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Washington County School System v. City of Johnson City

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 27, 2017

WASHINGTON COUNTY SCHOOL SYSTEM BY AND THROUGH THE WASHINGTON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION ET AL.
v.
THE CITY OF JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEE

          Session August 8, 2017

         Interlocutory Appeal from the Chancery Court for Washington County No. 42491 E. G. Moody, Chancellor

         This is one of four separate actions currently before this Court with the common issue of whether the version of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a)(2)(A) in effect prior to the July 2014 amendment of that statute required a municipality governed by its own liquor-by-the-drink referendum and operating its own school system to share one-half of its liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue with the county in which the municipality was located when the county had not enacted a liquor-by-the-drink referendum. The county commenced the instant action by filing a complaint requesting declaratory judgment of its asserted right to a portion of liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue collected within the municipality. The city filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the municipality's motion for summary judgment and granted declaratory judgment to the county, declaring that the municipality was required to share with the county its liquor-by-the-drink tax monies distributed to it by the Tennessee Commissioner of Revenue ("the Commissioner") in the manner that county property tax was expended and distributed. The trial court reserved issues of prejudgment interest and the amount of unremitted tax revenue for an evidentiary hearing. The municipality subsequently filed an unopposed motion for interlocutory appeal, which was granted, respectively, by the trial court and this Court. Determining that the municipality was not required under the applicable version of the statute to share its liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue with the county, we reverse the trial court's grant of declaratory judgment and grant summary judgment in favor of the municipality, dismissing the county's complaint.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 9 Interlocutory Appeal; Judgment of the Chancery Court Reversed; Case Remanded

          K. Erickson Herrin, Johnson City, Tennessee, for the appellant, The City of Johnson City, Tennessee.

          James F. Logan, Jr., Cleveland, Tennessee, for the appellees, Washington County School System, by and through the Washington County Board of Education, and Washington County, Tennessee.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The facts underlying this action are essentially undisputed. Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-301(c) (2013 & Supp. 2017) provides for a tax "to include each and every retail" of an alcoholic beverage sold for consumption on the premises by various establishments delineated in section -301, such as restaurants, hotels, sports facilities, and private clubs. This tax is commonly referred to as a "liquor-by-the-drink tax." See Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-4-306 (2013 & Supp. 2017); Copper Cellar Corp. v. Jackson, 762 S.W.2d 560, 562 (Tenn. 1988). Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306, originally enacted in 1967, prescribes the manner in which proceeds from the liquor-by-the-drink tax are to be distributed, primarily in support of public education. At issue in this action is the version of section -306 in effect prior to the Tennessee General Assembly's 2014 amendment of that statutory section ("2014 Amendment"). See 2014 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. 901 § 1 (H.B. 1403). Particularly at issue is statutory language added to subsection -306(a)(2)(A) through an amendment made by the General Assembly in 1982 ("1982 Amendment"). See 1982 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. 942, §§ 1-2 (S.B. 1817).

         The City of Johnson City ("the City") passed a liquor-by-the-drink referendum in 1980. The citizens of Washington County ("the County") had never had such a referendum put before them at the time this action was commenced. As the trial court noted, the City had continuously operated its own school system since at least the 1967 enactment of the liquor-by-the-drink statutory scheme by the General Assembly. Since passage of the 1980 referendum, the City had received fifty percent of gross receipt taxes arising from sales of liquor by the drink. The City had not distributed any of its liquor-by-the-drink revenue to the Washington County School System or to Washington County generally. Simultaneously, within the unincorporated areas of the County, private clubs had legally sold alcohol for consumption on the premises through the time this action was commenced. The Commissioner had distributed one-half of those funds to the County, which in turn distributed one-quarter (or one-half of the half it had received) among the school systems in the County, including the City's school system.

         On May 2, 2014, the Washington County School System ("the County School System"), acting by and through the Washington County Board of Education ("the County Board"), filed a complaint in the Washington County Chancery Court ("trial court"), seeking declaratory judgment regarding the rights and responsibilities of the parties concerning the liquor-by-the-drink tax. The County Board requested, inter alia, an order directing the City to remit to the County Board the "full amount of unremitted tax revenues" plus prejudgment interest.

         On June 27, 2014, the City filed a motion to dismiss the complaint or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The City asserted, as pertinent to this appeal, that (1) the County Board's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6), (2) Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a) (2013) did not operate to require the City to remit any part of its portion of liquor-by-the-drink tax proceeds received from the Commissioner to the County's school system, and (3) Title 57, Chapter 4 of the Tennessee Code was not applicable to the County because the County had not authorized liquor-by-the-drink sales. In support of the latter argument, the City contended that because the County had not authorized liquor-by-the-drink sales, all of Title 57, Chapter 4, including section -306, did not apply to the County. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-4-103(a) (2013 & Supp. 2017) ("This chapter shall be effective in any jurisdiction which authorizes the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises in a referendum . . . .").

         In its motion to dismiss, the City also asserted that the County Board lacked the capacity to commence and maintain this lawsuit against the City. The County Board filed a response on November 12, 2014, requesting denial of the City's motion. The parties subsequently filed additional pleadings and exhibits concerning the City's motion, including, as attached to a pleading filed by the City, a copy of the legislative history surrounding the 1982 Amendment. On April 28, 2015, the County filed a petition to intervene as a co-plaintiff, and the County Board filed a motion the following day, seeking to amend the complaint to add the County as a co-plaintiff. The City filed responses objecting to the County's intervention and the amendment of the complaint. Following a hearing, the trial court entered an order on June 1, 2015, granting the motion to intervene and the motion to amend the complaint, with the effect of joining the County with the County Board as joint plaintiffs. We will hereinafter refer to the plaintiffs collectively as "the County."

         On June 15, 2015, the City filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment that allowed the County to intervene. On February 16, 2016, the City filed an answer to the County's amended complaint and a renewed motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. In its answer, the City also renewed its motion to alter or amend the judgment allowing the County's intervention. Also on February 16, 2016, the parties filed an agreed notice of hearing for all pending motions. The County subsequently filed a response to the City's motion for summary judgment, and the City filed a reply.

         In the meantime, the General Assembly amended Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a)(2), effective July 1, 2014, setting forth, inter alia, a detailed process by which counties that were owed funds by municipalities under Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306 could seek those funds and negotiate settlements as applicable. See 2014 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. 901 § 1 (H.B. 1403). The 2014 Amendment included a distinction between the liquor-by-the-drink tax proceeds received by a local political subdivision in the time period spanning July 1, 2014, until June 30, 2015, and those proceeds received after July 1, 2015, when, according to the 2014 Amendment, the statute would revert back to its pre-amendment language. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-4-306(b)-(c) (Supp. 2014); 2014 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. 901 § 1 (H.B. 1403). However, the General Assembly has also amended Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306 each year since the 2014 Amendment, extending the amended language in subsequent years, one year at a time. See 2015 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. 220 §§ 1, 2 (S.B. 990); 2016 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. 885 §§ 1, 2 (H.B. 1691); 2017 Tenn. Pub. Acts, Ch. 346 §§ 1, 2 (S.B. 1262). In this action, the City attached a copy of the legislative history surrounding the 2014 Amendment to its reply to the response filed by the County to the City's motion for summary judgment.

         Following a hearing conducted on March 8, 2016, the trial court entered an order on October 27, 2016, granting declaratory judgment in favor of the County, denying the City's motion for summary judgment, and directing the City to pay the County unremitted liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue in the same manner as the county property tax was distributed. The court specifically found that the language of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a)(2)(A) (2013) and the meaning of "jurisdiction" as it was used in Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-103(a)(1) were ambiguous. The court then examined the legislative history of the 2014 Amendment but made no reference in its order to the legislative history underlying the 1982 Amendment that effected the governing version of subsection -306(a)(2)(A). Although the court found the legislative history surrounding the 2014 Amendment to be "ambiguous" in terms of determining the General Assembly's intent, the court agreed "with the County's argument that it would be counterintuitive for the legislature to codify a remedial measure allowing an 'aggrieved' county school board to recover Consumption Tax proceeds from a municipality operating its own school system if the legislature never intended such an outcome."

         The trial court went on to find that because "there are ambiguities in both the statute and in the legislative history, the Court must consider public policy concerns." The court concluded in pertinent part:

[P]ublic policy and the principles of equity and fairness demand that students across the State receive essentially the same education opportunities whether they attend City or County schools. Any other result would be inequitable, unjust and against a well settled public policy of equal education opportunities for all students in the State.

         The court also found that principles of equity favored the County's argument because the County had consistently expended and distributed the liquor-by-the-drink sales taxes it received from the Commissioner for private club sales to all schools in the County in the manner that the county property tax for schools was expended and distributed. The court reserved issues regarding prejudgment interest and the amount of unremitted tax revenue for an evidentiary hearing.

         During the March 2016 hearing, the City raised a constitutional argument, positing that if the trial court were to adopt the County's interpretation of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a) (2013) and hold that a privilege tax collected in the Cities should have benefitted citizens of another jurisdiction, such a holding would render the statute in violation of Article II, Section 29 of the Tennessee Constitution.[1] Maintaining that public education is a "State function, " the trial court found that "Article II, Section 29 of the Tennessee Constitution does not apply."

         The City filed an unopposed motion for interlocutory appeal on December 2, 2016, which was granted by the trial court in an order entered December 29, 2016. The trial court noted in its order that other cases with the same issue of statutory interpretation were scheduled for appeal before this Court. This Court subsequently granted permission for interlocutory appeal. Upon a motion to consolidate filed by the appellants in a separate action sharing the same overarching question of statutory interpretation, this Court entered an order on May 26, 2017, granting the motion "only to the extent that these cases shall be set for oral argument on the same docket and on the same day."[2]

         II. Issues Presented

         Pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 9, "we are limited on appeal to the questions certified by the trial court in its order granting permission to seek an interlocutory appeal and in this Court's order granting the appeal." In re Bridgestone/Firestone & Ford Motor Co. Litig., 286 S.W.3d 898, 902 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008). This Court directed in its order granting interlocutory appeal that the issues would be as certified by the trial court in its order granting interlocutory review. We note, however, that the trial court in its order did not expressly state the issues certified for review. The trial court did provide a detailed rationale for approving interlocutory review, referencing the other cases currently before this Court involving interpretation of the pre-2014 version of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a) and the need for appellate review of differing trial court decisions. We therefore summarize the issues before us as in the other three cases currently before this Court on the same overarching question of statutory interpretation. As such, this Court has granted an interlocutory appeal in the instant action to address the following issues:

1. Whether the trial court erred by finding that the version of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a)(2)(A) in effect prior to the 2014 Amendment required the City, as a municipality governed by its own liquor-by-the-drink referendum and operating its own school system, to share one-half of its liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue with the County when the County had not enacted a liquor-by-the-drink referendum.
2. Whether the trial court erred by finding that the pre-2014 version of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a)(2) required that one-half of all liquor-by-the-drink sales tax revenue received by the City must be distributed in support of education in the same manner as the County property tax is distributed.[3]

         III. Standard of Review

         The issue raised in this interlocutory appeal is a question of law. We review questions of law, including those of statutory construction, de novo with no presumption of correctness. See Cunningham v. Williamson Cnty. Hosp. Dist., 405 S.W.3d 41, 43 (Tenn.2013) (citing Mills v. Fulmarque, Inc., 360 S.W.3d 362, 366 (Tenn. 2012)). The trial court in this action granted declaratory judgment in favor of the County. Tennessee's Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act provides, inter alia, that any person "whose rights, status, or other legal relations are affected by a statute . . . may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the . . . statute . . . and obtain a declaration of rights, status or other legal relations thereunder." Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-14-103 (2012). Although Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-14-108 (2012) provides for the determination of an issue of fact within an action for declaratory judgment, "ideally and ordinarily" such an action does not invoke disputed issues of fact. See Goodwin v. Metro. Bd. of Health, 656 S.W.2d 383, 387 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983). To the extent that we may need to review the factual findings of the trial court, we presume those findings to be correct and will not overturn them unless the evidence preponderates against them. See Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d); Morrison v. Allen, 338 S.W.3d 417, 425-26 (Tenn. 2011).

         The trial court also denied the City's motion for summary judgment. The grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment is a matter of law; therefore, our standard of review is de novo with no presumption of correctness. See Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015); Dick Broad. Co., Inc. of Tenn. v. Oak Ridge FM, Inc., 395 S.W.3d 653, 671 (Tenn. 2013) (citing Kinsler v. Berkline, LLC, 320 S.W.3d 796, 799 (Tenn. 2010)). As such, this Court must "make a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied." Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 250. "Statutory construction is a question of law that is reviewable on a de novo basis without any presumption of correctness." In re Estate of Tanner, 295 S.W.3d 610, 613 (Tenn. 2009).

         As our Supreme Court has explained concerning the requirements for a movant to prevail on a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56:

We reiterate that a moving party seeking summary judgment by attacking the nonmoving party's evidence must do more than make a conclusory assertion that summary judgment is appropriate on this basis. Rather, Tennessee Rule 56.03 requires the moving party to support its motion with "a separate concise statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue for trial." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. "Each fact is to be set forth in a separate, numbered paragraph and supported by a specific citation to the record." Id. When such a motion is made, any party opposing summary judgment must file a response to each fact set forth by the movant in the manner provided in Tennessee Rule 56.03. "[W]hen a motion for summary judgment is made [and] . . . supported as provided in [Tennessee Rule 56], " to survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleading, " but must respond, and by affidavits or one of the other means provided in Tennessee Rule 56, "set forth specific facts" at the summary judgment stage "showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06. The nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. [574, ] 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348');">106 S.Ct. 1348 [(1986)]. The nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record which could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the nonmoving party. If a summary judgment motion is filed before adequate time for discovery has been provided, the nonmoving party may seek a continuance to engage in additional discovery as provided in Tennessee Rule 56.07. However, after adequate time for discovery has been provided, summary judgment should be granted if the nonmoving party's evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04, 56.06. The focus is on the evidence the nonmoving party comes forward with at the summary judgment stage, not on hypothetical evidence that theoretically could be adduced, despite the passage of discovery deadlines, at a future trial.

Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 264-65 (emphasis in original). Pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56.04, the trial court must "state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion" for summary judgment, and our Supreme Court has instructed that the trial court must state these grounds "before it invites or requests the prevailing party to draft a proposed order." See Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., 439 S.W.3d 303, 316 (Tenn. 2014).

         IV. Distribution of Liquor-by-the-Drink Tax Revenue

         The City contends that the trial court erred by finding that the version of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a)(2)(A) (2013) in effect prior to the 2014 Amendment required the City to share one-half of its liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue with the County's school system. The City asserts that the governing statute directed that because the City operated its own school system, the portion of its liquor-by-the-drink revenue not paid into the state's general education fund was to be split between the City's school system and the City itself. Upon careful review, we determine that the governing statute was ambiguous in that the distribution scheme for a city operating its own school system could be reasonably interpreted in more than one way. Having therefore analyzed the surrounding statutory scheme, the legislative history, and other applicable authorities, as well as the record in this action, we conclude that the trial court erred in determining that the City was required to share one-half of its liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue with the County's school system.

         In conducting this analysis, we adhere to the following longstanding principles of statutory interpretation:

When dealing with statutory interpretation, well-defined precepts apply. Our primary objective is to carry out legislative intent without broadening or restricting the statute beyond its intended scope. Houghton v. Aramark Educ. Res., Inc., 90 S.W.3d 676, 678 (Tenn. 2002). In construing legislative enactments, we presume that every word in a statute has meaning and purpose and should be given full effect if the obvious intention of the General Assembly is not violated by so doing. In re C.K.G., 173 S.W.3d 714, 722 (Tenn. 2005). When a statute is clear, we apply the plain meaning without complicating the task. Eastman Chem. Co. v. Johnson, 151 S.W.3d 503, 507 (Tenn. 2004). Our obligation is simply to enforce the written language. Abels ex rel. Hunt v. Genie Indus., Inc., 202 S.W.3d 99, 102 (Tenn. 2006). It is only when a statute is ambiguous that we may reference the broader statutory scheme, the history of the legislation, or other sources. Parks v. Tenn. Mun. League Risk Mgmt. Pool, 974 S.W.2d 677, 679 (Tenn. 1998). Further, the language of a statute cannot be considered in a vacuum, but "should be construed, if practicable, so that its component parts are consistent and reasonable." Marsh v. Henderson, 221 Tenn. 42, 424 S.W.2d 193, 196 (1968). Any interpretation of the statute that "would render one section of the act repugnant to another" should be avoided. Tenn. Elec. Power Co. v. City of Chattanooga, 172 Tenn. 505, 114 S.W.2d 441, 444 (1937). We also must presume that the General Assembly was aware of any prior enactments at the time the legislation passed. Owens v. State, 908 S.W.2d 923, 926 (Tenn. 1995).

In re Estate of Tanner, 295 S.W.3d at 613-14.

         A. Ambiguity of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306(a)(2)(A) (2013)

         The version of Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-4-306 in effect when this action was commenced provided in pertinent part:

(a) All gross receipt taxes collected under § 57-4-301(c) shall be distributed by the commissioner as follows:
(1) Fifty percent (50%) to the general fund to be earmarked for education purposes; and
(2) Fifty percent (50%) to the local political subdivision as follows:
(A) One half (½) of the proceeds shall be expended and distributed in the same manner as the county property tax for schools is expended and distributed; provided, however, that except in counties having a population of not less than twenty-seven thousand nine hundred (27, 900) nor more than twenty-seven thousand nine hundred twenty (27, 920), according to the 1980 federal census or any subsequent federal census, any proceeds expended and distributed to municipalities which do not operate their own school systems separate from the county are required to remit one half (½) of their proceeds of the gross receipts liquor-by-the-drink tax to the county school fund; and
(B) The other one half (½) shall be distributed as follows:
(i) Collections of gross receipts collected in unincorporated areas, to the ...

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