The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on September 4 and September 5, 2019. The details of the cases are as follows:
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
- Jodi McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC– This case comes to the Court by way of three certified questions from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The underlying case is a personal-injury action in which a jury awarded Ms. McClay $444,500 for future medical expenses and $930,000 for noneconomic damages. The District Court entered judgment in accordance with the verdict, and Airport Management Services, LLC (“AMS”) moved to apply Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102, Tennessee’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages. The Tennessee Supreme Court has not yet determined the constitutionality of a statutory cap on noneconomic damages. Accordingly, pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 23, the District Court certified three questions of state law to this Court, which this Court accepted: (1) Does the noneconomic damages cap in civil cases imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 violate a plaintiff’s right to a trial by jury, as guaranteed in Article I, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution? (2) Does the noneconomic damages cap in civil cases imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 violate Tennessee’s constitutional doctrine of separation of powers between the legislative branch and the judicial branch? (3) Does the noneconomic damages cap in civil cases imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 violate the Tennessee Constitution by discrimination disproportionately against women?
- State of Tennessee v. Abbie Leann Welch– This case involves the interpretation of Tennessee’s burglary statute. Following a bench trial, the defendant was found guilty of burglary and misdemeanor theft after she entered into a Walmart and took merchandise without paying. At the time of the incident, the defendant was subject to a “no trespass notification” from Walmart. A split panel of the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the defendant’s conviction and held that the plain language of Tennessee’s burglary statute is “clear that when a person enters any building that is not a habitation, including one otherwise open to the public, without the effective consent of the owner and commits or attempts to commit a felony, theft, or assault therein, they may be prosecuted” under the statute. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the defendant argues that her burglary conviction violated her right to due process and that her case is an arbitrary exercise of prosecutorial discretion. The defendant asserts that her “no trespass order” has no effect on Walmart’s premises as a place open to the public, and thus the burglary statute does not apply. Arguing on behalf of the defendant as amici curiae, Knox County Public Defender and Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers support the defendant’s argument that Tennessee’s burglary statute is not meant to expand the definition of burglary or “building” to include premises open to the public. In addition, the amici parties argue that the legislature did not intend for the burglary statute to cover repeat shoplifters because such action would result in two statutes criminalizing “the same conduct and applying different penalties.” The State argues that the defendant’s conviction under the burglary statute did not violate her right to due process. Furthermore, the State argues that, while it is unnecessary to look at the legislative history because the statute is unambiguous, there is no indication from the legislature that the burglary statute is inapplicable to the circumstances of this case.
- In re: Rader Bonding Company– In this case, Rader Bonding Company (“Rader”) entered into a bonding agreement for a $7,500 bond when a defendant was charged with DUI second offense. The grand jury returned an indictment for DUI fourth offense rather than DUI second offense, which is a Class E felony as opposed to a Class A misdemeanor. When the defendant failed to appear at a later court date, the trial court entered a conditional forfeiture judgment of the bond. Rader requested relief of surety from the original $7,500 bond, and the trial court denied the request. Rader appealed the denial to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the court reversed the trial court’s decision. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the change from the original charge, DUI second offense, to the post-indictment charge, DUI fourth offense, unilaterally amended the original bond agreement by increasing Rader’s risk as a surety. The court further held that, due to the unilateral amendment, Rader no longer could be obligated for the $7,500 bond as it relates to the defendant’s first charge of DUI second offense. On appeal, the State argues that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the relief and that Rader remains obligated under the original agreement. Despite the potential increase in punishment, the State asserts that Rader was on notice and assumed the risk that the original charges might be increased or that additional charges might be added based on the arrest warrant affidavits. Additionally, the State argues that Tennessee statute only allows the court to relieve a surety in enumerated or extreme circumstances, none of which are applicable in this case. Rader argues that, under principles of contract law, its obligation under the original bonding agreement cannot extend beyond that which it originally agreed. Additionally, Rader asserts that it was not on notice that the defendant was eligible for enhanced punishment or additional charges based on the arrest warrant affidavits.
Thursday, September 5, 2019
- Ken Smith Auto Parts v. Michael F. Thomas–The plaintiff, Ken Smith Auto Parts (“Auto Parts”), sued the defendant, Michael Thomas, in Hamilton County General Session Court over a debt owed on automobile parts. Auto Parts prevailed in general sessions court, and Mr. Thomas appealed to the circuit court. Mr. Thomas, however, failed to appear. Accordingly, the circuit court dismissed the appeal and remanded the case back to the general sessions court for execution of the original judgment. Mr. Thomas filed with the circuit court a motion to set aside or vacate the order dismissing the appeal, which the court granted. Both parties subsequently filed motions for summary judgment. Auto Parts argued that the circuit court lost jurisdiction when it entered the order dismissing Mr. Thomas’s appeal and remanding the case to general session court. The circuit court agreed with Auto Parts and dismissed all pending motions before the court. Mr. Thomas appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and held that the circuit court retained jurisdiction to consider Mr. Thomas’s post-trial motion. The Supreme Court granted Auto Parts’ application and directed the parties to address the following three issues: (1) whether the circuit court may dismiss an appeal from the general sessions court on the basis of an appealing defendant’s failure to appear or to prosecute the appeal in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 27-5-106(a) and 27-5-107; or alternatively, whether the circuit court must grant the plaintiff a default judgment, effectively entering that judgment as the circuit’s own; (2) whether after dismissing an appeal from the general sessions court and remanding to that court on the basis of the appealing defendant’s failure to appear or to prosecute the appeal, the circuit court retains jurisdiction to consider the appealing defendant’s motion to set aside or alter or amend the judgment of dismissal and remand; and (3) whether after dismissing an appeal from the general sessions court and remanding to that court on the basis of the appealing defendant’s failure to appear or to prosecute the appeal, the circuit court has the discretion under Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 27-5-106(a) and 27-5-107 to grant the appealing defendant’s motion to set aside or alter or amend the judgment of dismissal.
- State of Tennessee v. Reuben Eugene Mitchell– In this case, the defendant was convicted by a jury of arson and filing a false insurance claim. On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction for arson but reversed the conviction for insurance fraud. A split panel of the intermediate appellate court held that there was insufficient evidence to prove defendant “filed” a false claim, as defined by the insurance fraud statute and according to his insurance policy. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the State argues that the insurance fraud statute should not be strictly construed according to the technical terms of the insurance policy. The defendant argues that the statute requires evidence of some type of filing or documentation as defined by the contract or policy for the State to meet its burden of proof.
- Board of Professional Responsibility v. James S. MacDonald– In this attorney-discipline matter, Mr. MacDonald challenges the trial court’s determination of violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct and imposition of a public censure. Mr. MacDonald, as the attorney representing a client in a civil suit, added the conformed signature of the opposing party to a draft letter that Mr. MacDonald believed was signed and sent by the opposing party. The hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility determined that the Board failed to establish a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. On appeal by the Board, the trial court reversed the holding of the hearing panel, determining multiple violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct and imposing a sanction of public censure. Mr. MacDonald, on appeal to the Supreme Court, argues that the trial court erred in its determination of ethical violations and asserts that the sanction imposed is unduly harsh.
- In re: Hal Wilkes Wilkins– The Tennessee Supreme Court suspended Mr. Wilkins from the practice of law for one year on June 6, 2018. As part of the suspension, the Court ordered Mr. Wilkins to close his IOLTA account within 30 days of entry of the Order of Enforcement or be subject to civil contempt proceedings. On May 28, 2019, the Board of Professional Responsibility filed a petition for civil contempt with the Supreme Court, alleging that as of March 6, 2019, Mr. Wilkins’s IOLTA account had not been closed. The Supreme Court thereafter ordered Mr. Wilkins to respond to the petition within ten days. Mr. Wilkins did not respond. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has ordered Mr. Wilkins to appear on September 5, 2019, to provide justification for his failure to abide by the Court’s Order of Enforcement.
Media members planning to attend oral arguments should review Supreme Court Rule 30and file any required request.