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Smith v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

April 13, 2015

JOHNNY L. SMITH, ET AL.
v.
METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT OF NASHVILLE AND DAVIDSON COUNTY

Session Date February 26, 2015

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 13C661 Thomas W. Brothers, Judge

The plaintiffs sued the Metropolitan Government, claiming that prior citations that had been issued to them and paid by them were issued without authority and handled by the general sessions court without jurisdiction. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the government. The plaintiffs appealed, and we affirm.

W. Gary Blackburn and Raymond T. Throckmorton, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Johnny L. Smith d/b/a Sugar Creek Carriages & Metro Livery, Inc.

Saul Solomon, Lora Barkenbus Fox, and Catherine J. Dundon, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

OPINION

ANDY D. BENNETT, JUDGE

Two plaintiffs, Johnny L. Smith, owner and operator of a horse-drawn carriage business known as Sugar Creek Carriages, and Metro Livery, a passenger vehicle-for-hire transportation business, filed a declaratory judgment action against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County ("Metro") alleging that the inspectors for the Transportation and Licensing Commission ("TLC") lacked authority to issue citations to the plaintiffs and that the proceedings in the Environmental Court, a division of the Metro General Sessions Court, were void. The complaint also alleged that the TLC inspectors held themselves out as police officers, displayed fraudulent badges and blue lights, and carried firearms.

On April 22, 2013, Metro filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which was denied. Both sides filed cross-motions for summary judgment on March 14, 2014. The trial court denied the plaintiffs‟ motion and granted Metro‟s motion in part, stating that the citations were civil in nature and that challenges to the service of process or deficiencies with the issuance of past citations were waived by the plaintiffs‟ failure to raise those issues at trial or on appeal. The trial court further held that summary judgment was not appropriate as to the plaintiffs‟ claims regarding the procedures used by the inspectors to issue civil citations. Subsequently, the parties entered into an agreed order that the trial court‟s grant of partial summary judgment resolved all issues in the case and that any claim for prospective relief was moot. The plaintiffs appealed.

Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the undisputed facts. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. Where the facts are undisputed, this court reviews the grant of summary judgment de novo with no presumption of correctness. City of Tullahoma v. Bedford Cnty., 938 S.W.2d 408, 412 (Tenn. 1997). This matter involves questions of law. The facts are basically undisputed and no genuine issues of material fact exist. Thus, our review is de novo with no presumption of correctness. Id.

Analysis

The plaintiffs maintain that the citations were ultra vires because the TLC investigators did not have the authority to issue them and the proceedings in the trial court were void ab initio.

The plaintiffs view the nature of the citations as important. Historically and traditionally, violations of municipal ordinances have been treated as civil in nature. City of Chattanooga v. Davis, 54 S.W.3d 248, 259 (Tenn. 2001) ("the law now appears settled that proceedings for a municipal ordinance violation are civil in nature, at least in terms of technical application of procedure and for pursuing avenues of appeal"); City of Chattanooga v. Myers, 787 S.W.2d 921, 928 (Tenn. 1990) ("for 130 years proceedings to recover fines for the violation of municipal ordinances have been considered civil for the purposes of procedure and appeal, although the principles of double jeopardy have recently been determined to apply in such cases"); Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson Cnty. v. Allen, 529 S.W.2d 699, 707 (Tenn. 1975); City of Murfreesboro v. ...


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