellee’s child. There is no dispute that the Appellant has been excluded as the father of the child based upon DNA testing he requested. Discerning no error on the part of the trial court, we affirm its judgment.

Moore County Court of Appeals 01/22/21
In Re Conservatorship of Mary Ann Tapp
W2020-00216-COA-R3-CV

This appeal stems from a petition to remove a co-conservator for a person with a disability. Several years ago, the ward’s brother and her personal attorney were appointed as coconservators of the ward’s person and estate. Subsequently, the ward’s remaining siblings filed this action to remove the brother as a co-conservator, alleging that the brother had failed to act in the best interest of the ward. After a hearing on the petition, the trial court dismissed the petition to remove the brother as a co-conservator and awarded the coconservators attorney’s fees. Some of the siblings appealed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees. We reverse the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees and remand.

Fayette County Court of Appeals 01/22/21
Ronald L. Cosper v. State of Tennessee
E2020-00024-CCA-R3-PC

The petitioner, Ronald L. Cosper, appeals the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief, which petition challenged his convictions of first degree felony murder and attempted especially aggravated robbery, alleging that he was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel. Discerning no error, we affirm the denial of post-conviction relief.

Hamilton County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/22/21
In Re: Winston Bradshaw Sitton, BPR#018440
M2020-00401-SC-BAR-BP

This case is a cautionary tale on the ethical problems that can befall lawyers on social media. The attorney had a Facebook page that described him as a lawyer. A Facebook “friend” involved in a tumultuous relationship posted a public inquiry about carrying a gun in her car. In response to her post, the attorney posted comments on the escalating use of force. He then posted that, if the Facebook friend wanted “to kill” her ex-boyfriend, she should “lure” him into her home, “claim” he broke in with intent to do her harm, and “claim” she feared for her life. The attorney emphasized in his post that his advice was given “as a lawyer,” and if she was “remotely serious,” she should “keep mum” and delete the entire comment thread because premeditation could be used against her “at trial.” In the ensuing disciplinary proceedings, a Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel found that the attorney’s conduct was prejudicial to the administration of justice in violation of Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(a) and (d). It recommended suspension of his law license for sixty days. Under Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, § 15.4, this Court determined that the punishment imposed by the hearing panel appeared inadequate and, after briefing, took the matter under advisement. We now hold that the sanction must be increased. The attorney’s advice, in and of itself, was clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice and violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. In addition, his choice to post the remarks on a public platform amplified their deleterious effect. The social media posts fostered a public perception that a lawyer’s role is to manufacture false defenses. They projected a public image of corruption of the judicial process. Under these circumstances, the act of posting the comments on social media should be deemed an aggravating factor that justifies an increase in discipline. Accordingly, we modify the hearing panel’s judgment to impose a four-year suspension from the practice of law, with one year to be served on active suspension and the remainder on probation.

Supreme Court 01/22/21
In Re: Winston Bradshaw Sitton, BPR#018440 - Concurring in Section III, not joining in Sections I and II
M2020-00401-SC-BAR-BP

I join only in Section III of the majority opinion, agreeing that we should increase Mr. Sitton’s punishment to a four-year suspension from the practice of law with one year on active suspension and the remainder on probation.

I do not join in Sections I and II because those sections exceed the scope of our review under Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 15.4 and this Court’s March 20, 2020 Order. See Order, In re Sitton, No. M2020-00401-SC-BAR-BP (Tenn. Mar. 20, 2020) (order deeming attorney discipline to be “inadequate” and “propos[ing] that the punishment should be increased”).

Supreme Court 01/22/21
Antonio Maurice Wiggins v. Carol Ann Wiggins
M2019-02006-COA-R3-CV

This appeal arises out of a divorce action in which the wife requested alimony. Following a trial, the trial court awarded the wife alimony in futuro and alimony in solido to assist her in paying for health insurance premiums and attorney’s fees, respectively. On appeal, the husband claims the wife had no need for such support; rather, the trial court used the alimony awards as a means to punish the husband for his infidelity. We find that, while the trial court considered the husband’s fault in making its decision, it did so in conjunction with other relevant factors in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-121(i), including the wife’s financial need, her relative earning potential, her contributions to the marriage, and the parties’ standard of living. Having determined that the trial court applied the correct legal principles, made factual findings supported by the evidence in the record, and reached a decision within the range of acceptable dispositions, we affirm the trial court’s decision.

Montgomery County Court of Appeals 01/22/21
Donald R. Wright v. Carol Sieglitz, Et Al.
E2020-00867-COA-R3-CV

This is an appeal of a case seeking judicial determination of child support. Because the appellant, Donald R. Wright (“Appellant”) attempted to raise an issue regarding a separate case, which was not timely appealed, and all issues with regard to the instant case were waived, we dismiss this appeal

Washington County Court of Appeals 01/21/21
In Re Crystal W. Et Al.
E2020-00617-COA-R3-JV

In this dependency and neglect action, the mother appealed the determination made by the Knox County Juvenile Court (“juvenile court”) that the two minor children at issue were dependent and neglected to the Knox County Circuit Court (“trial court”). The father of the children had initiated the action by filing a petition for dependency and neglect against the mother in the juvenile court, alleging, inter alia, the mother’s inability to properly care for the children due to ongoing mental health issues. The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) had intervened in the juvenile court proceedings, and following entry of an adjudicatory order, the juvenile court had awarded legal and physical custody of the children to the father. In a separate proceeding not at issue in this appeal, the juvenile court subsequently awarded temporary custody of the children to the paternal grandfather and step-grandmother. Following a de novo bench trial on the mother’s appeal, the trial court determined that the children were dependent and neglected as to the mother and maintained custody of the children with the paternal grandfather and step-grandmother. The mother has appealed to this Court.1 Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

Knox County Court of Appeals 01/21/21
Samuel Lee Bachelor, Jr. v. Aja Michelle Bachelor n/k/a Aja Michelle Burrell
W2020-00516-COA-R3-CV

This case involves a divorce that was granted in January, 2019. As a part of their divorce, the parties entered into a marital dissolution agreement which was thereafter incorporated into the final decree of divorce. Subsequently, the Appellant filed a petition for contempt, alleging that the Appellee was in noncompliance with his obligations under the marital dissolution agreement and requested, among other relief, attorney’s fees for having to file the petition. The trial court found that while the Appellee had been noncompliant with the marital dissolution agreement, the noncompliance was not willful and therefore concluded that the Appellant was not entitled to attorney’s fees. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court’s decision to not award the Appellant her attorney’s fees and additionally award the Appellant her attorney’s fees on appeal.

Shelby County Court of Appeals 01/21/21
State of Tennessee v. Jarvis Tyvon Morgan
E2019-02027-CCA-R3-CD

Aggrieved of the Knox County Criminal Court’s revocation of the sentence of probation imposed for his 2016 guilty-pleaded conviction of aggravated assault, the defendant, Jarvis Tyvon Morgan, appeals. He argues that the trial court deprived him of due process by basing its decision on a ground not alleged in the violation warrant. Discerning no error, we affirm.

Knox County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/20/21
State of Tennessee v. Tammy Lynn Walker
E2019-00501-CCA-R3-CD

Following a bench trial, the Defendant, Tammy Lynn Walker, was convicted of passing a worthless check, a Class D felony. On appeal, the Defendant contends that the trial court erred in determining that she made a knowing and voluntary waiver of her right to counsel and by requiring her to proceed pro se at trial when she had not executed a written waiver to the effect. The State, after initially contending that the trial court did not err, alternatively argues that the Defendant implicitly waived her right to counsel by failing to retain counsel in a timely manner. In addition, the Defendant, as a separate issue, contends that the trial court violated her constitutional rights when it compelled her to testify against herself. We conclude that the non-indigent Defendant knowingly and voluntarily explicitly waived her right to counsel by her statements and conduct and that she was not compelled to testify against herself. Accordingly, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

Campbell County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/20/21
State of Tennessee v. Michael Ray Perna
M2019-01032-CCA-R3-CD

The Defendant, Michael Ray Perna, pleaded guilty to a Class E felony violation of the Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-39-211(d)(1)(A) Sex Offender Registry Act. At sentencing, the Defendant argued that he was acting as the minor victim’s legal guardian pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section (d)(2)(D) and thus was only eligible for a fine by way of punishment, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-39-211(g)(4). The trial court rejected the Defendant’s argument and imposed a two-year sentence, suspended to probation after ninety days in jail. After a thorough review of the record and applicable law, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

Coffee County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/15/21
State of Tennessee v. Brian Howard
W2020-00207-CCA-R3-CD

Brian Howard, Defendant, was indicted for one count of second degree murder, one count of convicted felon in possession of a firearm, one count of attempted second degree murder, and one count of employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. A co-defendant, Quinton Brown, was also indicted for his role in the offenses and the two were tried together. Defendant asked the trial court to bifurcate the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon count prior to trial. The trial court denied the motion. After a jury trial, Defendant was convicted of the lesser-included offenses of voluntary manslaughter and attempted voluntary manslaughter as well as possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and employing a firearm during the commission of a felony as charged in the indictment. Defendant was sentenced to an effective sentence of 67 years, to be served consecutively to a fifteen-year federal sentence. After the denial of a motion for new trial, Defendant appeals to this Court arguing that the trial court erred by denying the motion to bifurcate the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon charge and that the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions where the proof indicated that Defendant acted in self-defense. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgments of the trial court but remand the matter for correction of the judgment form in Count 4 to reflect that the conviction for employing a firearm during the commission of a felony is a class C felony.

Shelby County Court of Criminal Appeals 01/15/21