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Cordell v. Cleveland Tennessee Hospital, LLC

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

February 27, 2017

STACEY J. CORDELL
v.
CLEVELAND TENNESSEE HOSPITAL, LLC, ET AL.

          Assigned on Briefs February 2, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2016-38 Michael Binkley, Judge

         The trial court, pursuant to a motion to dismiss filed by defendants, dismissed the plaintiff's lawsuit because she did not comply with certain aspects of the Tennessee Healthcare Liability Act incident to the filing of her original complaint. Because we do not construe the allegations in the original complaint as presenting any health care liability claims, we reverse the trial court's dismissal of this lawsuit and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

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

          C. Chad Young and Christopher M. Harris, Ringgold, Tennessee, for the appellant, Stacey J. Cordell.

          C. J. Gideon, Jr. and Christopher A. Vrettos, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Cleveland Tennessee Hospital, LLC, and Tyler Cole Parsons.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and. John W. McClarty, J., joined.

          OPINION

          ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE

         Background and Procedural History

         This lawsuit was commenced on January 25, 2016 when Plaintiff Stacey Cordell ("Ms. Cordell") filed a complaint for damages in the Williamson County Circuit Court. The complaint was predicated upon alleged misconduct that occurred the previous January while Ms. Cordell was a patient at SkyRidge Medical Center. According to the complaint, [1] Ms. Cordell had been transported to the hospital by police who were concerned that she had taken too high of a dosage of prescribed medication. Upon her arrival at the hospital, she was checked into the emergency room and examined by hospital staff. Following this initial examination, Ms. Cordell was placed in a hospital room.

         When Ms. Cordell's husband later arrived at the hospital to see his wife, he was reportedly forced to leave the premises. However, because Ms. Cordell had been allowed to keep a cell phone in her room, she was able to maintain some contact with her husband. At one point, she called her husband to inform him that a security guard stationed outside her room was making her uncomfortable. She claimed that the guard "kept opening her door and coming into her room in order to stare at her." In light of these concerns, Ms. Cordell's husband called the nurse's desk to see whether his wife could get a new security guard assigned to her.

         According to the complaint, the subject security guard, Defendant Tyler Parsons ("Mr. Parsons"), subsequently confiscated Ms. Cordell's cell phone. When Ms. Cordell inquired as to why he had done this, Mr. Parsons allegedly responded that she was causing him problems. Although Ms. Cordell was soon relocated to another room, she has no recollection of any events that took place in the twelve-plus hours following her relocation. When she awoke the next evening, she was told that she was being transferred to another hospital for further evaluation. While she was a patient at this second hospital, Ms. Cordell noticed blood and soreness when she used the restroom. She was eventually discharged and returned to her husband's care.

         According to the complaint, Ms. Cordell took a shower immediately upon her return home. While in the shower, she felt a burning pain and cried out loud. Her husband subsequently came to her aid and observed that she had several injuries on her vaginal and anal areas. When Ms. Cordell went to her obstetrician the following day, evidence of rape, including semen, was discovered. Ms. Cordell then went to the Rape Crisis Center, where she was informed that she may have been raped by multiple persons. Because Ms. Cordell had not recently had sexual relations with her husband, she came to the conclusion that she had been raped by Mr. Parsons while at the SkyRidge Medical Center. As a result, she filed a complaint asserting claims against Mr. Parsons and Cleveland Tennessee Hospital Company, LLC ("SkyRidge"), for assault and battery, gross negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         On March 2, 2016, Mr. Parsons and SkyRidge filed a joint motion to dismiss wherein they contended that Ms. Cordell's complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The motion was supported by a memorandum of law, as well as a statement of undisputed material facts.[2] In moving for the dismissal of Ms. Cordell's lawsuit, Mr. Parsons and SkyRidge argued that although her claims fell within the ambit of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act, she had failed to comply with the certificate of good faith requirement in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-122 and the pre-suit notice requirement found in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121.[3] On April 29, 2016, Ms. Cordell filed a response to the motion to dismiss and argued that the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act did not apply to her claims.

         On May 4, 2016, prior to a hearing on the motion to dismiss, Ms. Cordell filed an amended complaint. The amended complaint reasserted the claims in Ms. Cordell's original complaint but also asserted a claim for negligence pursuant to the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act. Among other things, Ms. Cordell alleged that SkyRidge had failed to provide appropriate supervision and nurse monitoring.

         On June 16, 2016, the trial court entered an order on the motion to dismiss. Therein, the trial court concluded that Ms. Cordell's amended complaint could not be considered. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court, in finding that a "responsive pleading" had been filed, presumably determined that the motion to dismiss filed by Mr. Parsons and SkyRidge constituted a responsive pleading. As a result, because Ms. Cordell had not filed a motion for leave to amend her complaint and opposing counsel had not agreed to any amendment, the trial court found that Rule 15 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure barred the amended complaint.

         In reviewing Ms. Cordell's original complaint, the trial court determined that it presented claims that were subject to the provisions of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act. However, because Ms. Cordell had failed to attach a certificate of good faith to the complaint in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-122, the trial court concluded that the lawsuit should be dismissed with prejudice. The trial court also found that Ms. Cordell had failed to give Mr. Parsons pre-suit notice under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121. This timely appeal then followed.[4]

         Discussion

         At issue in this appeal is the propriety of the trial court's June 16, 2016 order of dismissal. Ms. Cordell argues that her lawsuit should not have been dismissed and contends that the trial court erred in refusing to consider her amended complaint. On the other hand, Mr. Parsons and SkyRidge ("Appellees") argue that the trial court did not err in declining to consider the amended complaint. Moreover, they contend that the original complaint was properly dismissed on account of Ms. Cordell's failure to satisfy the requirements of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act.

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss is to determine whether the pleadings state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Cullum v. McCool, 432 S.W.3d 829, 832 (Tenn. 2013) (citation omitted). The motion "tests the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff's complaint and not the strength of the plaintiff's evidence." Doe v. Sundquist, 2 S.W.3d 919, 922 (Tenn. 1999) (citation omitted). When a court rules on such a motion, it "must construe the complaint in favor of the plaintiff, accept the allegations of fact as true, and deny the motion unless it appears that the plaintiff can establish no facts supporting the claim that would warrant relief." Id. (citation omitted). On appeal, we review a trial court's adjudication of a motion to dismiss de novo, with no presumption of correctness. Cartwright v. DMC-Memphis, Inc., 468 S.W.3d 517, 522 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014) (citation omitted). When a trial court considers matters outside of the pleadings, a motion to dismiss is converted to a motion for summary judgment. Moore v. State, 436 S.W.3d 775, 783 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014) (citation omitted). Summary judgment rulings are also reviewed de novo with no presumption of correctness. Id. (citation omitted).

         When the Appellees moved to dismiss Ms. Cordell's lawsuit, they contended that her claims were subject to the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act. In doing so, the Appellees challenged Ms. Cordell's compliance with two statutory provisions. First and foremost, they contended that Ms. Cordell had failed to satisfy the requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-122. Under that statute, "[i]n any health care liability action in which expert testimony is required . . . the plaintiff or plaintiff's counsel shall file a certificate of good faith with the complaint." Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-122(a). The Appellees also contended that Ms. Cordell had failed to give Mr. Parsons pre-suit notice in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121. That statute specifically provides that "[a]ny person . . . asserting a potential claim for health care liability shall give written notice of the potential claim to each health care provider that will be a named defendant at least sixty (60) days before the filing of a complaint based upon health care liability in any court of this state." Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(a)(1). Given their belief that the claims in Ms. Cordell's complaint were subject to the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act, the Appellees' filing of a motion to dismiss was proper. As the Tennessee Supreme Court has noted:

The proper way for a defendant to challenge a complaint's compliance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121 and Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-122 is to file a Tennessee Rule of Procedure 12.02 motion to dismiss. In the motion, the defendant should state how the plaintiff has failed to comply with the statutory requirements by referencing specific omissions in the complaint and/or by submitting affidavits or other proof. Once the defendant makes a properly supported motion under this rule, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show either that it complied with the statutes or that it had extraordinary cause for failing to do so. Based on the complaint and any other relevant evidence submitted by the parties, the trial court must determine whether the plaintiff has complied with the statutes. If the trial court determines that the plaintiff has not complied with the statutes, then the trial court may consider whether the plaintiff has demonstrated extraordinary cause for its noncompliance.

Myers v. AMISUB (SFH), Inc., 382 S.W.3d 300, 307 (Tenn. 2012).

         When the trial court entered its order on the motion to dismiss, it stated that Ms. Cordell's amended complaint was supported by a certificate of good faith. It ultimately refused to consider the amended complaint, however, as it noted that no leave had been given to file an amended complaint. In reaching this decision, the trial court treated the Appellees' motion to dismiss as a responsive pleading. Under Rule 15 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, although a party may amend its pleading "once as a matter of course at any time before a responsive pleading is served, " it otherwise must obtain "written consent of the adverse party or . . . leave of court." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.01. As an initial matter, however, we note that the trial court erred in deeming the motion to dismiss to be a responsive ...


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