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Davis v. City of Memphis

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

February 16, 2017

REGINALD DAVIS
v.
CITY OF MEMPHIS, ET AL.

          Session January 19, 2017

         Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Shelby County No. CH-14-0630 Walter L. Evans, Chancellor

         This appeal involves the termination of a firefighter's employment with the City of Memphis. The firefighter appealed his termination to the City of Memphis Civil Service Commission. He also filed a lawsuit in federal district court asserting various causes of action against the City of Memphis and other defendants. After a six-day jury trial in federal court, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. The City of Memphis then sought dismissal of the firefighter's appeal before the Civil Service Commission based on the principles of res judicata and/or collateral estoppel. The Civil Service Commission granted the motion and dismissed the appeal. The firefighter then sought review in chancery court, and the chancery court upheld the decision of the Civil Service Commission. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Reversed and Remanded

          Darrell James O'Neal, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Reginald Davis.

          Barbaralette G. Davis, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, City of Memphis.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Kenny Armstrong, J., joined.

          OPINION

          BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Reginald Davis ("Davis") began his employment as a firefighter with the City of Memphis ("City") in 1989. In December 2011, while still employed with the City, Davis filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the City of Memphis Fire Department, the mayor, and other officials, asserting numerous causes of action for alleged violations of his constitutional and statutory rights during his employment. In April 2012, Davis and his attorney appeared on local television news broadcasts and were interviewed regarding Davis's allegations against the fire department in the federal lawsuit, which involved an alleged assault against Davis by a fire chief and allegedly unqualified fire personnel being assigned to the Memphis airport. Davis was suspended shortly thereafter and charged with violating numerous departmental policies. Following an administrative hearing, he was terminated effective May 7, 2012. Davis timely appealed his termination to the City of Memphis Civil Service Commission. He also amended his complaint in the federal lawsuit to allege that he was unlawfully terminated in retaliation for the statements made to the media by his legal counsel about matters of public concern, in violation of his First Amendment rights.

         After a six-day jury trial, the jury in the federal lawsuit returned a verdict in favor of the defendants on August 19, 2013. After several continuances, the hearing before the City of Memphis Civil Service Commission ("Commission") finally commenced on December 16, 2013. At the beginning of the hearing, counsel for the City orally moved to dismiss the appeal based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel due to the conclusion of the lawsuit in federal court. Davis objected to the City raising this issue at the beginning of the hearing without prior notice to him or the Commission. As such, the Commission continued the hearing and ordered both parties to submit briefs on the matter. Along with their briefs, the parties submitted numerous documents to the Commission, including the complaint and the jury verdict form from the federal lawsuit. The verdict form contains a single question that was answered by the jury:

Has the City of Memphis shown by the preponderance of evidence that Mr. Davis, through his attorney, knowingly or recklessly made false statements regarding fire safety at Memphis International Airport and an alleged assault against him by [a fire chief]?

         The jury answered "Yes" to this question and consequently did not reach the additional questions on the verdict form.

         After the briefs were filed, the Commission held another hearing and considered arguments of counsel before taking the issue under advisement. On April 9, 2014, the Commission entered an order granting the City's motion to dismiss the appeal. The order states:

Section 246 of the Memphis City Charter provides that "[t]he City may terminate, suspend, or demote an employee for just cause, and the employee shall be given a written notice of the reasons for the action taken." Memphis City Charter § 246. Section 248 of the Memphis City Charter provides that "[t]he burden of proof required to sustain the action of the City shall be by a preponderance of the evidence. If, after a presentation of the proof, the commission finds that there exists a reasonable basis for the disciplinary action taken, [then] the action of the City shall be sustained." Memphis City Charter § 248.
However, before deciding whether Defendants had a reasonable basis upon which to terminate Plaintiff, this Commission must first decide whether the doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, applies to bar Plaintiff's appeal.

(Emphasis added.) As a preliminary matter, the Commission found that the City's delay in asserting the defense of res judicata did not prejudice Davis due to the continuance of the hearing. Next, the Commission determined that the preclusive effect of the federal district court judgment must be determined by considering federal common law regarding res judicata. It also concluded that res judicata can apply in the context of civil service proceedings.

         Reciting the following elements of res judicata - a judgment on the merits, finality, same parties, and same cause of action - the Commission concluded that each element was met in the present case. The Commission concluded that the federal district court judgment was final and "on the merits" for purposes of the res judicata analysis, and it found that the parties in the federal lawsuit included the same parties before the Commission. The Commission then found that "Plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to litigate all of the causes of action he raised, or could have raised, " in federal court. In addition to the complaint and jury verdict form submitted to the Commission by the parties, the Commission also repeatedly referenced another order entered by the federal district court -- Davis v. City of Memphis Fire Department, 940 F.Supp.2d 786 (W.D. Tenn. Apr. 16, 2013). The Commission concluded that the federal court had already decided "whether The City of Memphis Fire Department had a reasonable basis for terminating Plaintiff's employment" and "whether there was just cause for Plaintiff's termination." As such, the Commission held that Davis's appeal was barred by the doctrine of res judicata and dismissed the appeal.

         On April 21, 2014, Davis filed a petition in chancery court seeking review of the Commission's decision pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 27-9-101, et seq., and 4-5-322. Davis asserted that the Commission erred and violated his rights by considering the City's untimely defense based on res judicata. He also argued that an employee cannot lose his right to a civil service appeal based on res judicata. He argued that the Commission erred in applying federal principles of res judicata and in concluding that the elements of res judicata were met in the present case.

         The chancery court directed that the administrative record be transmitted to the court. Upon reviewing the administrative record, the chancery court entered "Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law" on December 10, 2015. The chancery court found that the City did not waive its right to assert the defense of res judicata by raising it via oral motion because responsive pleadings were not required before the Commission. It also found that the Commission gave both parties ample time to brief and present oral argument on the matter, and therefore, Davis was not prejudiced. The chancery court applied Tennessee caselaw regarding res judicata in order to determine the preclusive effect of the federal court judgment and concluded that res judicata applied to bar further litigation before the Commission. Specifically, the chancery court explained:

Petitioner was afforded ample opportunity to fully and fairly litigate the factual basis of the employment action taken against him by the City, i.e., false statements regarding fire safety at Memphis International Airport and false statements regarding an alleged assault against him (Petitioner) by Chief Daryl Payton, made knowingly or recklessly by Petitioner through his attorney, facts affirmatively found as evidenced by the jury's verdict in the prior proceeding in the federal action.
Thus, the doctrine of res judicata operates to bar the issue of whether there was just cause for Petitioner's termination, in a subsequent action brought before the City of Memphis Civil Service Commission.

         On January 12, 2016, the chancery court entered an "Order on Petitioner's Writ of Certiorari" incorporating its "Findings of Fact[s] of Conclusions of Law, " upholding the decision of the Commission, and assessing costs against Davis. The order was signed by counsel for the City, who also signed for Davis's attorney "with permission." On February 28, 2016, Davis filed a "Motion to Amend Order dated January 12, 2016 and Enter a Final Order also Ruling on the Petitioner's Request for Attorney's Fees[.]" Davis argued that the court's previous order was not final because it did not resolve his request for attorney's fees and did not contain a certificate of service. Following a hearing, on April 19, 2016, the chancery court entered an "Amended Order on Petitioner's Writ for Certiorari" again incorporating its December 10, 2015 "Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law" and assessing costs against Davis but also providing that all other matters not specifically addressed by the "Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law" were denied. On May 1, 2016, Davis filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

         II. Issues Presented

         On appeal, Davis argues that the chancery court erred by upholding the decision of the Commission dismissing his appeal on the basis of res judicata. In its posture as appellee, the City raises an additional issue regarding whether the chancery court erred in granting Davis's motion to amend and enter a final order.

         For the following reasons, we reverse the decision of the chancery court ...


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