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State v. Partin

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

June 5, 2019


          Session: November 14, 2018

          Appeal from the Criminal Court for Putnam County No. 2015-CR-533 Gary McKenzie, Judge

         The Defendants, Darrell Partin and Chanda Partin, were indicted for theft in connection with Mr. Partin's employment at Tennessee Master Restoration ("TMR"), and the case proceeded to a bench trial. During trial, the Defendants discovered that the State had failed to produce documents in the possession of TMR which supported the Defendants' theory of the case. After a continuance, the trial court concluded that the failure to produce the documents was a violation of Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 16 and of the duty to disclose exculpatory material under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The trial court then granted a mistrial and dismissed the charges with prejudice based on the Rule 16 violation. The State appeals. After a thorough review of the record, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the charges, and we remand for further proceedings.

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

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Alexander C. Vey, Assistant Attorney General; Bryant C. Dunaway, District Attorney General; and Bret Gunn, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellant, State of Tennessee.

          John B. Nisbet III, Livingston, Tennessee, for the appellee, Darrell Partin. Gordon A. Byars, Cookeville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Chanda Partin.

          John Everett Williams, P.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Alan E. Glenn, J., joined.




         The charges at issue came about as the result of an employment relationship "gone sour." TMR was operating as a limited liability company with four members, one of whom managed the operations. When the managing partner left, Mr. Darrell Partin was hired to replace him, although the parties dispute whether Mr. Partin had an ownership interest in the company. Business increased under Mr. Partin's management, but approximately one year later, Mr. Partin left the company to start a rival business, taking most of TMR's employees with him. According to TMR, Mr. Partin left because of TMR's refusal to hire his wife, Ms. Chanda Partin. According to the Defendants, Mr. Partin left after discovering that TMR had included false statements on its application for workers' compensation insurance. During Mr. Partin's employment, he and Ms. Partin made personal purchases using company accounts. After Mr. Partin left the company, he was still in possession of cash payments made for work performed by TMR, and he turned these payments over to his civil attorney. Mr. Partin was charged with theft of property valued at over $10, 000, and Ms. Partin was charged with theft of property valued at over $2, 500. The Defendants asserted that Mr. Partin was an owner of TMR, that employees were routinely given advances or permitted to make personal purchases with company accounts, and that their purchases were accordingly authorized by TMR. They also argued that the cash payments made for TMR work constituted disputed funds because TMR stopped payment on Mr. Partin's final two paychecks and because he was entitled to partnership distributions.

         During discovery, the Defendants sought TMR's business records related to employee compensation. In a motion for supplemental discovery, the defense asked for various business records, including a list of "all compensations made to employees" from TMR for a period of three years, including "pay, salary, reimbursements for business expenses, bonuses, and gifts." The motion asserted that the Defendants intended to demonstrate that they had the authority to make purchases on the company credit cards and charge accounts. The defense simultaneously moved for the trial court to grant a subpoena to TMR for the records on the same grounds. The State filed a response opposing the subpoena to TMR on various grounds, including that some of the records requested were not relevant, that some records had disappeared at the time Mr. Partin left the company, and that reconstructing or obtaining the records would be prohibitively expensive. The response included an estimate of $1, 200 for the requested employee compensation information.

         On July 27, 2016, the trial court held a hearing on the discovery dispute. The Defendants objected to the State's motion to quash the subpoena, asserting that the State had no standing to file the motion. The Defendants argued that Mr. Partin was a partner in the company, that Ms. Partin was an employee of the company, and that the records would support the defense's theory about the Defendants' relationship to the company and would demonstrate the company's past patterns of practice.

         Mr. Steven Copeland testified at the hearing that he was a member of TMR, a company which focused on restoring homes damaged by fire or water and which also performed roofing. Prior to the time Mr. Partin was hired in August of 2013, TMR had four partners: Mr. Copeland, Mr. Copeland's father, Mr. Copeland's uncle, and Mr. Tony Mott. The four were also partners in a separate company which owned the real property used by TMR. Mr. Mott managed the day-to-day operations of TMR, and the other partners had little involvement other than attendance at monthly meetings. Mr. Mott made a salary of close to $50, 000 and took distributions from the partnership. Mr. Copeland testified that in July 2013, Mr. Mott became "burned out" and was given $60, 000 for his ownership interest in TMR and an additional $40, 000 for his ownership interest in the company which owned the real property associated with TMR.

         According to Mr. Copeland, TMR at first offered Mr. Partin work on the same terms as those under which Mr. Mott was employed: $50, 000 in salary with the opportunity to obtain a one-quarter interest in the company after one year. Mr. Copeland testified that Mr. Partin, however, negotiated for a higher salary of $75, 000 and no partnership interest, and he began to work for TMR in August 2013. He testified that the agreements between TMR and Mr. Mott were in writing but that there was no writing granting Mr. Partin a partnership interest. Mr. Partin attended the monthly meetings of the members of the company. TMR was satisfied with the quality of Mr. Partin's work at the beginning of the employment relationship.

         According to Mr. Copeland, in early 2014, Mr. Partin began to try to convince the members of TMR to hire Ms. Partin. Mr. Copeland testified that Ms. Partin worked for him from January 2013 to October 2013 at an insurance company that he owned but that he was dissatisfied with the quality of Ms. Partin's work. He testified that TMR repeatedly refused to hire Ms. Partin and that she was never an employee of TMR. He denied asking TMR's credit card company to issue a card for Ms. Partin and stated he was not aware at the time that she was negotiating advertisements on behalf of the company. He acknowledged that he was aware that Ms. Partin was helping Mr. Partin at work, but he denied that she was employed by TMR.

         Mr. Copeland testified that at the beginning of August 2014, Mr. Partin and all of his employees resigned. Mr. Partin told Mr. Copeland that the files, keys, cell phones, and information about the company's current jobs were all on the premises. Mr. Copeland's uncle spoke with one of the employees who had resigned, and this employee returned to work for TMR immediately. Mr. Copeland was not intimately familiar with the business, but when he went to the building, he felt that some equipment was missing. He asked the police department to watch the TMR premises, and they observed Mr. Partin at the building shortly after midnight, returning equipment. Mr. Copeland testified that he also recovered equipment that had been left at job sites.

         Mr. Copeland testified that Ms. Partin's name had been added to the Lowe's credit card account and that she had purchased children's play equipment, a table, and a refrigerator for personal use. These items were found at the Defendants' residence by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI"). Mr. Copeland denied that employees were permitted to make personal purchases on the Lowe's credit account in order to take advantage of the company's discount. He agreed that he stopped payment on "the last couple" of Mr. Partin's paychecks but could not recall his reasoning.

         Upon Mr. Partin's resignation, Mr. Copeland discovered that his business records, including credit card statements, bank statements, and bills, were missing. He hired an accountant to attempt to reconstruct some of the business records from the time of Mr. Partin's employment, and the records produced by the accountant had been provided in discovery.

         Mr. Copeland testified that the payroll information was "probably" on a computer system but would need to be recreated. While he acknowledged that the payroll records were not among the missing business records because his wife "did those at the house," he testified that they would have to be located "and I don't want her doing that, so we'd have to hire a bookkeeper and accountant, somebody to go back and get those." He agreed that the payroll documents would not be "terribly difficult" to find. Mr. Copeland stated he was not aware of any occasions on which employees were "fronted" money that was later offset in their compensation.

         Mr. Copeland answered various questions regarding TMR's compliance with the statutory requirements of LLCs. He was not aware that the addition or removal of a partner required a supplemental report or that a partner's leaving would be an event resulting in dissolution. Mr. Copeland agreed that TMR was a construction, water restoration, and roofing company and not a laundry service or an office. He acknowledged that he was licensed to write insurance policies and that an insurance premium would depend on the type of business insured, but he denied intentionally falsifying his application for workers' compensation insurance by mischaracterizing the nature of TMR's business.

         At the end of the hearing, the trial court ordered the State to produce the LLC documents that were in the possession of the Secretary of State. The trial court noted that the State had "the ability to work with the victim" to produce certain documents, including partnership agreements that were presumably within the possession of TMR. The trial court also noted that information regarding prior partnership distributions was essentially in the possession of the State and that the State would need to produce the requested information. In general, the prosecutor agreed that while Mr. Copeland did not apparently know where the business records were kept, the State would attempt to produce the documents in the possession of TMR or determine that they did not exist. The trial court noted that the parties could also discuss the feasibility of Mr. Copeland printing his statements from Lowe's and producing them, and that if the parties could not come to an agreement, the defense could issue a subpoena to Lowe's.

         Regarding the employee compensation records, the trial court asked the prosecutor if there was any objection to producing "records that exist on a computer that is local … and we're talking about just printing off those records." The prosecutor replied that he had no objection and would "direct [Mr. Copeland] to do that." The trial court summarized that the prosecution would produce the payroll documents in existence on the computer. The trial court, however, also determined that only payroll documents created during the time period of Mr. Partin's employment would be relevant. At the end of the hearing, the prosecutor summarized his understanding that the defense would send a letter listing the documents it was requesting and that he would then "take that to Mr. Copeland, and we'll work on getting those things if we can, and explaining why we can't if we can't."

         The record reflects that the defense did indeed provide a letter detailing the items requested. Regarding the compensation documents, the letter noted that testimony revealed that Ms. Vicki Copeland kept the documents at her home and that they were "likely available electronically at little or no costs." At a status conference on October 28, 2016, the parties told the court that the prosecution had obtained additional discovery and given it to the defense that morning, and the hearing was rescheduled to give the defense a chance to "see if … what they wanted is there."

         After other pretrial proceedings, the Defendants waived their right to a jury trial, and the bench trial commenced. The first witnesses testified on May 16, 2017, after which the trial was continued until July 20 and 21, when several other witnesses testified. We summarize the proof at trial primarily as it relates to the issues on appeal.

         At trial, the State introduced proof regarding the property allegedly stolen by the Defendants. There was inconsistent evidence regarding whether Mr. Matthew McClearen delivered certain cash payments made for work performed by TMR to Mr. Partin before or after Mr. Partin had left TMR. The cash payments, which amounted to over $10, 000, were recovered from Mr. Partin's civil attorney, who told TBI Special Agent Darrin Shockey that he had been holding the money as disputed funds since August 2014, when Mr. Partin left TMR. Agent Shockey agreed that the Defendants stated that TMR had stopped payment on Mr. Partin's final two paychecks. There was also testimony regarding the circumstances of Mr. Partin returning equipment which belonged to TMR shortly after leaving to start his own business. Agent Shockey introduced a spreadsheet of allegedly improper purchases made by the Defendants. The purchases included numerous items related to construction as well as household and other items. There was testimony from various witnesses about whether certain categories of items from the spreadsheet may have been legitimate business expenses for TMR's office space, for TMR's mascot dog, or as corporate gifts. Agent Shockey testified that he executed a search warrant at the Defendants' home and discovered a children's playset, a refrigerator, and an air conditioner, collectively worth over $2, 500, all of which had been purchased using TMR's account at Lowe's.

         The State's witnesses also testified regarding the destruction of some of the TMR business records following Mr. Partin's departure. An employee of an information technology company testified that he had attempted to recover files from TMR's computers and had recovered certain business records but was unable to recover others. While the implication was that Mr. Partin destroyed the files, Mr. Matthew McClearen, who was an employee of TMR and who left the company to work at Romans Restoration, Mr. Partin's rival business, ultimately testified that he had instructed another employee to delete files from his computer because he did not want anyone to discover that he had used it to view pornography.

         The defense introduced evidence regarding various business irregularities which it claimed led to the termination of the business relationship between the parties. There was evidence that TMR had submitted applications for workers' compensation which may have characterized the business as a cleaner and office and characterized a contractor who worked as a roofer as performing cleaning. The defense also attempted to establish that Mr. Partin had an ownership interest in the company, that Mr. Mott believed Mr. Mott's ownership interest was orally conferred by the Copelands, and that the ...

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