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Holder v. Shelby County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

April 21, 2015


Session March 11, 2015

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT00175214 Karen R. Williams, Judge

Robert L. J. Spence, Jr., and Bryan M. Meredith, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Anthony Holder, Individually and as next of kin of Decardis Holder, deceased.

Jean E. Markowitz and David E. McKinney, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Shelby County, Tennessee.

J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brandon O. Gibson J., and John Everett Williams, Sp. J., joined.



This case involves a complaint for damages filed by Plaintiff/Appellant Anthony Holder ("Appellant") against Defendant/Appellee Shelby County, Tennessee ("Shelby County") for the wrongful death of Mr. Holder's son, Decardis Holder ("Mr. Holder"). Because this case results from the trial court's grant of a motion to dismiss, we take the facts from the Appellant's amended complaint.

Mr. Holder was involved in an automobile accident on April 20, 2013. The Memphis Police Department ("MPD") responded to the scene and Mr. Holder was subsequently arrested. Mr. Holder was charged with assault, failure to exercise reasonable care, "violation of financial law, " leaving the scene of an accident involving injury, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and resisting official detention. The MPD transported Mr. Holder to the Shelby County Jail, where he received a mental evaluation performed by agents of Shelby County. The evaluation revealed that Mr. Holder suffered from a mental condition that caused him to be unstable and that he was a threat to himself and others. This evaluation was consistent with Mr. Holder's diagnosis of mental illness, for which he was undergoing treatment at the time of the accident.

Due to the diagnosis, Mr. Holder was placed in a special jail housing unit for unstable inmates, designated the "N" housing unit. Inmates placed in the "N" unit are classified as mentally unstable. Shelby County policy dictates that guards perform a mandatory safety check of the inmates of the "N" unit at least every thirty minutes. On April 21, 2013, Deputy Melvin Moore was assigned to Mr. Holder's unit between 2:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. At 9:16 p.m., Deputy Moore indicated that he checked the inmates and that they were all resting peacefully. Deputy Moore later admitted, however, that he did not make the safety check as documented in the log book and that he, in fact, could not recall the last time he observed Mr. Holder living, breathing, or moving about. Indeed, Deputy Moore admitted that he failed to complete even one entire mandated safety check during his eight hour shift on April 21, 2013. Had proper safety checks been performed, nothing would have obstructed Deputy Moore's view of Mr. Holder's cell. When later questioned about his failure to complete the mandatory safety checks, Deputy Moore stated that he could not recall the reason he failed to complete the safety checks; however, Moore publicly stated that "due to my negligence, a guy lost his life."

After a shift change, Deputy Lorna Morris was assigned to Mr. Holder's unit. At 10:14 p.m., Deputy Morris discovered Mr. Holder hanging from a sheet in his cell. Deputy Morris obtained assistance to remove the sheet from Mr. Holder's neck, and perform CPR. Mr. Holder was warm and had a pulse, but was not breathing. Another Deputy that was present observed drool from Mr. Holder's mouth; the Deputy described the drool as having been there for "a while." Mr. Holder was transported to Methodist Hospital-Central, where he eventually died from injuries related to asphyxiation.

Procedural History

On April 18, 2014, Appellant filed a complaint for damages, individually, and on behalf of his son, against Shelby County, alleging that Mr. Holder's death was the result of Deputy Moore's negligence and that Shelby County was vicariously liable. Shelby County filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for relief on May 27, 2014, arguing that Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act ("GTLA") immunity was not removed because Deputy Moore was not acting within the scope of his employment. Appellant filed a response alleging that the negligence at issue was committed in the scope of Deputy Moore's employment. Shelby County later filed a supplement to its motion to dismiss, arguing that the complaint alleged only intentional acts of wrongdoing, for which Shelby County was immune. Appellant filed an amended complaint on August 7, 2014, which specifically stated that Mr. Holder's injuries were caused by the negligent acts of Shelby County employees within the scope of their employment. On August 18, 2014, the trial court entered an order dismissing the case, finding that the amended complaint failed to set forth any negligent acts of Shelby County, and that Deputy Moore was not "on or about Shelby County's business at the time of his acts" because he was not hired to falsify logs. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal.

Issues Presented

In this appeal, Appellant raises two issues, which are taken, and slightly restated, from his appellate brief:

1. Whether the trial court erred in ruling that the plaintiff failed to allege negligent acts of Shelby County in the amended complaint, and only alleged intentional acts.
2. Whether the trial court erred in ruling that Deputy Moore was not acting within the scope of his employment.

Standard of Review

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently outlined the standard of review where a party defending an action files a motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted:

A Rule 12.02(6) [of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure][1] motion challenges only the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not the strength of the plaintiffs proof or evidence. Highwoods Props., Inc. v. City of Memphis, 297 S.W.3d 695, 700 (Tenn. 2009); Willis v. Tenn. Dep't of Corr., 113 S.W.3d 706, 710 (Tenn. 2003); Bell ex rel. Snyder v. Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg, P.A., 986 S.W.2d 550, 554 (Tenn. 1999); Sanders v. Vinson, 558 S.W.2d 838, 840 (Tenn. 1977). The resolution of a 12.02(6) motion to dismiss is determined by an examination of the pleadings alone. Leggett v. Duke Energy Corp., 308 S.W.3d 843, 851 (Tenn. 2010); Trau-Med of Am., Inc. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 71 S.W.3d 691, 696 (Tenn. 2002); Cook ex rel. Uithoven v. Spinnaker's of Rivergate, Inc., 878 S.W.2d 934, 938 (Tenn. 1994); Cornpropst v. Sloan, 528 S.W.2d 188, 190 (Tenn. 1975) (overruled on other grounds by McClung v. Delta Square Ltd P'ship, 937 S.W.2d 891, 899-900 (Tenn. 1996)). A defendant who files a motion to dismiss "'admits the truth of all of the relevant and material allegations contained in the complaint, but . . . asserts that the allegations fail to establish a cause of action.'" Brown v. Tenn. Title Loans, Inc., 328 S.W.3d 850, 854 (Tenn. 2010) (quoting Freeman Indus., LLC v. Eastman Chem. Co., 172 S.W.3d 512, 516 (Tenn. 2005)); see Edwards v. Allen, 216 S.W.3d 278, 284 (Tenn. 2007); White v. Revco Disc. Drug Ctrs., Inc., 33 S.W.3d 713, 718 (Tenn. 2000); Holloway v. Putnam Cnty., 534 S.W.2d 292, 296 (Tenn. 1976).
In considering a motion to dismiss, courts "'must construe the complaint liberally, presuming all factual allegations to be true and giving the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences.'" Tigg v. Pirelli Tire Corp., 232 S.W.3d 28, 31-32 (Tenn. 2007) (quoting Trau-Med, 71 S.W.3d at 696); see Leach v. Taylor, 124 S.W.3d 87, 92-93 (Tenn. 2004); Stein v. Davidson Hotel Co., 945 S.W.2d 714, 716 (Tenn. 1997); Bellar v. Baptist Hosp., Inc., 559 S.W.2d 788, 790 (Tenn. 1978); see also City of Brentwood v. Metro. Bd of Zoning Appeals, 149 S.W.3d 49, 54 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (holding that courts "must construe the complaint liberally in favor of the plaintiff by . . . giving the plaintiff the benefit of all the inferences that can be reasonably drawn from the pleaded facts"). A trial court should grant a motion to dismiss "only when it appears that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief." Crews v. Buckman Labs. Int'l, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 852, 857 (Tenn. 2002); see Lanier v. Rains, 229 S.W.3d 656, 660 (Tenn. 2007); Doe v. Sundquist, 2 S.W.3d 919, 922 (Tenn. 1999); Pemberton v. Am. Distilled Spirits Co., 664 S.W.2d 690, 691 (Tenn. 1984); Fuerst v. Methodist Hosp. S., 566 S.W.2d 847, 848 (Tenn. 1978); Ladd v. Roane Hosiery, Inc., 556 S.W.2d 758, 759–60 (Tenn. 1977). We review the trial court's legal conclusions regarding the adequacy of the complaint de novo. Brown, 328 S.W.3d at 855; Stein, 945 S.W.2d at 716.

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