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Wells v. State

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 1, 2016

JOHN C. WELLS, III
v.
STATE OF TENNESSEE

          Assigned on Briefs: October 4, 2016

         Appeal from the Tennessee Claims Commission No. T20150137 Commissioner William O. Shults, Commissioner

         The plaintiff is an inmate who filed a claim with the Claims Commission after the Tennessee Department of Correction made the determination that inmates were prohibited from possessing small electric heating appliances known as "hotpots." He sought compensation for the loss of his hotpot "under the Takings Clause of the State and Federal Constitutions." The Commission dismissed the plaintiff's claim because it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over takings claims involving only personal property. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 9-8-307(a)(1)(V); 12-1-202 (defining "private property" as "real property, or improvements to real property . . . ."). The plaintiff appealed, contending that the definition of "private property" was unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Horne v. Dep't of Agric., __ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 2419, 192 L.Ed.2d 388 (2015), which held that the government is required to pay just compensation under the Takings Clause when it physically takes possession of either real or personal property. We have determined that the Commission did not have authority to decide the plaintiff's facial challenge to the constitutionality of the statute. We have also determined the plaintiff would not be entitled to compensation even if his constitutional challenge to the statute was successful. Consequently, we affirm the dismissal of his claim.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Claims Commissioner Affirmed.

          John C. Wells, III, Mountain City, Tennessee, Pro se.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; and Eric A. Fuller, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas R. Frierson, II, and Kenny W. Armstrong, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          FRANK G. CLEMENT, JR., P.J., M.S.

         This is one of six related appeals in which the plaintiffs, all of whom are inmates, separately challenge "the taking" of small electronic heating devices known as "hotpots" as a result of a decision by the Tennessee Department of Correction ("TDOC").[1]

         Pursuant to Department regulations, TDOC must annually publish a list of personal property inmates are permitted to have in their possession. See TDOC Policy No. 504.01.[2] The list of approved personal property that TDOC published in July of 2014 did not include hotpots. Previously, prisoners were permitted to possess hotpots.

         Acting in furtherance of the July 2014 list of approved property, the warden of the Northeast Correctional Complex ("NECX") issued a memorandum to the NECX prison population. In relevant part, the warden's memo stated:

Effective July 31, 2014, hotpots will no longer be considered an approved inmate personal property item at any TDOC facility.
The removal of this item is necessary to comply with appropriate fire safety standards and to reduce the risk of personal injury.
Hot pots [sic] may be mailed out of the institution through July 30. If you do not have sufficient funds to do so, NECX personnel will dispose of the item in accordance with policy. Any hotpot found after July 30 will be considered contraband and dealt with accordingly.

         On July 16, 2014, John C. Wells, III ("Plaintiff") filed a claim with the State of Tennessee Division of Claims Administration seeking $26.95 in reimbursement "under the Takings Clause of the State and Federal Constitutions" for a hotpot he had purchased. The Division denied Plaintiff's claim, and Plaintiff appealed the adverse ruling by filing a claim with the Claims Commission. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-402(c) ("If the claim is denied, the division shall so notify the claimant and inform the claimant of the reasons therefor and of the claimant's right to file a claim with the claims commission within ninety (90) days of the date of the denial notice.").

         The State responded by filing a motion to dismiss, arguing in relevant part that the Claims Commission did not have jurisdiction over Takings Clause claims that involve only personal property. Under the Tennessee Code, the Claims Commission has jurisdiction of claims based on "[u]nconstitutional taking of private property, as defined in § 12-1-202 . . . ." See Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(V). Significantly, "private property" is defined as "real property, or improvements to real property, not owned by the federal government or a state agency." See Tenn. Code Ann. ยง 12-1-202(2). Because ...


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