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Smith v. Anderson County Sheriff Paul White

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

May 1, 2017

CARL C. SMITH, II
v.
ANDERSON COUNTY SHERIFF PAUL WHITE ET AL.

          Session Date: December 13, 2016

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Anderson County No. 13CH5655 M. Nichole Cantrell, Chancellor

         This is an employment termination case involving a civil service employee. The petitioner was employed as a law enforcement officer with the Anderson County Sheriff's Department ("the Department") when the Department received notice from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") that the petitioner had been "indicated" as a perpetrator of child abuse in a DCS investigation pending in Roane County. The petitioner was placed on voluntary administrative leave. Upon subsequent notification that the DCS indication had been upheld through administrative review, the Department terminated the petitioner's employment in November 2009. The petitioner appealed the termination to the Civil Service Board of the Anderson County Sheriff's Department ("the Board"). While the appeal to the Board was pending, the petitioner filed a petition in the Roane County Chancery Court, seeking judicial review of DCS's administrative decision. Upon review, the Roane County Chancery Court entered a judgment on August 3, 2012, reversing the classification and directing DCS to change the classification from "indicated" to "unfounded." Through his counsel, the petitioner contacted Anderson County Sheriff Paul White to request reinstatement of his employment, but Sheriff White denied the request. Following a hearing conducted on August 6, 2013, the Board affirmed the Department's termination decision and denied the petitioner's motion for reinstatement filed during the hearing. The petitioner filed a petition for certiorari and review of the Board's decision with the Anderson County Chancery Court ("trial court") on September 4, 2013, naming the Board and Sheriff White as respondents (collectively, "Respondents"). The petitioner then filed a motion for partial summary judgment, averring that he had not been provided constitutionally sufficient notice of misconduct justifying termination. Following a hearing, the trial court, with Chancellor William E. Lantrip presiding, granted partial summary judgment in favor of the petitioner in an order entered February 27, 2014. The Respondents filed a "motion to revise order, " pursuant to Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 54 and 59. Following a hearing, the trial court, with Chancellor M. Nicole Cantrell now presiding, vacated the prior order granting partial summary judgment and affirmed the Board's decision. The petitioner has appealed to this Court. We affirm the portion of the trial court's judgment affirming the Board's decision to uphold the initial termination. However, having determined that the Board's decision to uphold the denial of reinstatement was not supported by substantial and material evidence and yielded an arbitrary and capricious result, we reverse the trial court's affirmance of the Board's decision to uphold Sheriff White's denial of the employee's September 2012 request and the Board's denial of the petitioner's motion for reinstatement. We remand for entry of an order to reinstate the petitioner to his employment and a determination of back pay and other damages to be calculated from the point of his September 2012 request for reinstatement.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part; Case Remanded

          David S. Wigler, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Carl C. Smith, II.

          Arthur F. Knight, III, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Anderson County Sheriff Paul White and Civil Service Board of the Anderson County Sheriff's Department.

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

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Prior to accepting administrative leave in March 2009 and his subsequent employment termination in November 2009, the petitioner, Carl C. Smith, II ("Officer Smith"), had been employed with the Department as an officer investigating primarily property crimes. The factual and procedural history leading to the trial court's review of the Board's administrative decision is essentially undisputed and was summarized as follows in relevant part by the trial court in its final judgment:

On or about December 3, 2008, Sergeant Jeff Davis, [Officer Smith's] direct supervisor, received information that [Officer Smith] was under investigation by the Roane County [DCS], for allegations of child abuse.
Upon learning this information, Sergeant Davis informed his supervisor, Lieutenant Braden. Anderson County Sheriff, Paul White was also informed at this time.
Soon after, [DCS] was contacted by the Anderson County Sheriff's Department in an attempt to verify the information that the Sheriff's Department had received concerning [Officer Smith].
[DCS] did not release any information regarding the investigation to the Anderson County Sheriff's Department due to the confidential nature of their investigation.
On February 6, 2009, Sergeant Davis received a letter from Lisa Lund, a [DCS] case reviewer, informing him that [Officer Smith] had been "identified as the alleged perpetrator of child abuse in an indicated report that [DCS] has investigated."
The February 6, 2009 letter further stated "It is our understanding that Carl C. Smith, [II], is in a caretaker, supervisory, instructional or treatment role with you[r] agency, which constitutes an emergency situation as described in DCS rules. You should take immediate action to ensure that the individual is no threat to any child in their care."
The February 6, 2009 letter also indicated that [Officer Smith] had been notified of his right to an administrative hearing.
On or about March 2, 2009, [Officer Smith] had a meeting with his supervisors regarding the February 6, 2009 letter from [DCS].
Subsequently, [Officer Smith] requested to take administrative leave in order to appeal [DCS's] decision.
[Officer Smith's] request for administrative leave without pay was granted by Sheriff White.
On or about May 8, 2009, [Officer Smith] participated in an administrative hearing before an Administrative Judge for [DCS], wherein the Administrative Judge upheld [the] designation of [Officer Smith] as an indicated perpetrator of child abuse.
On September 21, 2009, Sergeant Jeff Davis was copied with a letter from [DCS] to [Officer Smith], which stated "as a result of an Administrative Hearing, DCS has reviewed the investigation that identified you as the perpetrator of child abuse . . . in Roane County and has determined that this report was properly classified as Allegation Indicated/Perpetrator Indicated. As evidenced by this letter, DCS is officially notifying you and your employer of the results.["]
The Anderson County Sheriff's Department had no positions available in November 2009 that would ensure that [Officer Smith] would not come into contact with children.
On November 6, 2009, Sheriff Paul White mailed a letter to [Officer Smith] regarding "Notification of Intent to Terminate[."]
The November 6, 2009 Termination Letter stated "notification is hereby given to you that the Anderson County Sheriff's Department intends to terminate your employment status as Deputy Sheriff on November 20, 2009. This decision is based on [DCS's] emergency status determination imposed on you and the subsequent affirmation of that decision by the state Administrative Law Judge."
The November 6, 2009 termination letter continued to state "under existing Civil Service Board rules and regulations that you have the right to appeal this decision to the Anderson County Civil Service Board within ten (10) days of the date of termination. You will be eligible to reapply to the Anderson County Sheriff's Department when the DCS emergency status has been removed.["]
[Officer Smith] timely requested an appeal to the [Board] on November 19, 2009.
The [Board] hearing was delayed, at the request of parties and for reasons that cannot be determined from the record in this matter.
The [Board] hearing did not take place until August 6, 2013.
The Commissioner of [DCS] affirmed the Administrative Law Judge's upholding the designation of [Officer Smith] as an "indicated" perpetrator of child abuse.
[Officer Smith] filed a lawsuit in the Chancery Court of Roane County seeking Judicial Review of the Commissioner's decision.
On August 1, 2012, the Honorable Frank V. Williams, III, of the Roane County Chancery Court, entered a Judgment reversing the determination of [DCS] and the Administrative Judge, finding that the evidence against [Officer Smith] did no[t] preponderate in favor of an indication.
Chancellor Williams specifically held in his opinion that "The Court does not find that the decision of Respondent (the Commissioner) was made arbitrarily or capriciously, or that any of his State or Federal rights have been violated."
On August 6, 2013, the [Board] conducted a hearing and unanimously upheld Sheriff White's decision to terminate [Officer Smith] in November of 2009.
The [Board] found that [Sheriff White's] actions were justified at the time he took them, based on the information available to him at the time he acted.

(Paragraph numbering omitted.)

         In addition, it is undisputed that following the Roane County Chancery Court's reversal of the administrative law judge's ("ALJ's") decision regarding the DCS classification, [1] Officer Smith's counsel sent a copy of the respective judgment to Sheriff White's counsel and requested Officer Smith's reinstatement to the Department.[2] Sheriff White acknowledged in testimony presented during the Board hearing that he declined the reinstatement request. Officer Smith then filed a "Motion for Summary Reinstatement, " based on the Roane County judgment, with the Board at the opening of the August 6, 2013 hearing. The Board denied the motion. Apart from requesting reinstatement, Officer Smith did not undergo a reapplication process with the Department.

         Officer Smith filed his petition for writ of certiorari with the trial court on September 4, 2013. On October 21, 2013, Officer Smith filed a motion for partial summary judgment on his claim that Sheriff White's November 2009 notice of termination violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution ("Due Process Clause") by "failing to provide constitutionally sufficient notice of any misconduct justifying termination of his property right."[3]Following a hearing conducted on February 7, 2014, the trial court, with former Chancellor Lantrip presiding, granted partial summary judgment in favor of Officer Smith in an order entered February 27, 2014. In that order, the trial court found that Sheriff White's November 2009 notice of termination "did not contain a valid reason for dismissal, and therefore that the initial termination of [Officer Smith's] property right in employment violated the Due Process Clause . . . ." The trial court also found that Respondents "violated the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to promptly reinstate" Officer Smith following the Roane County Chancery Court's reversal of the DCS indication.

         Respondents filed their "Motion to Revise Order" on April 29, 2014, pursuant to Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 54 and 59, asserting, inter alia, that the trial court had erroneously considered a motion for summary judgment when reviewing the Board's administrative decision. They concomitantly filed a motion to stay execution of partial summary judgment. On December 16, 2014, Officer Smith filed a response to the motion to revise the order. He also filed a "Motion for Hearing and Notice of Filing of Rule 11 Motions, " regarding the motion to dismiss previously filed on October 7, 2013. Respondents subsequently filed a response to Officer Smith's motion for sanctions and a reply to Officer Smith's response to their motion to revise the order.

         Following a hearing conducted on March 27, 2015, the trial court, with Chancellor Cantrell now presiding, vacated the prior order granting partial summary judgment. In an order and memorandum opinion entered April 21, 2015, the trial court found in relevant part:

Based on the limited information that was included in [Chancellor Lantrip's] memorandum opinion, I cannot say that he did not misapply the law in this case and relied too heavily on this later finding by Chancellor Williams [in the review of DCS's administrative determination] that there was no basis for the allegations of DCS.
The letter that the sheriff sent stated that he intended to terminate and then gave a reason for his intention to terminate, citing the [DCS] emergency status determination and then the subsequent affirmation and decision by the [ALJ].
Whatever Chancellor Williams ruled has nothing to do with those reasons, and I'm going to set it aside and we can set it for hearing again.

         Meanwhile, on April 1, 2015, Officer Smith filed an "Amended, Restated and Renewed Motion of Petitioner for Summary Judgment and/or Declaratory Judgment, " asserting that Sheriff White violated his due process rights by providing insufficient notice of termination, failing to provide a pretermination hearing, and failing to reinstate his employment following the Roane County Chancery Court's reversal of DCS's determination. He also asserted that both Respondents violated his due process rights by denying him a fair trial and denying him an opportunity to be heard at the hearing before the Board. He further asserted that the Board violated his due process rights by upholding the employment termination. Officer Smith requested reinstatement, including back pay and reimbursement for benefits; reimbursement for any expenses necessary to recertification as a peace officer; and attorney's fees, expenses, and court costs. On July 2, 2015, Respondents filed a response to Officer Smith's amended motion and their own motion for summary judgment.[4]

         Following a hearing conducted on July 10, 2015, the trial court took the matter under advisement and subsequently entered an "Opinion" on August 14, 2015. The court affirmed the Board's decision to uphold the termination of Officer Smith's employment and refusal to reinstate Officer Smith following the Roane County Chancery Court's reversal of DCS's indicated classification. The court entered an "Amended Opinion" on August 20, 2015, making essentially the same findings but reserving judgment on all issues except the amended summary judgment motion and declaratory judgment motion that had been before the court on July 10, 2015. The court denied both motions. The court then directed the parties to file briefs regarding "any outstanding claims for relief" within sixty days of the Amended Opinion's entry.

         Officer Smith and Respondents respectively filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Following a hearing conducted on January 8, 2016, the trial court entered a final judgment on February 29, 2016, affirming the Board's decision upon finding that Respondents did not violate Officer Smith's due process rights. The court specifically found as pertinent to this appeal, inter alia, that "the stated grounds for termination, the DCS indication of Smith as a perpetrator of child abuse and the affirmation of that indication by the [ALJ] meet one or more of the listed reasons the Sheriff may terminate an employee for cause" under the Policies and Procedures Governing the Operations of the Civil Service System for the Anderson County Sheriff's Department ("Department's Policies and Procedures").

         The trial court also specifically found that during the Board hearing, Officer Smith exercised his rights to appear in person, to be represented by counsel, and to cross-examine witnesses. The court further found that Officer Smith waived his right to testify before the Board when his counsel moved for involuntary dismissal at the close of Sheriff White's proof and then made an offer of proof that Officer Smith was innocent of any child abuse. In response to issues raised by Officer Smith, the court determined that the Board had reached its decision without improperly relying on the delay in scheduling the Board hearing or the fact that Officer Smith had not reapplied for employment with the Department. Officer Smith timely appealed.

         II. Issues Presented

         Officer Smith has presented eight issues for our review, which we have restated as follows:

1. Whether the trial court erred by finding that the notice of termination issued by Sheriff White provided sufficient notice of grounds for termination of Officer Smith's employment to satisfy the Due Process Clause, the requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated § 38-8-304(1), and applicable Civil Service Rules.
2. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that Sheriff White violated the Due Process Clause, Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 38-8-304(2) and 38-8-305(b), and applicable Civil Service Rules by failing to provide a meaningful pretermination hearing on the merits of any charges against Officer Smith.
3. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that Respondents violated the Due Process Clause, Tennessee Code Annotated § 38-8-304, and applicable Civil Service Rules by refusing to reinstate Officer Smith's employment after the Roane County Chancery Court determined that DCS's classification of Officer Smith as indicated in a child abuse investigation was unfounded.
4. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that the Board violated the Due Process Clause, Tennessee Code Annotated § 38-8-304, and applicable Civil Service Rules by refusing to reinstate Officer Smith's employment after Sheriff White failed to present evidence of misconduct during the Board hearing.
5. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that the Board violated the Due Process Clause, Tennessee Code Annotated § 38-8-305(b), and applicable Civil Service Rules by denying Officer Smith an opportunity to present evidence at the Board hearing.
6. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that the Board violated the Due Process Clause, Tennessee Code Annotated § 38-8-304, and applicable Civil Service Rules by improperly relying upon the delay in scheduling the Board hearing as grounds to uphold the termination.
7. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that the Board violated the Due Process Clause, Tennessee Code Annotated § 38-8-304, and applicable Civil Service Rules by improperly relying upon Officer Smith's failure to apply for re-employment as grounds to uphold his employment termination.
8. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that Officer Smith was entitled to reinstatement or front pay; back pay, including the value or cost of replacement of all lost benefits of employment; and attorney's fees at trial and on appeal pursuant to 42 United States Code § 1988.

         III. Standard of Review

         Officer Smith appeals from the trial court's judgment rendered pursuant to the statutory writ of certiorari provided by Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 27-9-101 to -114 (2000 & Supp. 2016). This writ is available following, inter alia, a civil service board proceeding affecting a civil servant's employment. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-9-101 (2000); City of Memphis v. Civil Serv. Comm'n, 238 S.W.3d 238, 242 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Sept. 24, 2007). Tennessee Code Annotated § 27-9-114(b)(1) (Supp. 2016) provides that "[j]udicial review of decisions by civil service boards of a county or municipality which affects the employment status of a county or city civil service employee shall be in conformity with the judicial review standards under the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act ["UAPA"], § 4-5-322." See, e.g., Tidwell v. City of Memphis, 193 S.W.3d 555, 564 (Tenn. 2006) (concluding that "under section 27-9-114, " proceedings before a city's on-the-job inquiry panel, "as well as the standard of judicial review of its decisions, are governed by the UAPA."); Hoback v. City of Chattanooga, 492 S.W.3d 248, 257 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015), perm app. denied (Tenn. Feb. 18, 2016) (determining that Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-5-322(h) provided the proper standard of review for a city council's action affecting a police officer's employment).

Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-5-322(h) (2015) provides:
(h) The court may affirm the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings. The court may reverse or modify the decision if the rights of the petitioner have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions or decisions are:
(1) In violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
(2) In excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
(3) Made upon unlawful procedure;
(4) Arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion; or
(5) (A) Unsupported by evidence that is both substantial and material in the light of the entire record.
(B) In determining the substantiality of evidence, the court shall take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight, but the court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as ...

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