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Lewis v. Shelby County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Memphis

April 17, 2015


Session February 25, 2015.

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT00368611 Robert S. Weiss, Judge.

Eugene A. Laurenzi, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellants, Lydranna Lewis and Cathy Miller.

Pablo A. Varela and David E. McKinney, Assistant County Attorneys, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Shelby County, Tennessee.

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



Plaintiffs, Lydranna Lewis ("Ms. Lewis") and Cathy Miller ("Ms. Miller"; collectively, "Plaintiffs"), were employed by the Shelby County Department of Corrections ("the DOC") as Counselors at the Adult Offender Center ("the Center") on Mullins Station Road in Memphis. On September 1, 2010, they were assaulted by an inmate at the Center, and in August 2011, they filed an action for damages against Shelby County ("the County") and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act contained in Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-201, et seq. ("the GTLA").

In their complaint, as amended in December 2014, [2] Plaintiffs alleged that they sustained injuries as a result of an assault by an inmate while they were working on the dormitory level in Building 3 of the Center. They alleged that the Supervising Counselor, Willie Hardiman ("Mr. Hardiman"), determined that an insufficient number of counselors were present at the Center on the night of the assault; that Mr. Hardiman assigned himself to the position of "floater" in Building 3; and that Mr. Hardiman was not present in the building when Plaintiffs were assaulted. Plaintiffs further alleged that, in accordance with the Center's protocol, they radioed Mr. Hardiman for assistance twice prior to the assault, but that Mr. Hardiman failed to appear. They additionally alleged that they made four "code red" calls for assistance during the assault, but that no one appeared to assist them. Plaintiffs asserted that the active assault continued for more than five minutes until the Officer assigned to the ground floor, who was "not permitted to leave his post unattended, " finally came to their assistance and subdued the inmate.

Plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that Mr. Hardiman 1) negligently failed to respond immediately to their calls for assistance; 2) negligently failed to assign adequate staffing at each post in light of inadequate available personnel; and 3) negligently failed to implement the DOC's directives with respect to responding to requests for assistance and code reds, which were designed to prevent foreseeable injuries such as those sustained by Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs asserted that Mr. Hardiman's negligent, non- discretionary acts and/or omissions proximately caused their injuries, and that the County was liable for the negligent acts of its employee. Plaintiffs sought damages in the amount of $350, 000 each.

The County answered, denied liability, and filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment on December 30, 2013. In its motion, the County asserted that Plaintiffs had failed to state a claim and that the County's immunity from suit was not removed under the GTLA. The County further asserted that the assault was an independent intervening act by a third-party that "cut[] off [the] proximate causal chain to any alleged negligent act or omission[.]" Although the County's motion was filed as a motion to dismiss or alternatively as one for summary judgment, it was supported by a memorandum and amended memorandum, a separate statement of undisputed material facts and the affidavits of two employees of the DOC attesting to personal knowledge of the events, making it fully compliant with requirements for the filing of a summary judgment motion as provided in Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rule 56"). Plaintiffs filed their response in opposition to the County's motion. The response included, as attached exhibits, the counter- affidavit of a former Supervisor who was employed at the Center, select portions of deposition testimony, and other records and photographs. Additionally, Plaintiffs filed a separate response to defendant's statement of material facts and filed Plaintiffs' statement of additional facts, also as provided for in Rule 56. Following a hearing in January 2014, the trial court found, as a matter of law, that the County was immune from suit under the discretionary function exception to the GTLA. Plaintiffs filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

Issue Presented

The sole issue presented by this appeal, as we perceive it, is whether the trial court erred by concluding, as a matter of law, that the acts and/or omissions alleged by Plaintiffs constitute discretionary functions such that Plaintiffs are barred from seeking damages under the GTLA.

Standard of Review

Although the County styled its motion alternatively as a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, it was clearly treated both by the parties and the trial court as one for summary judgment. Our review of a trial court's award of summary judgment is de novo with no presumption of correctness. We must "review[] the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw[] all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Id. (citation omitted). It is well-settled that summary judgment may be granted only if the moving party carries his burden to demonstrate that the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits . . . show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (citations omitted). "The moving party bears the burden of establishing that summary judgment is appropriate as a matter of law, while the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolve any genuine issues of material fact in ...

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