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Teel v. Darnell

February 20, 2008

RONALD TEEL; LEONE TEEL; AND JOHN THOMAS LAYTON PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RILEY DARNELL, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SECRETARY OF STATE OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE AND IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY; BROOK THOMPSON, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS COORDINATOR OF ELECTIONS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF STATE OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE AND IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY; THE BRADLEY COUNTY ELECTIONS COMMISSION; FRAN GREEN, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE BRADLEY COUNTY ELECTIONS COMMISSION AND IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY; AND KALIN MORRIS, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS THE ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR OF ELECTIONS OF THE BRADLEY COUNTY ELECTIONS COMMISSION AND IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Curtis L. Collier

MEMORANDUM

In this case the Court is required to consider the constitutionality of certain conditions or qualifications Tennessee places on those desiring to vote in Tennessee. Although the Court agrees that the right to vote is among the most cherished rights of the American people, the Court does not see any constitutional defect with regard to the qualifications challenged in this lawsuit. Accordingly, the Court will GRANT the Motion to Dismiss (Court File No. 19) filed by defendants Riley Darnell, the Secretary of State of Tennessee; Brook Thompson, the Coordinator of Elections for the Department of Secretary of State of Tennessee; the Bradley County Elections Commission ("BEC"); Fran Green, the Administrator of the BEC; and Kalin Morris, the Assistant Administrator of Elections of the BEC*fn1 ("Defendants").

I. RELEVANT FACTS

According to their complaint, Plaintiffs Ronald Teel, Leone Teel, and John T. Layton ("Plaintiffs") are American citizens who do not own any interest in real property in any state and live full-time in their recreational vehicles. In 1999, Layton rented out his home in Maryland and "intended to, and did in fact, while physically present in Bradley County, Tennessee, establish[] Cleveland, Tennessee as his new residence and domicile." (Court File No. 1, ¶ 17).*fn2 The Teels, who are husband and wife, abandoned their New Mexico residence and "intended to establish, and did establish, Cleveland, Tennessee as their new residence and domicile, with the intent to return there when not traveling." (Id., ¶ 14).

Tennessee is the only state Plaintiffs "have established residency or intend to establish residency in." (Id., ¶ 18). Plaintiffs have the "definite intention" to return to Cleveland, Tennessee (id.). Because Plaintiffs lack any interest or ownership in real property, they use as their addresses commercial mailboxes in Cleveland, Tennessee. These mailboxes that Plaintiffs rent provide mail receipt and forwarding services, which Plaintiffs use to have their mail sent to various locations throughout the country. Plaintiffs have used these addresses when performing various functions, such as obtaining Tennessee driver's licenses, obtaining insurance, registering vehicles, paying taxes, and being counted by the United States Census.

Layton registered to vote in Bradley County, Tennessee, in 1999, and voted in at least two federal elections since then. The Teels registered to vote in person at the BEC in 2003, where they informed the staff "of the nature of their address, the fact that they live full-time in an RV, and their frequent travel." (Id., ¶ 24). The Teels voted in the 2004 federal elections.

The BEC notified Plaintiffs on February 15, 2006 that their voter registration records were being purged because their use of a commercial property for voter registration violates Tenn. Code. Ann. § 2-2-122(a)(1) & (6). The BEC notification advised Plaintiffs they had 30 days to submit any questions about the purge to the BEC.

Shortly thereafter, Layton contacted the BEC to dispute his removal. The complaint does not state what, if anything, occurred as a result, other than that Layton was not able to vote.

On April 1, 2006, the Teels sent a letter objecting to the purge, and asking for assistance preserving their right to vote. The BEC responded to that letter on June 6, 2006, by telling the Teels they were not Tennessee residents because they receive mail through a commercial address and advising them to vote in the last jurisdiction where they lived.

On July 12, 2006, the Teels responded by informing BEC they were previously registered to vote in Bradley County, the purge was unauthorized by law, the amended code provisions were only intended to address the residency of candidates for public office, and the purge should be rescinded based on the same considerations allowing homeless people to vote. The BEC contacted Defendant Thompson, who stated the amended code provisions were not limited to candidates, the Teels had never established residency, and their removal from the voter registration rolls was proper. Relying on Thompson's information, the BEC sent a letter to the Teels on October 3, 2006 informing them they did not qualify as residents under the law. The Teels contacted Defendant Darnell on October 27, 2006, asking him to overturn the BEC's decision and restore their voter registration status. Over six months later, he responded, denying their request.

Plaintiffs also contacted various government officials in an attempt to have their names restored to the voting rolls in Bradley County. They have not been able to vote in Tennessee in any election since February 15, 2006.

Plaintiffs apparently have not taken any steps to establish their residencies in Tennessee in accord with the guidance provided by Tennessee officials.

Plaintiffs filed their complaint on November 6, 2007. They seek damages from the BEC under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and declaratory and injunctive relief against all defendants under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 & 2202. They seek a declaratory judgment invalidating Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 2-2-122(a)(1) and (6), as well as injunctive relief to prohibit those provisions from being enforced and to be reinstated as registered voters in Bradley County.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing a Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Bloch v. Ribar, 156 F.3d 673, 677 (6th Cir. 1998), accept the complaint's factual allegations as true, Broyde v. Gotham Tower, Inc., 13 F.3d 994, 996 (6th Cir. 1994), and determine whether plaintiff has pleaded "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (May 21, 2007). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the question is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence to support his claims. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511 (2002). At the same time, bare assertions of legal conclusions are insufficient, and the "complaint must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory." Scheid v. Fanny Farmer Candy Shops, Inc., 859 F.2d 434, 436 (6th Cir. 1988). Unsupported allegations and legal conclusions "masquerading as factual conclusions" are not sufficient. Mezibov v. Allen, 411 F.3d 712, 716 (6th Cir. 2005).

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs assert multiple claims under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution*fn3 and under the Tennessee Constitution*fn4 alleging their right to vote has been infringed by Defendants and that Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-22-122(a)(1) and (6) is unconstitutional.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-22-122(a)(1) and (6) states: The determination of whether a person is a resident or where the person resides or has residence for purposes of the election code shall be made in the light of the following principles:

(1) The residence of a person is that place in which the person's habitation is fixed, and to which, whenever the person is absent, the person has a definite intention to return; provided, that a person may not register to vote using a business location as the registration address when the sole basis for the ...


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