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Powell v. Tennessee Department of Correction

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 6, 2019

CHAD JAMES POWELL
v.
TENNESSEE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION ET AL.

          Assigned on Briefs April 1, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 17C-3223 Hamilton V. Gayden, Jr., Judge

         An inmate in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Correction ("TDOC") filed this action in the Circuit Court for Davidson County seeking monetary damages from the State of Tennessee for injuries caused by "negligent acts or omissions" of TDOC employees acting "within the scope of their employment" in regard to a prison disciplinary hearing. The State filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because the Tennessee Claims Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over the inmate's monetary claims. The inmate responded by filing a motion to transfer the case to the Claims Commission. The trial court denied the motion to transfer and dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. We affirm.

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

          Chad James Powell, Wartburg, Tennessee, Pro Se.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, and Charlotte Montiel Davis, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Tennessee Department of Correction, Tony Parker, Kevin Genovese, Stacy Oakes, Calvin Lewis, Josh Pashcall, Timothy Thomas, Dustin Mackin, Jimmie Baugus, Denny Quillen, Amy Burkhart, and Joseph Gilbert.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas R. Frierson II and Kenny W. Armstrong, JJ., joined.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

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

         At all times relevant to the issues raised in the complaint, Chad James Powell ("Plaintiff") was in the custody of the TDOC, confined at the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Only, Tennessee. The defendants named in the complaint include the TDOC, the warden and deputy warden at the Turney Center, and several correctional officers and employees of TDOC. The complaint alleges that the TDOC employees caused Plaintiff "injury by gross negligent acts or omissions within the scope of their employment" in the handling of Plaintiff's prison disciplinary hearing on April 25, 2017.[2] As compensation for his alleged damages, Plaintiff seeks to recover $90, 000.

         Following some earlier motions and rulings that have no bearing on this appeal, the State filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff opposed the motion and filed a motion to transfer the case to the Tennessee Claims Commission. The trial court denied the motion to transfer and dismissed the case. This appeal followed.

         Analysis

         The issues presented are whether the trial court erred by dismissing the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and by not transferring the case to the Tennessee Claims Commission. These issues involve the construction and application of statutes to the facts of this case and are questions of law. Wallace v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville and Davidson Cty., 546 S.W.3d 47, 52 (Tenn. 2018). We review a trial court's conclusions of law pursuant to the de novo standard of review without any presumption of correctness. Sallee v. Barrett, 171 S.W.3d 822, 825 (Tenn. 2005). We also review the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction de novo without a presumption of correctness. Chapman v. DaVita, Inc., 380 S.W.3d 710, 712-13 (Tenn. 2012).

         I.

         Whether the trial court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the underlying claim is controlled by Tennessee's doctrine of sovereign immunity, which arises from its constitution. Article I, section 17 of the Tennessee Constitution provides that "[s]uits may be brought against the State in such manner and in such courts as the Legislature may by law direct." Based upon this constitutional provision, no civil action against the State may be sustained absent express authorization from the Tennessee General Assembly. Smith v. Tennessee Nat. Guard, 387 S.W.3d 570, 575 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2012) (citing Greenhill v. Carpenter, 718 S.W.2d 268, 270 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1986)); see also Chumbley v. State, 192 S.W.2d 1007, 1008 (Tenn. 1946) ("[A] suit ...


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