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Moss v. Evans

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

July 16, 2015

RANDY R. MOSS, JR.
v.
DAN P. EVANS, ET AL.

Session: May 18, 2015

Appeal from the Chancery Court for McMinn County No. 2014CV285 Jeffrey M. Atherton, Chancellor.

Jimmy W. Bilbo and Brent McIntosh, Cleveland, Tennessee, for the appellant, Randy R. Moss, Jr.

James F. Logan, Jr., Cleveland, Tennessee, for the appellee, Dan P. Evans. Vance L. Baker, Jr., Athens, Tennessee, for the appellees, McMinn County Election Commission, Kris Williams, Amber Robinson, Bobby Goodman, Becky Riley, Todd Watson, and Brenda Ratledge.

D. Michael Swiney, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., joined.

OPINION

D. MICHAEL SWINEY, JUDGE

Background

This action arose out of the August 2014 election for the office of McMinn County Highway Commissioner. Republican Evans defeated Democrat Moss by a total of 5, 341 votes to 2, 901. Moss brought this action pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-17-101 et seq. as an election challenge seeking to have either the election voided or Moss declared the winner. Moss alleged that Evans lacked the necessary statutory qualifications to hold the post. Moss sued both Evans and the Election Commission, and its officials.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 54-7-104(g) contains a number of requirements that a candidate must meet in order to hold the office of Highway Commissioner. As relevant to this case, Evans is alleged to lack the requisite four years of experience in a supervisory capacity in highway construction or maintenance. The THOCB, a body created by statute, is empowered to issue the certifications for Highway Commissioner candidates. Tenn. Code Ann. § 54-7-104(g) also provides for Guidelines to be promulgated regarding the certification of candidates. These Guidelines, contained in the record, include a section devoted to challenges to a candidate's qualifications before the THOCB. The THOCB certified Evans as qualified.

According to Moss, Evans was unqualified to be Highway Commissioner, and the election should be voided or Moss should be declared the winner. According to Evans and the Commission, Moss failed to challenge the certification in the THOCB, and he may not now tardily revisit the issue of Evans' certification as qualified. The defendants filed motions to dismiss. The Trial Court granted the motions to dismiss, finding that the THOCB was the exclusive arbiter of certification for Highway Commissioner qualification and that the Trial Court lacked jurisdiction to, in effect, go around the THOCB. In its October 2014 order, the Trial Court stated as follows, in part:

Insofar as the Motions seeks a dismissal based upon Rule 12.02(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the Court finds that the Complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted because the Complaint alleges that Evans did not meet the qualifications to qualify for the Office of Chief Administrator of the Highway Department of McMinn County; however, the Court finds that for the purposes of this particular case the motions to dismiss are granted. This Court finds that the eligibility to determine whether a candidate may or may not receive certification to run rests exclusively with the Tennessee Highway Official Certification Board. Once that certification issue came out, a contest of that certification has to go through the process and guidelines, which guidelines are in the record. The statute specifically identifying the Board authorizes the Board to establish those guidelines. Under the circumstances those guidelines were not followed for the purposes of calling into question the qualifications of Mr. Evans. Since the qualifications are where this lawsuit rises or falls, eligibility related to those qualifications is within the exclusive authority of the Tennessee Highway Official Certification Board. Thus, the Court does not have jurisdiction to reach the other issues.

Moss timely filed an appeal to this Court.

Discussion

Although not stated exactly as such, Moss raises the following issue on appeal: whether the Trial Court erred in granting Evans' and the Election Commission's motions to dismiss on the basis that the only method for contesting the certification of an unqualified candidate for Highway Commissioner is through challenging the candidate's certification in the THOCB.

The Trial Court apparently granted the defendants' motions to dismiss on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction. In Northland Ins. Co. v. State, 33 S.W.3d 727, 729 (Tenn. 2000), our Supreme Court set forth the standard of review when reviewing a motion to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court stated:

A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction falls under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(1). The concept of subject matter jurisdiction involves a court's lawful authority to adjudicate a controversy brought before it. See Meighan v. U.S Sprint Communications Co., 924 S.W.2d 632, 639 (Tenn. 1996); Standard Sur. & Casualty Co. v. Sloan, 180 Tenn. 220, 230, 173 S .W.2d 436, 440 (1943). Subject matter jurisdiction involves the nature of the cause of action and the relief sought, see Landers v. Jones, 872 S.W.2d 674, 675 (Tenn. 1994), and can only be conferred on a court by constitutional or legislative act. See Kane v. Kane, 547 S.W.2d 559, 560 (Tenn. 1977); Computer Shoppe, Inc. v. State, 780 S.W.2d 729, 734 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989). Since a determination of whether subject matter jurisdiction exists is a question of law, our standard of review is de novo, without a presumption of correctness. See Nelson v. Wal–Mart Stores, Inc., 8 S.W.3d 625, 628 (Tenn. 1999).

Northland Ins. Co., 33 S.W.3d at 729.

The defendants argue that Moss was required to have challenged Evans' qualifications in this matter at the THOCB level. Their argument relies in large measure on the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. Broadly speaking, the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies refers to the requirement that administrative remedies ordinarily must be pursued to their conclusion before any judicial process is initiated. However, case law reflects that the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies is not applied mechanically. Our Supreme Court, in discussing the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies and when it applies, wrote:

When a statute provides for an administrative remedy, an aggrieved party must ordinarily exhaust the remedy before seeking to utilize the judicial process. Thomas v. State Bd. of Equalization, 940 S.W.2d 563, 566 (Tenn.1997); Bracey v. Woods, 571 S.W.2d 828, 829 (Tenn. 1978). In Thomas, this Court observed that the exhaustion of remedies doctrine allows an administrative body to "(1) function efficiently and have an opportunity to correct its own errors; (2) afford the parties and the courts the benefit of its experience and expertise without the threat of litigious interruption; and (3) compile a record which is adequate for judicial review." Thomas, 940 S.W.2d at 566. Nevertheless, unless the statute providing for an administrative remedy requires exhaustion "by its plain words, " an administrative appeal is not mandatory. Id.; see also Reeves v. Olsen, 691 S.W.2d 527, 530 (Tenn. 1985). Absent a statutory mandate, the exhaustion of the administrative remedies doctrine is a matter of judicial discretion. Thomas, 940 S.W.2d at 566 n. 5; Reeves, 691 S.W.2d at 530; State ex rel. Moore & Assocs., Inc. v. West, 246 S.W.3d 569, 577 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). When the issue of exhaustion is discretionary, "[t]his Court will not conclude that a trial court has abused its discretion unless the trial court 'applied incorrect legal standards, reached an illogical conclusion, based its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or employed reasoning that causes an injustice to the complaining party.' " Bailey v. Blount Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 303 S.W.3d 216, 237 (Tenn. 2010) (quoting State v. Banks, 271 S.W.3d 90, 116 (Tenn. 2008)). A factor for consideration is whether judicial review would "prematurely interrupt the administrative process." Moore, 246 S.W.3d at 577-78. In any event, the exhaustion of an administrative remedy is not required when the party seeking judicial review presents questions of law rather than questions of fact. Bracey, 571 S.W.2d at 830; Fentress Cnty. Bank v. Holt, 535 S.W.2d 854, 857 (Tenn. 1976).

Ready Mix, USA, LLC v. Jefferson Cnty., 380 S.W.3d 52, 63-64 (Tenn. 2012).

As stated by our Supreme Court, the application of the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies, depending on the circumstances, may be either mandatory when prescribed by statute, or, alternatively, lay within the sound discretion of the trial court. A recent federal opinion ...


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