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Union County Education Association v. Union County Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

August 28, 2014


Session Date May 14, 2014

Appeal from the Chancery Court for Union County No. 6368 Andrew R. Tillman, Chancellor

Richard L. Colbert and Courtney L. Wilbert, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Union County Education Association.

Mary Ann Stackhouse and Janet Strevel Hayes, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Union County Board of Education.

Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which D. Michael Swiney and John W. McClarty, JJ., joined.




In April of 2012, the schoolteacher, [1] who was working in the Union County school system, was summoned to a meeting with administrative officials for the purpose of addressing and investigating allegations of misconduct by the teacher that had been made by students. The teacher, a member of the Association, requested that he be accompanied to the meeting by a representative of the Association. Susan Oaks, a supervisor of instruction with Union County schools, conducted the investigation. When Ms. Oaks arrived for the meeting, two others were present with the teacher – a fellow teacher from the same school, and a representative from the Association. Ms. Oaks, acting on the direction of the Union County director of schools, told the teacher that the others would not be allowed to be present with him during the meeting. He was alone with Ms. Oaks and the acting principal of the school for the first investigatory interview. Ms. Oaks described the allegations that had been made against the teacher, reading certain written statements that had been provided by students, and asked the teacher to provide a written statement in response. They scheduled a second meeting where Ms. Oaks would pick up the teacher's response and provide him with typed copies of the students' statements with their names redacted. When Ms. Oaks arrived for the second meeting, the same two individuals were with the teacher. He again asked that they be allowed to be present at the meeting. Ms. Oaks again declined his request.

Ms. Oaks passed the information she gathered from the investigation to the director of schools, who made the decision regarding what to do about the misconduct allegations. Ultimately, the teacher did not receive any discipline or other adverse action resulting from the investigation.

The Association filed this action on July 12, 2012, alleging that the Board violated the Collaborative Conferencing Act by refusing the teacher's requests to be accompanied by an Association representative. The trial court granted summary judgment to the Board on the sole ground that the Association lacked standing. The Association timely filed a notice of appeal.


The issue is whether the trial court correctly granted summary judgment to the board based upon the court's determination that the Association had no injury in fact and therefore lacked standing to proceed with this lawsuit. This issue requires us to address these interrelated questions: (1) whether Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-603 provides a professional employee the right to have a representative of his/her organization present, upon the employee's request, at an investigative interview where the employee reasonably believes the investigation may result in disciplinary action against him or her; and (2) whether the Association has met the requirements to establish its "organizational" or "associational" standing to bring this action on behalf of its members. These are questions of law that we review de novo. Pickard v. Tenn. Water Quality Control Bd., 424 S.W.3d 511, 518 (Tenn. 2013) ("Interpretations of statutes involve questions of law which the appellate courts review de novo without a presumption of correctness"); Dossett v. City of Kingsport, 258 S.W.3d 139, 143 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007) ("A trial court's determination of whether a party has standing to pursue a cause of action is a conclusion of law."). This appeal presents no disputed issues of material fact.


The teacher is not a party to this action. The Board argues that any rights provided to professional employees under the Collaborative Conferencing Act are given to individuals only, not teacher associations such as the Association. As a consequence, the Board asserts that the trial court correctly determined that the Association did not have standing to file this lawsuit. The Association argues that the Board clearly violated the Collaborative Conferencing Act, which specifically provides for the remedy the Association seeks – (1) a judgment that the Board acted unlawfully in refusing the teacher's requests for assistance in the interview, and (2) an order that the Board cease and desist from such unlawful acts. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-606(c). The Association further contends that it has standing to bring this action on behalf of its members under the doctrine of organizational standing. This doctrine, as will be discussed further below, recognizes that "[n]otwithstanding the absence of injury to itself, an organization may have standing solely as the representative of its members." Citizens for Collierville, Inc. v. Town of Collierville, 977 S.W.2d 321, 323 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998).

The doctrine of standing – " 'a judge-made doctrine which has no per se recognition in the rules, ' is essential for a resolution on the merits of a legal controversy." Fannon v. City of LaFollette, 329 S.W.3d 418, 424 (Tenn. 2010) (quoting Knierim v. Leatherwood, 542 S.W.2d 806, 808 (Tenn. 1976)). The Supreme Court has recently reiterated the general principles governing a standing analysis as follows:

Courts use the doctrine of standing to determine whether a litigant is entitled to pursue judicial relief as to a particular issue or cause of action. ACLU of Tenn. v. Darnell, 195 S.W.3d 612, 619 (Tenn. 2006); Knierim v. Leatherwood, 542 S.W.2d 806, 808 (Tenn. 1976). The proper focus of a determination of standing is a party's right to bring a cause of action, and the likelihood of success on the merits does not factor into such an inquiry. Darnell, 195 S.W.3d at 620; Petty v. Daimler/Chrysler Corp., 91 S.W.3d 765, 767-68 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002). Every standing inquiry requires a "careful judicial examination of a complaint's allegations to ascertain whether the particular plaintiff is entitled to an adjudication of the particular claims asserted." Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 752, 104 S.Ct. 3315, 82 L.Ed.2d 556 (1984).
Our jurisprudence recognizes two categories of standing that govern who may bring a civil cause of action: non-constitutional standing and constitutional standing. Non-constitutional
standing focuses on considerations of judicial restraint, such as whether a complaint raises generalized questions more properly addressed by another branch of the government, and questions of statutory interpretation, such as whether a statute designates who may bring a cause of action or creates a limited zone of interests. Constitutional standing, the issue in this case, is one of the "irreducible . . . minimum" requirements that a party must meet in order to present a justiciable controversy.
To establish constitutional standing, a plaintiff must satisfy "three 'indispensable' elements." Darnell, 195 S.W.3d at 620 (quoting Petty, 91 S.W.3d at 767). First, a party must show an injury that is "distinct and palpable"; injuries that are conjectural, hypothetical, or predicated upon an interest that a litigant shares in common with the general citizenry are insufficient in this regard. Id. Second, a party must demonstrate a causal connection between the alleged injury and the challenged conduct. Id. (citing Mayhew v. Wilder, 46 S.W.3d 760, 767 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001)). While the causation element is not onerous, it does require a showing that the injury to a plaintiff is "fairly traceable" to the conduct of the adverse party. Id. (quoting DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 342, 126 S.Ct. 1854, 164 L.Ed.2d 589 (2006)). The third and final element is that the injury must be capable of being redressed by a favorable decision of the court.

City of Memphis v. Hargett, 414 S.W.3d 88, 97-98 (Tenn. 2013) (footnote and some internal citations omitted).

Regarding the organizational standing doctrine, this Court has recognized that,

[w]hen an individual brings an action, he must show that he has a personal stake in the outcome that would be greater than the general public. An organization, on the other hand, generally has standing to bring suit on behalf of its members for prospective relief, such as a declaratory judgment action, even if it has not suffered injury, if it alleges sufficient facts to establish a case or controversy had the members themselves brought suit.

Rains v. Knox Cnty. Bd. of Commissioners, No. 711, 1987 WL 18065 at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. W.S., filed Oct. 9, 1987). In ACLU of Tenn. v. Darnell, the Supreme Court recognized the following test for organizational standing, adopted by this Court in Curve Elementary Sch. Parent & Teacher's Org. v. Lauderdale Cnty. Sch. Bd., 608 S.W.2d 855, 858 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1980) and initially set forth by the ...

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