Session December 6, 2017
from the Circuit Court for Warren County No. 254 Larry B.
Stanley, Jr., Judge
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.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit
G. Cole and Shea T. Hasenauer, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the
appellant, Joseph Sweat.
M. Casias, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, City of
G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the
Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ.,
G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.
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.
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.
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.
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
then timely appealed.
dispositive issue presented for our review is whether
Plaintiff was terminated solely for engaging in activity
protected under the TPPA. 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
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).
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
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.
Tennessee Public Protection Act
The TPPA provides in pertinent ...