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Fralix v. University of Tennessee

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

December 2, 2014

J. L. FRALIX
v.
THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE

Session November 19, 2014

Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 13138IV Russell T. Perkins, Chancellor

Gene Hallworth, Columbia, Tennessee, for the appellant, J. L. Fralix.

Michael D. Fitzgerald, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, University of Tennessee Knoxville.

Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

OPINION

FRANK G. CLEMENT, JR., JUDGE

The undisputed incident which led to the termination of employment of J. L. Fralix ("Plaintiff") occurred at the Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center ("MTREC"), a 1, 265 acre farm owned by the University of Tennessee. Plaintiff, who regularly worked at another University of Tennessee farm, was temporarily assigned to work at MTREC due to a shortage of staff. Thirteen full-time employees worked at MTREC, six of whom lived in houses on the farm, and one of whom was a young female employee who worked in the dairy barn. When Plaintiff worked at MTREC, he temporarily resided in a house on MTREC farm property.

On March 16, 2012, between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m., a young female employee was working alone in the MTREC dairy barn. The fact that she would be working alone was known to the other employees because the protocol was for only one employee to work in the barn per shift. Plaintiff, who had no reason to be in the barn, approached the female employee from behind while she was picking up a hose to clean the barn, at which time he stated to her, "If I could get inside of you, it would take a bulldozer to get me out." Although Plaintiff was "close enough to touch" her when he made the statement, he did not, and both of them promptly exited the barn after the incident. After subsequently speaking with her parents, the female employee reported the incident to the dairy barn manager on March 29, 2012.

On the same day the female employee reported the incident, a male employee of MTREC informed the Director of MTREC, Kevin Thompson, that he had a telephone conversation with Plaintiff on March 16, 2012, the day of the incident; he further informed Director Thompson that, during the phone conversation, Plaintiff stated that he "wanted to get [the young female] and take her down to one of the houses there that's on the [MTREC] property that – and just, you know, have his way with her, . . . have sex with her. . . ."

Director Thompson met with the female employee on April 2, 2012, to discuss the incident that occurred two weeks earlier. When he was called on to describe his meeting with her, Director Thompson stated that she was "extremely scared, " "crying, " and "somewhat hysterical" when she discussed the incident with him. Director Thompson also met with Plaintiff on April 2, 2012. When confronted with what had been reported to Director Thompson, Plaintiff did not deny making the statement to the female employee in the MTREC barn, and he did not deny making the statement to his male colleague by phone on the same day as the incident.

On April 13, 2012, Mr. Thompson notified Plaintiff by letter that his employment may be terminated for violating the University's Code of Conduct; the letter also afforded Plaintiff official notice of a pre-termination meeting that was going to be held on April 18, 2012.

At the pre-termination meeting, Plaintiff was given notice of the reasons why termination was contemplated and an opportunity to respond, but Plaintiff did not respond. Thereafter, Director Thompson terminated Plaintiff's employment for the following reasons: (1) the University's inability to prevent Plaintiff from having isolated contact with female employees; (2) at least five families resided at the farm where Plaintiff worked full time; and (3) the farms collaborate with a community college veterinary technician program, which means Plaintiff would be interacting with many young females.

Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing under the university's human resources policy. The hearing was held on September 10, 2012, and it was presided over by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Plaintiff was present but did not testify at the hearing. The ALJ entered an initial order on December 3, 2012, upholding Director Thompson's termination of Plaintiff based on the finding his behavior constituted gross misconduct, and concluding that proper notice of the hearing was provided. Plaintiff did not request review by an agency head; therefore, the order became a final judgment on December 18, 2012.

Plaintiff timely filed a petition for judicial review in the Davidson County Chancery Court. On January 16, 2014, the Chancery Court entered a memorandum and order upholding Plaintiff's termination, concluding there was substantial and material evidence to support the ...


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