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Josephsweat v. City of McMinnville

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

March 23, 2018

JOSEPHSWEAT
v.
CITY OF MCMINNVILLE

          Session December 6, 2017

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Warren County No. 254 Larry B. Stanley, Jr., Judge

         The plaintiff, a former firefighter with the City of McMinnville Fire Department, brought this retaliatory discharge claim against his previous employer under the Tennessee Public Protection Act. The City filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff was unable to prove that the City's proffered reason for the discharge was pretextual. Finding no genuine dispute, the trial court granted the motion and dismissed the complaint. We affirm.

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

          Todd G. Cole and Shea T. Hasenauer, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellant, Joseph Sweat.

          Rachel M. Casias, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, City of McMinnville, Tennessee.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          FRANK G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.

         On June 20, 2001, the City of McMinnville ("the City") hired Joseph Sweat ("Plaintiff") as a firefighter. In December 2013, Plaintiff, along with twenty-seven other firefighters, signed and presented a document to the McMinnville Human Resources Director outlining safety concerns in regard to the actions of Fire Chief Keith Martin ("Chief Martin"). Plaintiff also individually sent a handwritten letter detailing six complaints to the same Human Resources Director. This information was forwarded to Tennessee Municipal Fire Consultant, Dennis Wolfe, who conducted an investigation of the firefighters' concerns.

         At the conclusion of his investigation, Mr. Wolfe determined that many of the firefighters' complaints did not rise to the level of safety violations. Furthermore, he did not find any evidence of illegal activity. He did, however, identify several safety concerns, such as deficiencies in operating procedures and training that were not addressed by the firefighters. Mr. Wolfe also identified issues with camaraderie within the fire department stemming from a poor working relationship between the firefighters and Chief Martin. Mr. Wolfe presented the findings of his report to City Alderman Mike Neal. After receiving this report, Mr. Neal engaged in a reorganization of the fire department that included terminating the employment of both Chief Martin and Plaintiff on March 20, 2014. Police Chief Bryan Denton ("Chief Denton") was then hired as the interim Fire Chief, a position he had held on three prior occasions.

         Plaintiff filed a complaint against the City on February 13, 2015, in Warren County Circuit Court, alleging he was discharged in a retaliatory manner in violation of the Tennessee Public Protection Act ("TPPA"), also known as the Whistleblower Act. Upon the conclusion of discovery, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on December 8, 2016, arguing he established a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge under the TPPA. Specifically, he contended that he complained about safety issues that violated the law and that he was fired solely because he refused to participate in, or remain silent about, those illegal activities. On April 13, 2017, the trial court denied Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, finding that genuine issues of material facts existed.

         In the interim, the City filed its motion for summary judgment on January 5, 2017. The City argued that it terminated Plaintiff for reasons other than Plaintiff's complaints; specifically, Plaintiff's inability to work with effective leadership, for making sexually harassing phone calls from the firehouse to a private citizen, and going outside the chain of command. The City also asserted that Plaintiff was unable to show that any of these proffered reasons were pretextual. On May 9, 2017, the trial court granted the City's motion for summary judgment, finding "Plaintiff has failed to establish that the City's explanation of his discharge is pretextual or unfounded. There are no genuine issues as to any material facts, therefore, the Defendant (City) is entitled to summary judgment."

         Plaintiff then timely appealed.

         Issues

         The dispositive issue presented for our review is whether Plaintiff was terminated solely for engaging in activity protected under the TPPA.[1] Plaintiff argues that he was terminated solely because he refused to participate in, or remain silent about illegal activities. In response, The City argues that Plaintiff was fired because of his history of work-related misconduct and insubordination that adversely affected employee morale.

         Standard of Review

         This court reviews a trial court's decision on a motion for summary judgment de novo without a presumption of correctness. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015) (citing Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997)). Accordingly, this court must make a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56 have been satisfied. Id.; Hunter v. Brown, 955 S.W.2d 49, 50-51 (Tenn. 1997). In so doing, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tenn. 2002).

         Summary judgment should be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. When the party moving for summary judgment does not bear the burden of proof at trial, it may satisfy its burden of production "either (1) by affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party's evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the nonmoving party's claim or defense." Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 264 (emphasis in original).

         When a motion for summary judgment is made and supported as provided in Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56, the nonmoving party may not rest on the allegations or denials in its pleadings. Id. Instead, the nonmoving party must respond with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. A fact is material "if it must be decided in order to resolve the substantive claim or defense at which the motion is directed." Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208, 215 (Tenn. 1993). A "genuine issue" exists if "a reasonable jury could legitimately resolve that fact in favor of one side or the other." Id.

         Analysis

         I. Tennessee Public Protection Act

The TPPA provides in pertinent ...

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