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Womack v. Corrections Corp. of America

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

September 22, 2014

SANDY EUGENE WOMACK ET AL.
v.
CORRECTIONS CORPORATION OF AMERICA D/B/A WHITEVILLE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

Session February 6, 2014,

Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed and Remanded. Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals, Circuit Court for Davidson County. No. 11C3600. Thomas W. Brothers, Judge.

Allen Barnes, Hermitage, Tennessee, for the appellants, Sandy Eugene Womack and Stacey Womack.

James I. Pentecost and Brittani C. Kendrick, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellee, Corrections Corporation of America.

WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which GARY R. WADE, C.J., JANICE M. HOLDER, CORNELIA A. CLARK, and SHARON G. LEE, JJ., joined.

OPINION

Page 363

WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., JUSTICE

This appeal involves whether the statute localizing venue for lawsuits filed by indigent inmates applies to lawsuits based on causes of action that accrue when an inmate is housed in a facility operated by a private corporation. An inmate housed at a correctional facility operated by a private entity filed suit in the Circuit Court for Davidson County, alleging that the corporation had failed to address his medical needs. The corporation moved to dismiss the suit or to transfer it to Hardeman County where the facility is located in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 (2014).

Page 364

The Davidson County court granted the motion and transferred the case to Hardeman County but also gave the inmate permission to pursue an interlocutory appeal. The Court of Appeals granted the interlocutory appeal and affirmed the trial court. Womack v. Corrections Corp. of Am., No. M2012-00871-COA-R10-CV, 2012 WL 6675094 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 20, 2012). We granted the inmate's application for permission to appeal. We have determined that Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 does not apply to this inmate's lawsuit because his cause of action did not accrue while he was housed in a facility operated by the Tennessee Department of Correction within the meaning of that statute. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

I.

Sandy Eugene Womack was convicted in 1989 of armed robbery and simple robbery and was sentenced to a lengthy term of confinement with the Tennessee Department of Correction (" TDOC" ).[1] In February 2010, Mr. Womack was housed 1 at the Whiteville Correctional Facility in Hardeman County. The facility is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (" CCA" ), a private entity, under a contract with the State of Tennessee.

According to Mr. Womack, he entered the Whiteville facility with a cut on his right ankle. He asserts that he did not receive appropriate treatment for this cut and, as a result, his right leg was amputated below the knee on September 28, 2010. On September 9, 2011, Mr. Womack and his spouse[2] filed a complaint against CCA in the Circuit Court for Davidson County.[3] At the time he filed suit, Mr. Womack was housed at the Deberry Special Needs Facility, a correctional facility in Davidson County operated by the TDOC. He alleged in his complaint that Davidson County was CCA's principal place of business and that " numerous negligent acts, omissions, and/or intentional acts by CCA, its employees, and its agents result[ed] in the amputation of [his] leg."

On January 3, 2012, CCA filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, or in the alternative to transfer the case to Hardeman County. CCA argued that under Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 (2014), the proper venue for Mr. Womack's lawsuit was Hardeman County rather than Davidson County. CCA also insisted that Tennessee law had established that Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 " effectively localized actions brought by prisoners."

Mr. Womack filed a response in opposition to CCA's motion. He argued that Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 was inapplicable because the Whiteville Correctional Facility was operated by CCA rather than by TDOC. He also insisted that venue was proper in Davidson County pursuant to the statutory provisions governing transitory actions. See Tenn. Code Ann. § § 20-4-101, -104 (Supp. 2014). Following a hearing on March 2, 2012, the trial court, citing Hayes v. State, 341 S.W.3d 293, 296 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2009), decided that Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 was controlling and that,

Page 365

as a more specific statute applicable to in forma pauperis lawsuits filed by state prisoners, it controlled over the more general statutes governing transitory causes of action.[4]

In his Tenn. R. Civ. P. 59 motion, Mr. Womack argued that Hayes v. State and the cases on which it relied[5] were distinguishable because they involved inmates housed in facilities operated by TDOC, rather than a facility owned and operated by a private corporation. CCA responded by pointing out that other courts had applied Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 in cases involving inmates housed in facilities operated by private entities.[6] Mr. Womack responded by pointing out that the Court of Appeals had previously noted in passing that " it is arguable that section 41-21-803 would not apply to a privately-managed correctional facility." Clark v. South Cent. Corr. Facility, No. M2006-00124-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 2093693, at *3 n.8 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 17, 2007) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed); see also Johnson v. Corrections Corp. of Am., No. M2004-01301-COAR3-CV, 2006 WL 236899, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 31, 2006), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Aug. 21, 2006).

The parties returned to the trial court on March 30, 2012. The trial court once again found Hayes v. State to be controlling and ordered that the case be transferred to Hardeman County. However, in light of the dicta in Clark v. South Central Correctional Facility and Johnson v. Corrections Corp. of America, the trial court granted Mr. Womack permission to seek an interlocutory appeal in order to develop a uniform body of law.[7] See Tenn. R. App. P. 9(a).

The Court of Appeals granted Mr. Womack's interlocutory appeal.[8] Upon appeal, the court acknowledged prior language that " [i]t is certainly arguable that the legislature did not intend that the venue requirements in Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803 apply to actions brought against a private corrections corporation." Johnson v. Corrections Corp. of Am., 2006 WL 236899, at *2; see also Clark v. South Cent. Corr. Facility, 2007 WL 2093693, at *3 n.8. However, like the trial court, the intermediate appellate court found Hayes v. State to be controlling. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the ruling below, stating that " [s]ince '[Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-803] effectively localized actions brought by prisoners,' we

Page 366

must conclude that the proper venue in this matter lies in Hardeman County, where the CCA-operated facility is located." Womack v. Corrections Corp. of Am., 2012 WL 6675094, at *3 (citations omitted). We granted Mr. Womack's application for permission to appeal.

II.

The issue presented in this case requires us to construe Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803. Mr. Womack insists that the statute has no application to his lawsuit because, at the time his action accrued, he was housed in a facility operated by CCA rather than by TDOC. For its part, CCA argues that our courts have already correctly determined that the statute " effectively localized actions brought by prisoners." Hayes v. State, 341 S.W.3d at 296.

The construction of a statute and its application to the facts of a particular case present questions of law that we review de novo without a presumption of correctness. Baker v. State, 417 S.W.3d 428, 433 (Tenn. 2013); Keen v. State, 398 S.W.3d 594, 599 (Tenn. 2012), cert. denied, 134 S.Ct. 176, 187 L.Ed.2d 120 (2013).

Familiar rules guide our construction of a statute. Our duty is first to ascertain and then to fully effectuate legislative intent, taking care not to broaden a statute beyond its intended scope or unduly restrict its coverage. Shore v. Maple Lane Farms, LLC, 411 S.W.3d 405, 420 (Tenn. 2013); Carter v. Bell, 279 S.W.3d 560, 564 (Tenn. 2009). We must construe a statute in a reasonable manner " which avoids statutory conflict and provides for harmonious operation of the laws." Baker v. State, 417 S.W.3d at 433 (quoting Frye v. Blue Ridge Neuroscience Ctr., P.C., 70 S.W.3d 710, 716 (Tenn. 2002)).

Our analysis naturally begins with the words used in the statute. Shore v. Maple Lane Farms, LLC, 411 S.W.3d at 420 (citing Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 526 (Tenn. 2010)). The words " must be given their natural and ordinary meaning in the context in which they appear and in light of the statute's general purpose." Mills v. Fulmarque, Inc., 360 S.W.3d 362, 368 (Tenn. 2012). We presume that every word in the statute has meaning and purpose and should be given full effect unless the obvious intention of the General Assembly indicates otherwise. In re Estate of Trigg, 368 S.W.3d 483, 490 (Tenn. 2012); In re C.K.G., 173 S.W.3d 714, 722 (Tenn. 2005). If the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, we apply its plain meaning, understood in its normal and accepted usage, without adopting a forced interpretation. Baker v. State, 417 S.W.3d at 433; Knox Cnty. ex rel. Envtl. Termite & Pest Control, Inc. v. Arrow Exterminators, Inc., 350 S.W.3d 511, 524 (Tenn. 2011); Eastman Chem. Co. v. Johnson, 151 S.W.3d 503, 507 (Tenn. 2004).

When necessary to resolve a statutory ambiguity or conflict, we may consider matters other than the statutory language -- such as the broader statutory scheme, the history and purpose of the legislation, public policy, historical facts preceding or contemporaneous with the enactment of the statute, earlier versions of the statute, the caption of the act, and the legislative history of the statute -- to discern the legislature's intent. Pickard v. Tennessee Water Quality Control Bd., 424 S.W.3d 511, 518 (Tenn. 2013). However, these non-codified external sources " cannot provide a basis for departing from clear codified statutory provisions." Mills v. ...


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