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Simpson v. Bradley County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 18, 2017

ANTONIO LENEAL SIMPSON
v.
BRADLEY COUNTY, TENNESSEE, ET AL.

          Assigned On Briefs December 4, 2017

         Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Bradley County No. V-14-418 J. Michael Sharp, Judge

         Appellant filed a complaint after he was terminated from his employment with the Bradley County, Tennessee Sheriff's Department. The complaint alleges a violation of procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, breach of contract, and violation of Tennessee Code Annotated section 38-8-304. The County filed a motion for summary judgment on various grounds and a second motion to dismiss on the basis that Appellant's claims were barred by the one year statute of limitations. The trial court granted the County's motion for summary judgment and by separate order granted the County's motion to dismiss on the basis that the one year statute of limitations applied. We affirm.

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

          John McConnell Wolfe, Jr., Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Antonio Leneal Simpson.

          Thomas E. LeQuire, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, Bradley County, Tennessee, Gwen Beavers, and Jim Ruth.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins, and Thomas R. Frierson, II, J.J., joined.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Antonio Leneal Simpson was employed by the Bradley County, Tennessee Sheriff's Department. Mr. Simpson's complaint alleges that he was terminated from his employment with the Sheriff's Department on September 10, 2010, after confronting a student on a school bus regarding bullying against his own daughter. Mr. Simpson alleges that he was not interviewed and that the Sheriff's Department provided no pre-termination hearing.

         Mr. Simpson's complaint, which was filed on June 10, 2014, named "Bradley County, Tennessee Government Office, " Sheriff Jim Ruth, in his individual and official capacity, and Gwen Beavers, in her individual and official capacity, as defendants. As relevant to this appeal, the complaint alleges a violation of procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, breach of contract, and violation of Tennessee Code Annotated section 38-8-304.[2]

         The County initially filed a motion to dismiss, which resulted in the dismissal of certain claims not at issue in this appeal. The County then filed a motion for summary judgment in August 2016. The County argued that Mr. Simpson was an employee at will, noting that Mr. Simpson signed two acknowledgements affirming his understanding that he was an employee at will, had no contract of employment, and could be terminated without notice and without cause. The County argued that its employee handbook, operations and procedures manual, or other written rules did not create a contract of employment. The County also asserted that, because Mr. Simpson did not have a protected property interest in his ongoing employment, he could not state a claim for violation of his due process rights under the United States Constitution. Finally, the County argued that Tennessee Code Annotated section 38-8-304 did not apply to Mr. Simpson because he had no protected property interest in his employment.

         In his response to the motion for summary judgment, Mr. Simpson argued that the "Bradley County Sheriff's Department Employment Protection Plan, " created by private act in 1995, "protects plaintiff from arbitrary firing, … from job discrimination based in political affiliation …, and from termination where just cause is absent."[3] Mr. Simpson also argued that the jail division's policy and procedure manual created a "reasonable expectation of continued employment." Mr. Simpson's response to the County's motion for summary judgment relied solely on the documents described above and cited no statutory or case law authority for his arguments.

         Before arguments on the County's motion for summary judgment, the County filed a second motion to dismiss on September 26, 2016. The County argued that Mr. Simpson's claims for violation of his procedural and substantive due process rights were barred by the statute of limitations. The County asserted that these claims were governed by a one-year statute of limitations by virtue of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-3-104. Mr. Simpson argued that the County's second motion to dismiss was filed outside the deadline for dispositive motions set out in the trial court's scheduling order. The trial court allowed Mr. Simpson additional time to file a response to the motion to dismiss. In his response, Mr. Simpson argued that 42 U.S.C. § 1981's four-year statute of limitations applied to this case.

         On or about October 3, 2016, Mr. Simpson filed a motion to amend his complaint. Mr. Simpson asserted that he did not intend to assert any new claims, but with respect to his claims for breach of contract, he sought to specifically plead that the County breached the private acts of Bradley County, as well as the policies and procedures of the jail division. The motion to amend also sought to include 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, where applicable. The trial court ultimately granted Mr. Simpson's motion to amend.

         On October 21, 2016, the trial court entered an order granting the County's motion for summary judgment. The trial court found that no provision in the employee handbook created a contract for employment and that Mr. Simpson signed multiple acknowledgements regarding his status as an at-will employee. The trial court found that Mr. Simpson "was an employee at will, there was no contract of employment, and Bradley County is entitled to [] summary judgment on the [] breach of contract claim."

         The trial court also considered Mr. Simpson's argument that Tennessee Code Annotated section 38-8-304 applies in some way to his employment. The trial court found this section inapplicable to Mr. Simpson's employment with the County because the County created no property interest in his employment and because Mr. Simpson alleged in his complaint that there were procedures in the employee handbook dealing with disciplinary action.

         The trial court granted the County's motion to dismiss via separate order, finding that the one year statute of limitations applied. Ten days later, Mr. Simpson filed his "Amendments to Complaint." After the trial court denied Mr. Simpson's motion to alter or amend, he timely filed this appeal.

         ISSUES

         Mr. Simpson, as appellant, raises the following issues on appeal, as ...


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