February 8, 2017 Session
by Permission from the Court of Appeals Chancery Court for
Davidson County No. 141380I Claudia C. Bonnyman, Chancellor
granted this appeal to determine whether a "preferred
service" state employee has a protected property
interest in his or her employment and whether due process or
specific statutory language requires the State to bear the
ultimate burden of proof in a post-termination administrative
appeal under section 8-30-318 of the Tennessee Excellence,
Accountability, and Management Act of 2012, Tenn. Code Ann.
§§ 8-30-101 through -407. The Respondent, David
Pressley, was employed by the Petitioner, Tennessee
Department of Correction, as a correctional officer at the
Morgan County Correctional Complex. Mr. Pressley was
dismissed from his employment and challenged his termination
pursuant to the TEAM Act's appeals process. Mr.
Pressley's termination was upheld by the Commissioner of
TDOC at Step I of the TEAM Act's appeals process and at
Step II by the Commissioner of Human Resources. At Step III
of the appeals process, the Board of Appeals reinstated Mr.
Pressley and reduced his discipline to a 14-day suspension.
The Board of Appeals also determined that the State bore the
ultimate burden of proof in the Step III appeal. The State
appealed to chancery court, challenging the assignment of the
burden of proof. The chancery court reversed the Board of
Appeals' decision on the burden of proof issue and
remanded the matter to the Board of Appeals. Mr. Pressley
appealed to the Court of Appeals which, in turn, reversed the
chancery court's decision and determined that
"preferred service" state employees have a
protected property interest in their employment and that the
State bore the ultimate burden of proof in the Step III
appeal. We reverse the Court of Appeals' judgment and
remand this matter to the Board of Appeals for further
proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of
Appeals Reversed; Remanded to the Board of Appeals
Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter;
Andrée Sophia Blumstein, Solicitor General; Ann M.
Mikkelsen, Assistant Attorney General; and Joseph F. Whalen,
Associate Solicitor General, for the appellant, Tennessee
Department of Correction.
J. Scanlon and Samuel P. Helmbrecht, Nashville, Tennessee,
for the appellee, David Pressley.
Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court,
in which Cornelia A. Clark, Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and
Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.
JEFFREY S. BIVINS, CHIEF JUSTICE
and Procedural Background
Respondent, David Pressley ("Mr. Pressley"), was
employed by the Petitioner, Tennessee Department of
Correction ("TDOC" or "the State"),
beginning in November of 2011 as a correctional officer at
the Morgan County Correctional Complex ("MCCX" or
"the prison"). On January 8, 2014, Mr. Pressley
received a letter from the prison warden (the
"Warden") notifying him that he had been dismissed
from his employment. The letter alleged that on the night of
January 6, 2014, and the morning of January 7, 2014, video
surveillance cameras showed that Mr. Pressley allowed inmates
to pilfer large amounts of food from the prison kitchen,
prepare some of the food, and leave the kitchen area with
large quantities of food while he was supervising the
cleaning of the prison kitchen. The letter also alleged that
Mr. Pressley wrongfully accessed a secure food storage area
secured by a tamper seal. The letter charged that this
alleged conduct violated "MCCX Service/Dining
Room-Security Post Orders" ("Post Orders") and
Department of Human Resources Rules pertaining to
"incompetency" and "negligence" in the
performance of duties and conduct unbecoming an employee in
state service. The letter stated that Mr. Pressley's
employment would be terminated effective January 17, 2014,
and that, as a preferred service employee, Mr. Pressley had
the right to file a written complaint challenging his
to the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability, and Management
Act of 2012 (the "TEAM Act" or the
"Act"), discussed in detail below, Mr. Pressley
initiated a Step I review challenging his dismissal by filing
a complaint with the Commissioner of TDOC. The complaint
specifically alleged that "[t]he department did not have
cause to take such action." By letter dated February 3,
2014, the Commissioner of TDOC, Derrick D. Schofield, upheld
Mr. Pressley's termination. On or about February 12,
2014, Mr. Pressley filed a request for a Step II review. On
March 10, 2014, the Commissioner of Human Resources (the
"Commissioner"), Rebecca R. Hunter, upheld Mr.
Pressley's dismissal at his Step II review, finding no
"violation by the Department [of Correction] due to [Mr.
Pressley's] failure to demonstrate how the Department [of
Correction] violated [Tennessee Code Annotated Section
his failure to obtain relief at his Step II review, Mr.
Pressley initiated a Step III review by filing an appeal with
the Board of Appeals ("the Board"). In the appeal,
he argued that there was no cause for his termination and
that his termination represented too severe a punishment for
his alleged conduct. In an order dated March 21, 2014, the
chief administrative law judge preliminarily assigned the
burden of proof to TDOC pursuant to Tennessee Rules &
Regulations 1360-04-01-.02(3) & (7) (2004) of the Uniform
Rules of Procedure for Hearing Contested Cases before
Administrative Agencies. The order indicated that if either
party wished to contest the determination regarding the
burden of proof, it could do so by filing a written brief and
memorandum. TDOC filed a written brief and memorandum,
arguing that the ultimate burden of proof should be placed on
Mr. Pressley because he was the moving party. Mr. Pressley
responded in opposition, and the chief administrative law
judge ruled at a pre-hearing conference that the issue of
burden of proof would be decided by the administrative law
judge ("ALJ") who was ultimately assigned to hear
Pressley's appeal proceeded to a contested hearing on
June 23 and August 8, 2014, before the Board. During the
hearing, the ALJ presiding over the case upheld the prior
ALJ's order assigning the burden of proof to TDOC. After
the conclusion of the hearing, the Board issued a final
ruling containing detailed findings of fact and conclusions
of law. In summary, the Board found that TDOC had failed to
carry its burden of proof on all but one alleged act of
misconduct. Specifically, the Board found that Mr. Pressley
had obtained advance permission from his supervisor to take
food from the secure storage area in order to prepare meals
for the third shift that evening. Additionally, the Board
found that there was not sufficient evidence that Mr.
Pressley broke tamper seals to enter the secure food storage
area to support his dismissal.
Board likewise determined that two correctional officers
assigned to search the inmates upon the inmates' return
to the housing unit found no contraband, food or otherwise,
on the inmates Mr. Pressley had been supervising in the
kitchen. Accordingly, the Board concluded that TDOC had
failed to meet its burden to demonstrate Mr. Pressley had
committed a violation of the Post Orders or Tennessee
Department of Human Resources Rule 1120.10-.03(2) concerning
incompetence. The Board, however, found that TDOC carried its
burden of proof with regard to Tennessee Department of Human
Resources Rule 1120.10-.03(3) "negligence in the
performance of duty, " by establishing that Mr. Pressley
had failed to file a written report after going into the
secure food storage area. Consequently, the Board issued Mr.
Pressley a fourteen-day suspension without pay. The Board
denied Mr. Pressley's request for attorney's fees.
the State and Mr. Pressley filed petitions for judicial
review in the chancery court. For its part, the State argued
that the ALJ improperly placed the burden of proof on TDOC in
Mr. Pressley's Step III appeal, while Mr. Pressley
countered that any punishment was not supported by the
evidence adduced before the Board. The two cases were
consolidated, and the chancery court ultimately entered an
order vacating the Board of Appeals' decision,
determining that the ALJ advising the Board of Appeals made
an erroneous assignment of the burden of proof during Mr.
Pressley's Step III appeal. Accordingly, the chancery
court vacated the Board's decision and remanded the case
to the Board to apply the burden of proof in the appropriate
Pressley appealed the chancery court decision to the
Tennessee Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed the
chancery court's decision on the allocation of the burden
of proof and determined that the State, rather than Mr.
Pressley, had the ultimate burden to show cause to sustain
the dismissal or suspension of an employee in a Step III
appeal pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 8-30-318.
Tenn. Dep't of Corr. v. Pressley,
M2016-00902-COA-R3-CV, 2016 WL 1559138, at *14 (Tenn. Ct.
App. Apr. 14, 2016), appeal granted (Sept. 23,
2016). The Court of Appeals reached this decision based upon
its conclusion that preferred service employees under the
TEAM Act have a protected property interest in their
continued employment. Id. at *12. The Court of
Appeals reasoned that, if a preferred service employee has a
protected property interest in continued employment, the
preferred service employee possesses due process rights that
must be protected. Id. at *14. The Court of Appeals
then ultimately concluded that the due process protections
enjoyed by a preferred service employee required that the
State bear the burden of proof at Step III of the TEAM
Act's appeals process. Id. Thus, the Court of Appeals
held that the Board did not err in requiring the State to
prove that there was sufficient evidence for Mr.
Pressley's termination and sufficient evidence that the
Board's punishment was appropriate. Id. at *15.
Mr. Pressley's appeal, the Court of Appeals also
concluded that the Board erred in imposing any discipline on
Mr. Pressley because of a lack of substantial and material
evidence in the record to support the Board's conclusion
that Mr. Pressley committed negligence in failing to file an
incident report on the night of January 6, 2014. Id.
at *17. Finally, the Court of Appeals determined that Mr.
Pressley was entitled to attorney's fees as the
"successfully appealing employee" before the Board
of Appeals. Id. at *19. Accordingly, the Court of
Appeals reversed the chancery court's judgment in all
respects and remanded the case to the chancery court for a
determination of Mr. Pressley's reasonable attorney's
fees pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section
granted the State permission to appeal to address the
question of whether a preferred service employee has a
protected property interest in his or her employment under
the TEAM Act. If we answer that question in the negative, we
then address the issue of whether the language of the TEAM
Act itself requires that the State bear the ultimate burden
of proof in a post-termination administrative appeal under
the TEAM Act. For the reasons stated below, we hold that Mr.
Pressley and other similarly situated preferred service
employees do not possess a protected property interest in
their employment with the State. We also conclude that Mr.
Pressley bore the ultimate burden of proof at his Step III
hearing. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of
Appeals and remand this case to the Board for further
proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
the TEAM Act, Board of Appeals' decisions are subject to
judicial review in accordance with the Uniform Administrative
Procedures Act ("UAPA"). Tenn. Code Ann. §
8-30-318(j) (2016). Therefore, this Court, as well as the
trial and intermediate appellate courts, reviews the
Board's decision under the narrowly defined standard of
review contained in the UAPA, Tenn. Code Ann. §
4-5-322(h) (2015 & Supp. 2016), rather than under the
broad standard of review used in other civil appeals,
Davis v. Shelby Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't., 278
S.W.3d 256, 263-64 (Tenn. 2009). Accordingly, pursuant to
Tennessee Code Annotated section 4-5-322:
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
(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 to the weight of the
evidence on questions of fact.
Code Ann. § 4-5-322(h). Applying this standard of
review, a reviewing court may reverse the Board's
decision only if one or more of the five enumerated grounds
for reversal are present. Id.; Davis, 278
S.W.3d at 264.
case also involves the application and interpretation of the
TEAM Act. Issues of statutory interpretation and the
application of a statute to the facts of a case are
determinations involving questions of law and are reviewed
under a de novo standard with no presumption of correctness
afforded to either the trial court or intermediate court of
appeals. State v. Sherman, 266 S.W.3d 395, 401
(Tenn. 2008). We independently construe the relevant
provisions of the TEAM Act without deference to the
interpretations made by TDOC, the chancery court, or the
Court of Appeals. See In re Kaliyah S., 455 S.W.3d
533, 552 (Tenn. 2015).
engaging in statutory interpretation, 'well-defined
precepts apply.'" State v. Howard, 504
S.W.3d 260, 269 (Tenn. 2016) (quoting State v.
McNack, 356 S.W.3d 906, 908 (Tenn. 2011)). "The
most basic principle of statutory construction is to
ascertain and give effect to the legislative intent without
unduly restricting or expanding a statute's coverage
beyond its intended scope." Id. (citing
Owens v. State, 908 S.W.2d 923, 926 (Tenn. 1995)).
The text of the statute is of primary importance. Mills
v. Fulmarque, Inc., 360 S.W.3d 362, 368 (Tenn. 2012).
When a statute is ambiguous, we may reference the broader
statutory scheme, the history of the legislation, or other
sources. Sherman, 266 S.W.3d at 401 (citing
Parks v. Tenn. Mun. League Risk Mgmt. Pool, 974