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Watson v. Tennessee Board of Regents

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

January 12, 2018

JAMAL WATSON
v.
TENNESSEE BOARD OF REGENTS, et al.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Knox County No. 1-273-16 Kristi M. Davis, Judge

         This case involves the dismissal of a Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA) action filed by Jamal Watson against the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and Pellissippi State Community College (PSCC) (collectively the defendants). PSCC offered Watson a fulltime, tenure-track position, but subsequently rescinded the offer. Watson filed a THRA case in the Circuit Court for Knox County (the trial court) against the defendants alleging race discrimination. He later filed a notice of claim for breach of contract in the Tennessee Claims Commission against the same entities. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss in the trial court alleging that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The defendants asserted that Watson waived his cause of action against "any state officer or employee, " pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(b), by filing a claim against the state in the Tennessee Claims Commission. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss. Watson appeals. We reverse.

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

          Richard Everett Collins, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jamal Watson.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter, Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General, and Colleen E. Mallea, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Tennessee Board of Regents and Pellissippi State Community College.

          Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and John W. McClarty, J., joined.

          OPINION

          CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., JUDGE

         I.

         During the 2014-15 academic year, PSCC hired Watson for an adjunct teaching position in its English department. While serving in that role, Watson completed the application process for a full-time, tenure-track position for an opening in the department. The process included a background check. PSCC eventually offered him the tenure-track position, which Watson accepted. Subsequently, PSCC rescinded the offer due to alleged discrepancies in his background check.

         Watson then filed a complaint in the trial court. He alleged that the defendants had discriminated against him on the basis of race in violation of the THRA. While that case was pending, Watson filed a notice of breach of contract claim against the same defendants in the Tennessee Claims Commission.

         After Watson filed the notice of claim with the Commission, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss in the trial court. According to the defendants, "under Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(b), [Watson] waived his cause of action when he filed a complaint in the Tennessee Claims Commission . . . ." Watson asserted, however, that "[o]nly claims against a 'state officer or employee' can be waived by the filing of a claim in the Claims Commission." He argued that "there are several ways to describe PSCC. It is an institution of the State; it is an arm of the State; it is a department or division of the State capable of employing state 'officers' and 'employees, ' but it is not itself a 'state officer or employee.' "

         Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307 provides, in pertinent part, the following:

(a)(1) The commission or each commissioner sitting individually has exclusive jurisdiction to determine all monetary claims against the state based on the acts or omissions of "state employees, ...

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