Tennessee Supreme Court to Livestream Oral Arguments Nov. 4-5

November 3, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court has six cases set for its November 4–5, 2020 docket. The first five cases will be heard using livestream video conferencing, and the sixth case will be submitted on briefs. The details of the cases are as follows:

  • State of Tennessee v. Michael Rimmer – In this appeal, defendant Michael Rimmer challenges his convictions and death sentence arising from the murder of a Memphis motel clerk, Ricci Ellsworth. Following the grant of a new trial from the defendant’s convictions for first-degree murder, aggravated robbery, and theft, a new jury convicted Mr. Rimmer of first-degree murder, felony murder, and aggravated robbery. The trial court then merged the convictions for first-degree murder and felony murder. The jury sentenced Mr. Rimmer to death for the murder conviction, and the trial court sentenced him to eighteen years for the aggravated robbery conviction to be served concurrently with the death sentence. The defendant appealed and raised numerous issues to the Court of Criminal Appeals, including whether his conviction for felony murder violated double jeopardy principles and whether the trial court erred in admitting certain evidence and testimony at trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the conviction for felony murder did not violate double jeopardy principles because Mr. Rimmer was not acquitted of felony murder in his original trial due to the type of jury instructions given by the trial judge. The court also held that the trial court had not committed reversible error related to any evidentiary issues raised. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Mr. Rimmer renews each claim raised before the Court of Criminal Appeals and focuses his argument on three primary issues that challenge the trial court’s decisions to admit certain witness testimony at trial. The Tennessee Supreme Court has asked the parties to address four main issues at oral argument: (1) the statutorily mandated death penalty review factors; (2) whether the trial court erred in admitting prior bad acts of the defendant into evidence (3) whether the defendant’s conviction for felony murder violated double jeopardy principles; and (4) whether the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress certain DNA evidence after the State failed to preserve the vehicle from which the evidence was taken. Additionally, Amnesty International of Nashville will argue on behalf of Mr. Rimmer as amicus curiae regarding alleged prosecutorial misconduct in the case and the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy.
  • Milan Supply Chain Solutions Inc. f/k/a Milan Express Inc. v. Navistar Inc. et al. – This commercial dispute arose after the plaintiff, Milan Supply Chain Solutions Inc. (“Milan”), purchased more than two hundred trucks that were manufactured and sold by the defendants, Navistar, Inc. (“Navistar”) and Volunteer International, Inc. (“Volunteer”), respectively. In November of 2014, Milan filed a complaint against the defendants, claiming that the trucks were defective and alleging that the defendants made misrepresentations about the trucks and their quality. In an amended complaint, Milan asserted claims for breach of contract, breach of express and implied warranties, fraud, and violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). Milan’s fraud and TCPA claims proceeded to a jury trial. At the close of Milan’s proof, the trial court granted a directed verdict in favor of Volunteer and awarded Volunteer attorney’s fees against Milan. The charges against Navistar went to the jury, and the jury found in favor of Milan and awarded Milan $10,000,000 in compensatory damages, $20,000,000 in punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Navistar appealed and raised eight issues to the Court of Appeals. In response, Milan raised two additional issues. Volunteer raised one issue regarding attorney’s fees. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s award of Volunteer’s attorney’s fees against Milan. However, the court reversed the judgments that were awarded in favor of Milan and against Navistar. The court determined that because Milan’s fraud claims were based on economic loss and “concern[ed] the quality of the trucks,” the fraud claims were barred by the economic loss doctrine under Tennessee law. The court also held that Milan’s claim under the TCPA failed because the trucks in question did not qualify as “goods” under the statute. Additionally, the court held that Milan waived any issues regarding its claims of breach of express warranty. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Milan urges the Court to adopt a broad fraud exception to the economic loss doctrine and to find that its claims for express breach of warranty were not waived. Milan also argues, among other things, that Navistar waived its challenge to the TCPA claim and associated award of attorney’s fees. Navistar argues that the Court of Appeals’ decision should be affirmed and raises additional issues regarding evidence at trial and the monetary verdict. Volunteer argues that its award of attorney’s fees against Milan should be affirmed and that it also should be awarded attorney’s fees for costs of appeal.
  • Ritchie Phillips et al. v. Mark Hatfield – In this property dispute, Ritchie and Roma Phillips brought a declaratory judgment action against a neighboring land owner, Mark Hatfield, seeking to declare that Mr. Hatfield’s property was subject to a residential-use restriction and could not be used for commercial purposes. In 1953, the property now belonging to the Phillips and Mr. Hatfield was originally part of a platted neighborhood development. The development was sold in lots, and the property now belonging to Mr. Hatfield was sold in 1955. Thereafter, the original owners recorded a protective covenant restricting the entire development to residential use for a period of twenty years. The original owners reacquired portions of the property, and it was sold numerous times before Mr. Hatfield acquired it in 2016. Mr. Hatfield purchased the property with the intent to construct a retail establishment thereon. Following a hearing and subsequent bench trial, the trial court determined that the protective covenant restricting the property to residential use applied to Mr. Hatfield’s property and that Mr. Hatfield had constructive notice of the covenant in his deed and through public records. The trial court declared that Mr. Hatfield’s property was subject to an implied negative reciprocal easement and, as a result, issued a permanent injunction halting Mr. Hatfield’s construction of the retail establishment. Mr. Hatfield appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The court reasoned that the elements to prove an implied reciprocal easement were established. The court also determined that, despite evidence that the property was in fact re-zoned at one point to commercial use, and that a previous owner was issued a business license for the property, there was no evidence that the property in question was actually ever used for any business purpose or that the original neighborhood development plan had been abandoned. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Mr. Hatfield argues that the lower courts misapplied the doctrine of negative reciprocal easements and incorrectly charged him with notice of the protective covenant at the time of purchase. Mr. Hatfield also renews his argument that the general plan for residential use was abandoned, making the covenant inapplicable to his property.
  • Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. et al. v. City of Memphis et al.– The appellants, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., EPPF, LLC, and Guesthouse at Graceland, LLC (collectively referred to as “EPE”), sought approval in 2014 for the Graceland Economic Plan in which it proposed to construct a hotel, convention center, theater, concert venue, and museum facility in Memphis/Shelby County. The plan was first approved by the Economic Growth Development Engine (“EDGE”) and then approved by Memphis City Council, the County Commission, and the State of Tennessee, and the plan was granted certain tax incentive funding. In 2017, EPE sought to supplement its previous proposal to include a 6,200-seat arena and to increase its tax incentive funding. Approval of the supplemental plan stalled. Thereafter, EPE filed a complaint against the appellees, City of Memphis (“City”), Shelby County, Tennessee (“County”), and Hoops, LP, the predecessor of Memphis Basketball, LLC (“Memphis Basketball”), for a declaratory judgment and claiming intentional interference with business relations. EPE alleged that Memphis Basketball caused the delay of their plan because it allegedly threatened to sue the City and County on the basis that the supplemental plan would violate a previous agreement related to FedEx Forum (the “Arena Use Agreement”). The trial court dismissed the complaint because it determined that EPE had not exhausted its administrative remedies and that it lacked standing to bring the suit. EDGE and the County Commission then separately voted to approve EPE’s supplemental plan contingent upon Memphis Basketball entering into a binding agreement that approval of the supplemental plan did not violate the Arena Use Agreement. Months later, EPE filed a second complaint against the appellees seeking only a declaratory judgment that would satisfy the contingency stated by EDGE and the County Commission. The trial court, again, dismissed the complaint on the basis that EPE did not have standing to bring the complaint because it was not a party or beneficiary to the Arena Use Agreement. EPE appealed the dismissal and a majority of the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal but on the grounds that the second complaint was barred due to res judicata. The majority did not reach the issue of standing. The dissenting opinion stated that res judicata did not apply and that standing should be the dispositive issue. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, EPE argues, among other things, that res judicata does not bar its second claim because a failure to exhaust administrative remedies is not an adjudication on the merits and that it has third-party standing to seek interpretation of the Arena Use Agreement. EPE also argues that the County conferred EPE’s standing in the suit by authorizing it to pursue the declaration from the appellees by way of the contingency. The appellees argue that res judicata bars the second complaint or that, in the alternative, EPE lacks standing to bring the action.
  • In re Mattie L. –In this parental termination case, the biological mother (“Mother”) and her husband (“Stepfather”) filed a petition to terminate the biological father’s (“Father”) parental rights and for Stepfather to legally adopt Mother and Father’s biological child. The trial court held a five-day bench trial at which Father’s attorney was present but Father was not in the courtroom because he was incarcerated. The trial court applied the missing witness rule when Father failed to testify, which permitted the court to draw an adverse inference that Father’s testimony would have been unfavorable to him. The trial court also concluded that Father had provided false statements in various court documents and that the doctrine of unclean hands prohibited him from receiving any relief from the trial court. Ultimately, the trial court terminated Father’s rights on the basis of abandonment by willful failure to visit and abandonment by willful failure to support. Father appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed. The court determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove the grounds for termination and it was a violation of Father’s due process rights to apply the missing witness rule and the doctrine of unclean hands in the context of this case. The court reasoned that the missing witness rule did not apply because this was a bench trial and not a jury trial. Additionally, while the court questioned the applicability of the doctrine of unclean hands to parental termination proceedings in general, it ultimately concluded that, to the extent that the doctrine was applicable, it would not apply to Father because he was the respondent in the case. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Mother and Stepfather ask the Court to address an apparent split in authority among the intermediate appellate courts regarding whether the missing witness rule applies solely in the context of jury trials. Additionally, Mother and Stepfather argue that the doctrine of unclean hands was applicable because Father requested relief through attorney’s fees and the trial court’s application of the doctrine did not prevent Father from presenting evidence or witnesses at trial through his attorney. Mother and Stepfather also argue that there was sufficient evidence to support terminating Father’s parental rights on the basis of abandonment. In response, Father argues that the missing witness rule and the doctrine of unclean hands should not apply to parental termination proceedings at all, regardless of the type of trial. Further, Father contends that even if the missing witness rule applies, the trial court erred in its application. Additionally, Father argues that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding that he willfully failed to support and to visit the child.
  • State of Tennessee v. Terrell Lamont Reid– This case involves Tennessee’s criminal gang enhancement statute, which was found to be unconstitutional by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in 2016. The defendant, Terrell Reid, pled guilty in 2015 to drug and firearm charges. His firearm conviction was enhanced from a class C to class B felony pursuant to the enhancement statute. In 2016, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that the enhancement statute was unconstitutional, and the Tennessee Supreme Court recognized that holding in 2018. See State v. Bonds, 502 S.W.3d 118, 158–60 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2016); State v. Minor, 546 S.W.3d 59, 64 (Tenn. 2018). Mr. Reid did not file a post-conviction petition, but, in 2019, he filed a motion to correct his illegal sentence pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.1. The trial court determined that the sentence was not illegal at the time it was rendered and denied the motion. Mr. Reid appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. The court concluded that “the application of an unconstitutional law renders a sentence void, and therefore, illegal.” Thus, the court reasoned, Mr. Reid was entitled to relief under Rule 36.1 because his sentence was enhanced under a statute that was unconstitutional when enacted. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the State argues that under Tennessee law Mr. Reid’s sentence was voidable, not void. Therefore, post-conviction procedures rather than a motion under Rule 36.1 would have been the correct procedural avenue for Mr. Reid’s requested relief. Further, the State argues that the appellate court misapplied the void ab initio doctrine to the proceedings and facts of this case. Mr. Reid argues that the sentence was illegal and void ab initio and that his Rule 36.1 motion is the proper procedural avenue to correct his illegal sentence.

Media members planning to attend oral arguments virtually should review Supreme Court Rule 30 and file any required request.