Session July 9, 2014
Appeal from the Circuit Court for Anderson County No. B2LA0244 Hon. Donald Ray Elledge, Judge
Thomas M. Leveille, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Mark Coffey.
Benjamin K. Lauderback and Brian R. Bibb, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, City of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
John W. McClarty, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., and D. Michael Swiney, J., joined.
JOHN W. McCLARTY, JUDGE
The plaintiff, Mark Coffey, was a Sergeant with the police department ("ORPD") serving the City of Oak Ridge ("City") until he terminated his employment on October 3, 2011. Less than two months prior to Mr. Coffey's resignation, he was tasked with conducting a live training session that called for blank ammunition to simulate the noise and realism of an actual shooter situation. Both police officers and civilians took part in the simulation. The blank ammunition was requested from ORPD's armorer, Lieutenant Brad Jenkins ("Lt. Jenkins"). According to Lt. Jenkins, he obtained the ammunition from a box that was marked "blanks, " but the rounds were actually live. Before the training session ensued, Mr. Coffey discovered that the ammunition was live and made sure that it was not used. Two days later, Mr. Coffey filed a written complaint regarding Lt. Jenkins's issuance of live ammunition for the simulation, which could have had disastrous results.
Mr. Coffey alleges that he terminated his employment with ORPD because he felt certain members were targeting him and trying to force him to resign in response to the complaint he filed against Lt. Jenkins. Specifically, he contends that he was demoted and assigned to a position working under the supervision of Lt. Jenkins, and that ORPD launched an investigation - headed by Lt. Jenkins - regarding a shotgun allegedly damaged by Mr. Coffey.
This action was filed on August 20, 2012, asserting violations of the Tennessee Public Protection Act ("TPPA"), Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-1-304, and common law retaliatory discharge. Mr. Coffey thereafter conceded that City was absolutely immune from a claim of common law retaliatory discharge. After City filed a motion for summary judgment, oral argument was held.
The proof presented in the depositions was as follows: Mr. Coffey admitted that he was currently and at the time of his complaint unaware of whether Lt. Jenkins violated any law when he mistakenly distributed the live ammunition. He had informed ORPD of the fact that, over the years, he and Lt. Jenkins had experienced a tense relationship and that having him as a supervisor would "create a hostile work environment." He acknowledged, however, that Lt. Jenkins treated him no differently than any other officer while he was working with him. Chief James Akagi ("Chief Akagi") related that he became concerned with Mr. Coffey's leadership skills upon his assumption of the position as City's police chief. He indicated that contacts outside ORPD depicted Mr. Coffey as "an ineffective leader" who "did not lead the group well, . . . didn't work well with outside entities, and wasn't targeting the right level of violator to have any positive impact in his area of responsibility." The entire drug unit formerly headed by Mr. Coffey was disbanded and reorganized. Chief Akagi further noted that Mr. Coffey, along with other officers, was put on patrol out of necessity due to understaffing at ORPD: "My intention was to get everybody that I could into patrol. . . . We were severely understaffed in patrol. Patrol's the backbone of public safety for a municipal law enforcement agency. We simply did not have the people to patrol effectively." He stated that Lt. Jenkins was assigned to supervise Mr. Coffey to help him re-acclimate to patrol, which he had not been on in a number of years, and to "coach, mentor and train him" to "be a better supervisor."
Following the argument and review of the depositions, the trial court found that there were no genuine issues of material facts and that Mr. Coffey did not establish the elements for a claim of retaliatory discharge under TPPA. Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of City. Mr. Coffey thereafter filed this timely appeal.
We consolidate and restate the issues raised on appeal by Mr. Coffey as follows:
A. Whether the trial court erred in finding that Mr. Coffey did not establish a claim for retaliatory discharge under TPPA.
1: Whether the trial court erred in finding that Mr. Coffey did not report an instance of illegal activity by filing his complaint against Lt. Jenkins.
2: Whether the trial court erred in determining that constructive discharge claims are not actionable under TPPA, and that Mr. Coffey did not establish a constructive discharge claim.
3. Whether the trial court erred in finding that the burden did not shift to City to provide a legitimate ...