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Rutherford Wrestling Club, Inc. v. Arnold

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

April 30, 2015


Session Date October 24, 2014

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Rutherford County No. 61792 J. Mark Rogers, Judge

W. Kennerly Burger, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellant, Rutherford Wrestling Club, Inc.

Blake A. Garner, Jeff Reed, and Thomas S. Santel, Jr. (at trial), Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellees, Robert Arnold, in his official capacity as Rutherford County Sheriff; Rutherford County, Tennessee; and Rutherford County Board of Education.

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



I. Factual and Procedural Background

William C. Kennedy began working for the Rutherford County Sheriffs Office ("Sheriffs Office") during his last year of college. He started his career as a detention officer and was ultimately promoted to the rank of major in the course of his nineteen-year career with the Sheriffs Office. As a major, Mr. Kennedy's responsibilities included the management of all youth intervention programs, including all of the School Resource Officer ("SRO") Divisions in Rutherford County.

In 1995, in conjunction with the Sheriffs Office, Mr. Kennedy founded a youth intervention program known as the Sheriffs Athletic Fellowship & Enrichment or "S.A.F.E." program (also referred to as the "Keeping Kids S.A.F.E." program). Through the S.A.F.E. program, the Sheriffs Office organized, managed, and obtained funding for various youth outreach programs with which it was involved. Many of these programs were led by the SROs working under Mr. Kennedy. Some were led by third-party organizations in association with the Sheriffs Office. When Mr. Kennedy left the Sheriffs Office, over 52 programs were under the S.A.F.E. umbrella.

In 1998, Mr. Kennedy began a wrestling program under the auspices of the S.A.F.E. program. After outgrowing the original two locations, the program moved to Blackman Middle School and became known alternatively as the "Sheriffs Sharpshooters, " the "Rutherford County Sheriffs Office Sheriffs Sharpshooters, " or the "Sheriffs Sharp Shooters."

In June 2001, the wrestling program applied for and received a federal matching grant. In order to apply for the grant, the wrestling program had to apply through the Sheriffs Office. The money was used to purchase wrestling mats, shoes, wrestling singlets, headgear, warm-ups, and various other equipment, as well as insurance for the participants. The federal grant required that the funds be used to purchase property for the county. Mr. Kennedy prepared the grant application during work hours and used S.A.F.E. letterhead that also bore the Sheriffs Sharpshooter logo.

On June 19, 2001, Mr. Kennedy opened a checking account under the name "Rutherford Wrestling Club, " which was the first known use of the Rutherford Wrestling Club (the "Club") moniker. On June 28, 2001, the Club obtained an Employer Identification Number. Both the checking account and the application for the EIN listed the address for the Club as the address of the Sheriffs Office. In 2002, Mr. Kennedy and the Club leadership began to consider seeking 501(c)(3) status.[1] On August 3, 2005, the IRS issued a determination letter recognizing the Club's tax exempt status. However, the wrestling program continued to hold itself out to the public as the Sheriff's Sharpshooters.

The program continued to grow, and by early 2005, it had outgrown the Blackman Middle School cafeteria. Mr. Kennedy requested permission from Principal Butch Vaughn to construct a building on the Blackman Middle School campus to allow for more practice space. On March 21, 2005, Mr. Vaughn conveyed Mr. Kennedy's request to the Rutherford County Board of Education ("Board of Education"). The minutes of the Board of Education reflect the following agenda item and action:

6. Rutherford County Sheriff's Department Wrestling Club Building

Motion by Mr. Patton, seconded by Mr. Hodge, to approve the request from the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department Wrestling Club to construct a 60-foot by 100-foot metal building adjacent to the gym at Blackman Middle School. The Wrestling Club will be using the building for storage, practice and meetings. There will be no cost to the [Board of Education].

(emphasis added). Neither Mr. Kennedy nor any other member of the Club attended the Board of Education meeting.

Mr. Kennedy oversaw construction of the building on land owned by the Board of Education. Construction funds came from: fundraising events, such as wrestling tournaments, bake sales, dances, and oil changes; private donations; and Drug Enforcement Agency funds administered by the Sheriff's Office. Many of the parents involved with the wrestling program provided manual labor. The wrestling program began using the building in 2006.

On August 12, 2008, another proposal went before the Board of Education to add a bathroom facility to the building. The proposal identified the addition as the "Blackman Middle School Wrestling Building Restroom Facility." Once again, no representative of the Club attended the Board of Education meeting.

The Club continued to make use of the building without incident until the fall of 2010. In August 2010, the citizens of Rutherford County elected Robert Arnold as sheriff. On September 2, 2010, the day after assuming office, Sheriff Arnold informed Mr. Kennedy that, if he wished to remain with the Sheriff's Office, he would have to accept a reassignment. Rather than accept the reassignment, Mr. Kennedy resigned from the Sheriff's Office.

On October 29, 2010, Sheriff Arnold, accompanied by Sheriff's deputies and a group of inmates, removed wrestling mats, equipment, and other items from the wrestling program building. The officers accessed the building using a key obtained from the Blackman Middle School SRO, John Heath, who also served as vice-president of the Club. Although the parties dispute what was removed, Sheriff Arnold claimed to have returned everything to the building, with the exception of a copier, a DVR, and a box of records. The copier and DVR, both of which were labeled as Sheriff's Office property, were moved to the county jail and SRO Heath's office respectively. A sheriff's deputy apparently attempted to return the box of records to Mr. Kennedy, and when he refused to accept it, the box was left at Mr. Kennedy's feet.

Following the events of October 29, 2010, the Board of Education presented the Club with a Use of Facilities Form. The form authorized use of the building by the Club as a third party unassociated with Rutherford County. Mr. Kennedy refused to sign the form. As a consequence, the Rutherford County Director of Schools denied the Club access to the building.

On November 29, 2010, the Club filed suit in the Circuit Court for Rutherford County against Sheriff Arnold and Rutherford County. The complaint sought damages under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act ("TGTLA"), injunctive relief, mandamus, imposition of a resulting trust, and asserted various other claims. The Club later amended its complaint to add the Board of Education as a party. Following a hearing on December 14 ...

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