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Durham v. Martin

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

December 8, 2017

JEREMY R. DURHAM, Plaintiff,
LARRY MARTIN, as Commissioner of Finance and Administration of the State of Tennessee, in his official capacity; CONNIE RIDLEY, as Director of Legislative Administration for the State of Tennessee, in her official capacity; and DAVID H. LILLARD, JR., as Treasurer of the State of Tennessee, Defendants.


          ALETA A. TRAUGER United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Jeremy R. Durham has filed suit against defendants Larry Martin, Tennessee Commissioner of Finance and Administration; Connie Ridley, Tennessee Director of Legislative Administration; and David H. Lillard, Jr., Tennessee State Treasurer, in their official capacities. The plaintiff asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his right to procedural due process, and he seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. (Compl., Doc. No. 1.) Now before the court is the defendants' Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. No. 8.) The motion has been fully briefed by both parties and is ripe for review. For the reasons set forth herein, the motion will be granted, and this case will be dismissed.

         I. Factual Allegations

         Plaintiff Jeremy Durham was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in November 2012 and again in November 2014, where he served until his expulsion on September 13, 2016. This lawsuit stems from that event, although it does not purport to challenge it directly.

         On September 2, 2016, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam issued a proclamation to convene the Tennessee General Assembly for a special session. As set forth in the proclamation, the purpose of the special session was to “[c]onsider[] and act[] upon legislation necessary to ensure that Tennessee law prohibiting an individual under the age of 21 from operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol maintains compliance with 23 U.S.C. § 161” (Proclamation, Doc. No. 1-2), in order to avoid losing up to $60 million in federal highway funds. The other purposes of the special session identified by the proclamation were to “[c]onsider[] and act[] upon legislation to address any other instances of noncompliance . . . with federal [law] relating to federal-aid highway funding, ” make appropriations necessary to provide first-year funding for any such legislation, and make appropriations to pay for the special legislative session. (Id.)

         The special legislative session was authorized by Article III, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution. (Id.) That provision specifically empowers the governor, “on extraordinary occasions, [to] convene the General Assembly by proclamation, in which he shall state specifically the purposes for which they are to convene.” Tenn. Const. art. III, § 9. On such occasions, the General Assembly “shall enter on no legislative business except that for which they were specifically called together.” Id.

         On September 13, 2016, the second day of the special session, Representative Susan Lynn (R - Mt. Juliet) introduced a motion in the House of Representatives to expel Durham. The Tennessee House of Representatives eventually voted on the motion and approved it by a margin of seventy votes in favor of expulsion to two against. Durham was immediately expelled from the House of Representatives.

         The House's authority to expel Durham arose from a different provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which states in relevant part that “[e]ach House may . . ., with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” Tenn. Const. art. II, § 12. Durham nonetheless maintains that the House of Representatives had no authority under the Tennessee Constitution to expel him during the special session, because the General Assembly's authority under Article III, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution is limited to the consideration of those matters of “legislative business” specifically identified in the proclamation calling for the special session. His expulsion was not a matter identified in the Governor's proclamation.

         Shortly after his expulsion from the legislature, Durham inquired about the status of his health insurance coverage. He was informed that, as a result of the vote to expel him on September 13, his insurance coverage as an active state employee would terminate on September 30, 2016, after which date he would be eligible for COBRA coverage. An email attached to the Complaint, from Angie Gargara, Benefits Administration, to Tammy Rather, which the plaintiff claims was forwarded to him, states:

The question of whether former Representative Durham is entitled to lifetime coverage as a retiree was decided by Commissioner Martin after consultation with the Attorney General's office. It is the Department's decision that expulsion from the General Assembly does not constitute “retirement” that the law requires for lifetime coverage, so Representative Durham is not entitled to that benefit. The Attorney General interpreted “retirement” to exclude expulsion in Attorney General Opinion 80-147.

         (Doc. No. 1-3, at 1.)

         The plaintiff claims that his unlawful expulsion from the House of Representatives resulted in the loss of his right to lifetime health insurance coverage as well as the loss of a state pension to which he would have otherwise been entitled.

         The Complaint alleges that the defendants “are public officials of the State of Tennessee, ” each of whom “either oversees, administers, or regulates state insurance and benefit plans in some capacity.” (Compl. ¶ 5.) Defendant Larry Martin, Commissioner of Finance and Administration for the State of Tennessee, is “responsible for administering state benefit plans for elected members of state government.” (Compl. ¶ 12.) Defendant Connie Ridley, Director of Legislative Administration for the State of Tennessee, is “responsible for all administrative matters and member benefits for the Tennessee General Assembly.” (Comp. ¶ 13.) Defendant David H. Lillard, Jr., Treasurer for the State of Tennessee, “overseas the daily operation of the State retirement system.” (Compl. ¶ 14.)

         To be clear, the plaintiff does not actually challenge the constitutionality of the state statutes and regulations that govern his claims to health and retirement benefits or the correctness of the state officials' interpretation of state benefits law. Rather, he simply contends that his expulsion from the legislature violated the Tennessee Constitution and, as a result, violated his “protected property interest in his state benefits, specifically his pension and insurance benefits.” (Compl. ¶ 3.) Durham claims that, “[b]ased on the plain language of Article III, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution and prior failed attempts to call a special session for the specific purpose of expelling him, [he] had the reasonable understanding that he would retain his state benefits (lifetime health insurance and a state pension) at the end of his term.” (Compl. ¶ 28.) He also asserts that he was “afforded no post-deprivation remedy to challenge his expulsion or deprivation of his state benefits.” (Compl. ¶ 29.) Consequently, he claims that he was been deprived of his constitutional right to due process, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         II. The Defendants' Motion

         The defendants' motion seeks dismissal of the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and, alternatively, under Rule 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted. They argue in support of the motion that (1) the plaintiff lacks standing, both because he fails to identify an injury in fact caused by the defendants and because he fails to identify a violation of the laws or Constitution of the United States; (2) even if he has standing, he lacks a protected property interest in either his elected office or in receiving lifetime state benefits, for purposes of asserting a due process claim under § 1983; and (3) even if he had a protected property interest, he was afforded all the process that was due. In the alternative, the defendants argue that, if the court finds that dismissal is not warranted on any of the above grounds, the court should abstain or dismiss the Complaint under the Pullman abstention doctrine or certify the state ...

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