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Moore-Pennoyer v. State

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

March 28, 2017

JUDITH MOORE-PENNOYER
v.
STATE OF TENNESSEE ET AL.

          Session January 10, 2017

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Circuit Court for Knox County No. 356514 Jon Kerry Blackwood, Special Judge

         We granted permission to appeal to clarify the nature of the employment relationship of a trial judge's secretarial assistant. We hold that a trial judgeʼs secretarial assistant is an at-will employee. As a result, the secretarial assistant's employment may be terminated at any time during the term of the trial judge to whom he or she is assigned, either by the judge or the secretarial assistant. If the relationship is not terminated during the trial judge's term, the secretarial assistant's employment automatically terminates when the trial judge's service ends. Because the plaintiff secretarial assistant's employment automatically ended when the trial judge's term ended and because she remained employed until the end of the trial judge's term, as a matter of law, the defendant did not tortiously interfere with the plaintiff's employment relationship. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, vacate the judgment of the trial court, and remand for entry of a judgment granting the defendant's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint, and for any further proceedings, consistent with this decision, that may be necessary in the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed; Judgment of the Trial Court Vacated and Case Remanded

          Herbert Slatery, III, Attorney General & Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; and Stephanie Bergmeyer, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellant, William T. Ailor.

          David H. Dunaway and Rick A. Owens, LaFollette, Tennessee, for the appellee, Judith Moore-Pennoyer.

          Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          CORNELIA A. CLARK, JUSTICE

         I. Factual Background

         This case began as an interlocutory appeal from the trial court's denial of William T. Ailor's motion to dismiss the complaint filed by Judith Moore-Pennoyer. As a result, there is no factual record, and the facts alleged in Ms. Moore-Pennoyer's complaint are taken as true.[1]

         Beginning in January 1990, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer was employed as asecretarial assistant assigned to the Circuit Court for Knox County. For the first six years, she assisted three circuit judges. For the next eighteen years, she served as secretarial assistant to only one judge-Circuit Judge Harold Wimberly.

         In 2014, Judge Wimberly sought re-election to a new eight-year term that would begin on September 1, 2014. However, on August 7, 2014, Judge Wimberly lost the contested general election to William T. Ailor. Thus, Judge Wimberly's tenure ended by operation of law on August 31, 2014. At some point after the election, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer communicated to Mr. Ailor her wish to continue in her position as trial judge secretarial assistant.[2] On August 26, 2014, approximately one week before the beginning of his term and prior to his taking the oath of office, Mr. Ailor informed Ms. Moore-Pennoyer that he had selected another person to fill the position of secretarial assistant and would not require her services after taking office. The next day, August 27, 2014, the Human Resources Manager for the Administrative Office of the Courts provided Ms. Moore-Pennoyer with a separation notice, confirming that her employment would terminate effective Friday, August 29, 2014, the final business day of Judge Wimberly's term.

          On the day her employment ended, August 29, 2014, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer filed a lawsuit in circuit court against the State of Tennessee and Mr. Ailor (collectively "the defendants"). She alleged a number of claims in her complaint, including violations of the Tennessee Human Rights Act and the Tennessee Disability Act. She also alleged a claim of tortious interference with her employment relationship against Mr. Ailor in his individual capacity.

         The defendants did not file answers to Ms. Moore-Pennoyer's complaint. Rather, on October 29, 2014, the defendants filed a joint motion to dismiss the plaintiffs complaint, alleging the following grounds for dismissal: (1) Mr. Ailor was entitled to absolute immunity as he was acting at all times in his official judicial capacity; (2) Ms. Moore-Pennoyer's complaint failed to state a claim for breach of contract; (3) the trial court lacked jurisdiction to consider Ms. Moore-Pennoyer's breach of contract claim; (4) Ms. Moore-Pennoyer's complaint failed to state a claim under either the Tennessee Human Rights Act or the Tennessee Disability Act; and (5) Ms. Moore-Pennoyer's complaint failed to state a claim for tortious interference with a business relationship.

         Ms. Moore-Pennoyer did not respond to the motion to dismiss, but on November 27, 2014, she filed a notice of claim with the Tennessee Department of the Treasury's Division of Claims Administration ("Claims Administration"). Thereafter, on December 29, 2014, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer asked the circuit court to stay its consideration of the defendants' motion to dismiss pending the determination of the Claims Division on whether to accept her claim. On January 28, 2015, the circuit court granted the requested stay. On February 23, 2015, the Claims Administration filed a notice of transfer of Ms. Moore-Pennoyer's claim to the Claims Commission. On March 2, 2015, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer filed a complaint in the Claims Commission, alleging that the State, via the Administrative Office of the Courts ("AOC"), and Mr. Ailor had breached a contractual obligation to the plaintiff and subjected her to discrimination based on her age and disability.

         On March 17, 2015, the defendants renewed their joint motion to dismiss. In addition to the grounds initially alleged in support of their request for dismissal, the defendants argued that Ms. Moore-Pennoyer had waived her right to proceed in circuit court by filing a complaint in the Claims Commission based on the same acts or omissions. The defendants based this ground for dismissal on a statute, which provides that "[c]laims against the [S]tate [based on the acts or omissions of state employees] shall operate as a waiver of any cause of action, based on the same act or omission, which the claimant has against any state officer or employee." Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307 (b) (2012) [hereinafter "statutory waiver provision"].

         About three months after the defendants renewed their request for dismissal, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer filed an amended complaint, in which she limited her lawsuit against Mr. Ailor in his individual capacity to "a [claim of] malicious, willful, and wanton tortious interference with . . . [the] employment relationship that [the plaintiff] had with the [d]efendant, State of Tennessee, and more specifically the Administrative Office of the Courts for the State of Tennessee . . . ."[3] In response to the defendants' renewed motion for dismissal, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer asserted that Mr. Ailor was not a state officer or employee for purposes of the statutory waiver provision when he tortiously interfered with her employment relationship because he had not taken the oath required before entering upon the duties of his judicial office. See Tenn. Code Ann. ยง 17-1-104 (2012). Mr. Ailor responded that he had ...


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