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Wallace v. City of Lewisburg

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 21, 2019

TERRY WALLACE
v.
CITY OF LEWISBURG, TENNESSEE

          Session May 7, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Marshall County No. 11-CV-80 M. Wyatt Burk, Judge

         Former employee of the City of Lewisburg brought an action pursuant to the Tennessee Human Rights Act challenging his termination. The trial court held a bench trial and, a year and a half later, entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order, finding in favor of defendant and dismissing the action. The judge who tried the case retired shortly thereafter. Five months later, the employee filed a motion under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02, seeking to have the order dismissing the complaint set aside on the grounds that his counsel did not receive the order dismissing the case and that, because the order did not comply with Rule 58, it was not a final order. The motion was heard by a new judge, who ruled that the order substantially complied with Rule 58 and was therefore an effective, final order. The employee appeals. Upon our review, we determine that the order dismissing the case did not comply with Rule 58 and was not a final order. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment and remand the case for entry of a final order that complies with Rule 58.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment Vacated and Case Remanded

          R. Steven Waldron, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellants, Terry L. Wallace.

          Stephen W. Elliott and Fetlework Balite-Panelo, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, City of Lewisburg, Tennessee.

          Richard H. Dinkins, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Carma D. McGee, J. joined.

          OPINION

          RICHARD H. DINKINS, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Terry Wallace was terminated from his employment with the City of Lewisburg on July 2, 2010. On July 1, 2011, he filed suit against the City, alleging that he was terminated on the basis of his age in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act ("THRA"); he also asserted a claim that the City violated the Open Meetings Act.[1]

         The trial took place April 25, 26, and 27, 2016, before the Honorable Lee Russell, who took the case under advisement at the conclusion of the hearing. On November 27, 2017 Judge Russell entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order dismissing the complaint, holding that Mr. Wallace had failed to prove that age was the determinative factor in his termination ("November 27 Order").

         On April 16, 2018, Mr. Wallace moved pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 60.02 for relief from the November 27 Order, seeking to have it set aside on the grounds that his counsel did not receive a copy of the order and that the order did not comply with Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 58. In support of the motion, Mr. Wallace filed the affidavits of his counsel, Steven Waldron, and Mr. Waldron's legal assistant, Arlene Smith, both of whom stated that Mr. Waldron had not received the November 27 Order and that Mr. Waldron first found out about the November 27 Order on April 6, 2018, when he contacted opposing counsel about the case. Mr. Wallace requested that the trial court's judgment be set aside "so as to be re-entered to allow Plaintiff the time envisioned by the rules of civil and appellate procedure for the filing of post-trial motions and/or taking of an appeal." The City responded, arguing that the motion was untimely and that the November 27 Order substantially complied with Rule 58.

         Mr. Wallace filed an amended motion on May 3, stating that Judge Russell had retired over sixty days prior to the Rule 60.02 motion being filed and consequently, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 17-1-304, [2] had lost authority to rule on the motion. Mr. Wallace asserted that Judge Wyatt Burke, who assumed responsibility for the case after Judge Russell's retirement:

[d]oes not have the authority to read the trial transcript and rule. Instead, the Order Dismissing Complaint and the Memorandum Opinion should be set aside pursuant to Rules 60.02 and 58 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, and this case should be docketed for a new trial by a judge who ...

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