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State ex rel. Dept. of Transportation v. Thomas

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

December 11, 2014

STATE EX REL. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION,
v.
WILLIAM H. THOMAS, JR.

Session: November 13, 2014.

Appeal from the Chancery Court for Shelby County No. CH0704541 Walter L. Evans, Chancellor.

George Griffin Boyte, Jr., Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellant, State of Tennessee ex rel. Department of Transportation.

William H. Thomas, Jr., Memphis, Tennessee appellee, Pro Se.

Kenny Armstrong, J. delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Brandon O. Gibson, J., joined.

OPINION

KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE.

I. Background

This is the second appeal of this case, which began on March 2, 2007, when the State of Tennessee ex rel. Department of Transportation ("TDOT, " "State, " or "Appellant") sought injunctive relief against Appellee William H. Thomas, Jr. to enjoin him from constructing a billboard on property identified as the Crossroads Ford site. State ex rel. Com'r of Dept. of Transp. v. Thomas, 336 S.W.3d 588 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010) ("Thomas I").[1] Mr. Thomas' permit application for the Crossroads Ford site billboard (number 5848) was denied because his billboard site was less than 1, 000 feet from an existing permitted billboard owned by a competitor. Thomas I, 336 S.W.3d at 592 (citing TDOT Rules, Chapter 1680-02-03-.03(a)(a)(4)). Mr. Thomas filed an administrative appeal from the denial of his permit for the Crossroads Ford site, but proceeded to engage in "ongoing construction of the billboard structure at the. . . site." Id. at 593. TDOT alleged that because Mr. Thomas did not have a permit for the Crossroads Ford site billboard, the structure violated the Billboard Regulation and Control Act, Tennessee Code Annotated Section 54-21-104." Id. at 593. Accordingly, TDOT sought an injunction to stop Mr. Thomas from going forward with the Crossroads Ford billboard, and to have him remove any portion of the billboard that he had constructed on the site. In response to TDOT's request for injunction, Mr. Thomas filed several counterclaims, asserting, inter alia, that TDOT had "adopted a policy of selective enforcement and hostile and discriminatory action against Thomas. . . ." Id. In his counterclaims, Mr. Thomas further alleged that TDOT had "refused his request for an administrative hearing . . . [in] violat[ion] of his right to due process and equal protection." Id. at 594. In response, TDOT argued that the trial court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over Mr. Thomas' counterclaims, and that Mr. Thomas' claims against TDOT could be asserted only in Davidson County. Id. The trial court ultimately determined that it had jurisdiction over Mr. Thomas' counterclaims. Having found jurisdiction, the trial court proceeded to grant Mr. Thomas "expansive injunctive relief" to curtail TDOT from acting "any way 'except equitably and equally, ' toward Thomas. . ." Id. at 595. The trial court did not expressly address TDOT's petition for injunctive relief. Id. Nonetheless, "[d]evelopments in Mr. Thomas' administrative proceedings on his billboard permit applications soon resulted in further escalation of the Shelby County litigation." Id.

On June 6, 2007, the TDOT Commissioner issued an order in the pending administrative contested case regarding the Crossroads Ford site. The Commissioner's final order affirmed the order of the Administrative Law Judge, which held that Mr. Thomas did not qualify for any exceptions to the proximity rule and, therefore, was not entitled to a billboard permit for the Crossroads Ford site. Thomas I, 336 S.W.3d at 596. Following this adverse ruling, Mr. Thomas filed several motions and petitions in the Shelby County trial court. Specifically, he alleged that certain TDOT employees, who were allegedly hostile to Mr. Thomas, had participated in the TDOT Commissioner's hearings, which had resulted in the adverse ruling on Mr. Thomas' billboard sites. Id. at 596. Accordingly, Mr. Thomas asked the trial court for injunctive relief to enjoin these TDOT employees from participating in any TDOT matter involving Mr. Thomas. Id. The trial court held a hearing on Mr. Thomas' request for injunctive relief on July 6, 2007. Id. at 597. Following this hearing, the trial court granted some of Mr. Thomas' requests for relief, including staying the Commissioner's June 6, 2007 final order, and ordering TDOT to comply with Mr. Thomas' discovery requests. Id. The court then scheduled a show cause hearing for August 7, 2007, requiring the two TDOT employees, who were allegedly hostile to Mr. Thomas, to appear and show cause regarding their involvement in the TDOT Commissioner's June 6, 2007 orders. Id.

At the beginning of the August 7, 2007 show cause hearing, Mr. Thomas announced that "he intended to present proof concerning a wide range of grievances against TDOT, dating back to 2005." Thomas I, 336 S.W.3d at 597. Over TDOT's objection, the trial court allowed Mr. Thomas to present witnesses and other proof "to establish the basis for [his] contention of bias and prejudice, [and] partiality on the part of these TDOT employees." Id. From this point, "the show cause hearing grew into a proceeding that spanned some ten days. . . [and] involved approximately a dozen witnesses. . . and approximately seventy-six exhibits." Id. Meanwhile, in September 2007, during the course of the testimony in the show cause hearing, Mr. Thomas received notice from TDOT of administrative proceedings in five contested matters related to his permit applications for billboards at various sites, including the Crossroads Ford site. After the conclusion of testimony in the show cause hearing, but before the trial court entered an order, Mr. Thomas filed a motion asking the trial court to issue a stay in all five of TDOT's administrative proceedings. Id. at 598. After hearing Mr. Thomas' motion to stay, on October 24, 2007, the trial court entered an order, in which the court granted Mr. Thomas' motion and ordered stays in all five of Mr. Thomas' contested cases. Id.

On February 12, 2008, the trial court entered a 110-page order on Mr. Thomas' various requests for relief. In its order, the court addressed the issue of jurisdiction. "The trial court recognized that the UAPA, specifically Tennessee Code Annotated §4-5-322, provided that 'Judicial Review of an Administrative Body's decision should be instituted in the Chancery Court of Davidson County.'" Thomas I, 336 S.W.3d at 598. However, the court

noted that Tennessee Code Annotated §20-4-107, related to venue, provides that actions involving "real property in which the State of Tennessee or any agency thereof, is a party, may be properly instituted in any county in which such property is located." It also cited caselaw stating that "[a] plaintiff, by filing suit, waives any right to dispute venue." . . . Finally, the trial court determined that Thomas' claims were compulsory counterclaims pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 13.01, because they arose out of the same transaction or occurrence as the State's original petition for injunctive relief. . . .

Id. at 598-99. In light of these findings, the trial court found that "as a matter of policy, Mr. Thomas' counterclaim should be heard in this [Shelby County] Court to promote judicial economy." Id. at 599. Accordingly, the trial court rejected TDOT's argument that it did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over Mr. Thomas' counterclaims.

By order of March 19, 2008, the trial court ordered that Mr. Thomas' application on the Crossroads Ford site permit would be remanded to the TDOT Commissioner for "reconsideration within the trial court's limits." Thomas I, 336 S.W.3d at 600. The trial court awarded Mr. Thomas $10, 000 in attorney's fees as appropriate damages and sanctions against TDOT for its "failure to comply with the orders of the trial court." Id. On April 17, 2008, TDOT filed its appeal in Thomas I. On the same day, Mr. Thomas filed a series of post-judgment motions in the trial court. Over TDOT's objection, the trial court heard all of Mr. Thomas' post-judgment motions. Id. On September 23, 2008, the trial court entered an order denying Mr. Thomas post-judgment relief; however, it ordered TDOT to pay Mr. Thomas $16, 135.63 in discretionary costs. Id. TDOT filed a supplemental notice of appeal from the September 23, 2008 order. Id.

In Thomas I, we defined the determinative issue to be "whether the trial court had subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the claims for relief asserted in Thomas' counterclaim and Thomas' subsequent requests that arose from the counterclaim." Thomas I, 336 S.W.3d at 601. On appeal in Thomas I, Mr. Thomas argued that the trial court had correctly found that Tennessee Code Annotated Section 20-4-107, [2] as opposed to Tennessee Code Annotated Section 54-21-105(d), [3] was applicable to his case because the case involved "real property." Id. at 601-602. Specifically, Mr. Thomas argued that the "resolution of his claims and defenses against TDOT determines whether Thomas can use his Shelby County property in a way that is economically beneficial. In this way, he argues, they 'involve[] real property' and under Section 20-4-107, may be asserted against TDOT in Shelby County." Id. at 603. In Thomas I, we specifically rejected Mr. Thomas' argument, finding that "[a]ny involvement of real property in Thomas' claims against TDOT is tangential at most; the thrust of his claims are that TDOT officials acted in an unfair manner toward him with respect to his applications for billboard permits." Id. at 604. ...


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