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Lemon v. Williamson County Schools

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

September 23, 2019

MELANIE LEMON
v.
WILLIAMSON COUNTY SCHOOLS ET AL.

          Session June 5, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2017-320 Joseph A. Woodruff, Judge

         The plaintiff, a former tenured schoolteacher, sued the Williamson County Board of Education and three administrators alleging that she was forced to resign after the defendants "bullied, stalked, intimidated, and defamed" her during the 2015–2016 school year. She asserted claims for wrongful termination, breach of contract, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court dismissed all of the claims asserted in the original complaint pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted but permitted the plaintiff to file an amended complaint to revise and restate her claims for breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Following discovery, the court summarily dismissed the two remaining claims as asserted in the amended complaint. On appeal, the plaintiff challenges the Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) dismissal of her wrongful termination and negligence claims, and the summary dismissal of her claims for breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress. We affirm the trial court's determination the plaintiff's negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims are barred by the Governmental Tort Liability Act and Teachers' Tenure Act, respectively. We have also determined that the plaintiff failed to produce evidence of a compensable injury in her claim for breach of contract. As for the plaintiff's claim of wrongful termination, we respectfully disagree with the trial court's determination that the doctrine of constructive discharge is inapplicable to wrongful termination claims under the Teachers' Tenure Act. Therefore, we reverse the dismissal of the plaintiff's wrongful termination claim and remand this claim for further proceedings. We affirm the trial court in all other respects.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part and Remanded

          Constance F. Mann, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellant, Melanie Lemon.

          Elisabeth M. Carson, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellees, Kathryn Donnelley, Denise Goodwin, Mike Looney, and Williamson County Government.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and Richard H. Dinkins, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

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

         Melanie Lemon ("Plaintiff") was a tenured, second-grade teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary School in Williamson County, Tennessee at all times material to this action. On June 9, 2017, Plaintiff filed a complaint against the Williamson County Board of Education, Williamson County Superintendent Mike Looney, Assistant Superintendent Denise Goodwin, and Walnut Grove Principal Dr. Kathryn Donnelly (collectively, "Defendants"). As is relevant to the issues on appeal, the Complaint asserted a claim against Dr. Looney, Ms. Goodwin, and Principal Donnelly (collectively, "the Individual Defendants") for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and claims against the Williamson County Board of Education ("the Board") for wrongful termination under the Teachers' Tenure Act, breach of contract, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

         On October 12, 2017, the trial court found that the Complaint failed to state claims for wrongful termination, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.[1]Although the trial court found Plaintiff's original claim for breach of contract alleged sufficient facts to make a prima facie case, the court found it failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted because the employment contract at issue was not attached to the Complaint as required by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 10.03. Similarly, the court found Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for "outrageous" conduct to support her IIED claim, but it also found Plaintiff failed to attribute the alleged conduct to particular defendants. Therefore, the court dismissed both claims without prejudice and granted Plaintiff leave to amend the complaint to revise and restate these two claims. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on December 6, 2017, and Defendants filed timely answers.

         On June 4, 2018, Defendants filed motions for summary judgment on the two remaining claims, breach of contract and IIED. The trial court granted the motions on September 25, 2018. This appeal followed.

         On appeal, Plaintiff challenges the dismissal of five of her claims: (1) wrongful termination, (2) negligence, (3) negligent infliction of emotional distress, (4) breach of contract, and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress. Because our review of each decision requires the application of different standards of review, we will address them separately.

         Standards of Review

         A Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) motion to dismiss "challenges only the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not the strength of the plaintiff's proof or evidence." Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422, 426 (Tenn. 2011). Resolving a Rule 12.02(6) motion to dismiss requires examination of the pleadings alone. Id. "A defendant who files a motion to dismiss 'admits the truth of all of the relevant and material allegations contained in the complaint, but . . . asserts that the allegations fail to establish a cause of action.'" Id. (quoting Brown v. Tenn. Title Loans, Inc., 328 S.W.3d 850, 854 (Tenn. 2010)).

         When considering a motion to dismiss, courts "must construe the complaint liberally, presuming all factual allegations to be true and giving the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences." Id. (quoting Tigg v. Pirelli Tire Corp., 232 S.W.3d 28, 31–32 (Tenn. 2007)). "A trial court should grant a motion to dismiss 'only when it appears that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.'" Id. (quoting Crews v. Buckman Labs. Int'l, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 852, 857 (Tenn. 2002)). We review the trial court's legal conclusions regarding the adequacy of the complaint de novo. Id.

         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). Accordingly, we 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 (Tenn. 1997). In so doing, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving 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. at 265. Instead, the nonmoving party must respond with specific facts showing 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. Claims Dismissed Pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6)

         The Complaint asserted that Plaintiff "became the target of a plan to coerce her resignation" during the 2016–2017 school year, when she "was continually stalked, bullied, and harassed through meetings, e-mails, and directives." The trial court accurately summarized the alleged conduct as

disciplining and interfering with [Plaintiff's] charity attempt for a co-worker that took place outside of school; providing her with a false and inaccurate work review for the purpose of forcing a resignation; accusing her of child abuse for the purpose of forcing a resignation; placing cameras in her classroom for the purpose of intim[idating] and forcing a resignation; forcing a human monitor in her class room for the purpose of harassing and intimidating her; threatening the community and/or co-workers for speaking on her behalf; threatening the community that she would not work in the State of Tennessee if they testified on her behalf; telling the community that she has anger issues; telling the community that she is a child abuse[r] with no complaint from the child, or his/her family; and threatening co-workers and other teachers in Williamson County that if they stood up for Ms. Lemon or tried to protest, "remember who signs your paychecks."

         The Complaint alleged that Plaintiff was suspended without pay for three days because of the child abuse allegation, and the Board failed to follow the required time frames and provide her with the required documents when she attempted to appeal the decision. It also alleged that Plaintiff resigned on May 12, 2017, because she could no longer endure her working conditions.

         Plaintiff asserted that Defendants' conduct made her working conditions "so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in her shoes would have felt compelled to resign." She claimed this "constructive" discharge was a breach of contract, constituted wrongful termination under the Tennessee's Teachers' Tenure Act, and constituted "outrageous" conduct for purposes of her IIED claim. The trial court found the allegations were sufficient to constitute outrageous conduct and to support a breach of contract claim; however, the court dismissed Plaintiff's wrongful termination claim upon finding that her resignation disqualified her from the Tenure Act's protections:

[I]n the present matter, [Plaintiff] was neither dismissed nor discharged from her position as a second grade teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary School; but rather, as she admits, [Plaintiff] resigned before these actions could occur. . . . Upon resignation, Ms. Lemon's status as a tenured teacher was terminated, thus removing her from the procedural protections provided by the Teacher Tenure Act for tenured teachers who have been improperly dismissed. Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-501 (11)(B)(i). Consequently, it cannot be said that Ms. Lemon was wrongfully discharged in violation of the Teacher Tenure Act.
Nevertheless, the Court acknowledges, under certain circumstances, some resignations may be coerced, thus enabling a court to grant a plaintiff relief for an involuntary resignation; however, the Court's legal research has not discovered, and Ms. Lemon has not cited, controlling law demonstrating the applicability of the doctrine of constructive discharge to the present factual circumstances.

(footnote omitted).

         The court also dismissed Plaintiff's negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims after finding Plaintiff failed to allege facts that would remove the Board's immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act ("GTLA"):

[T]he GLTA removes governmental immunity for injuries caused by the negligence of governmental employees. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205.
. . . . However, Ms. Lemon's Complaint does not state a claim for negligence on behalf of the employees of [the Board] (i.e., the Individual Defendants). Regardless of the fact that Count 3 is captioned "Negligence of County Employees, " the averments contained therein do not assert a claim for negligence against the Individual Defendants. Count 3 simply alleges negligence on behalf of the governmental entity, WCS, in allowing the Individual Defendants to behave in the alleged manner . . . . [T]he Complaint only seeks to impose liability on WCS for the alleged intentional acts of its employees (i.e., allowing the Individual Defendants to harass, bully, stalk, or intimidate Ms. Lemon into resignation). Thus, [the Board's] governmental immunity has not been removed[.]

         On appeal, Plaintiff contends the trial court erred in dismissing her claim for wrongful termination because the doctrine of constructive discharge is a well-established proxy for the termination element in any wrongful termination claim. Plaintiff argues on appeal that the constructive discharge violated both her rights under the Tenure Act and her rights under her employment contract with the Board. Plaintiff also asserts that the court erred in finding the GTLA barred her negligence claims because her Complaint alleged that the child abuse investigation was "incomplete, improper, and without merit."

         As an initial matter, we find Plaintiff waived any argument concerning breach of contract by constructive termination. Although Plaintiff pleaded constructive termination in support of her claims for wrongful termination and breach of contract, she omitted all reference to constructive termination in her amended complaint. The trial court subsequently dismissed the contract claim on summary judgment-which we address in section II, infra. By operation of law, Plaintiff's amended contract claim constituted a voluntary abandonment of the pleadings in the original contract claim. See Christian v. Lapidus, 833 S.W.2d 71, 73 (Tenn. 1992) ("[A]n amended complaint supersedes the original complaint, rendering the original of no legal effect, unless the amended complaint specifically refers to or adopts the original."); Baker v. Louisville & N. Terminal Co., 61 S.W. 1029, 1031 (Tenn. 1901) (holding that plaintiff could not base appeal on a ground alleged in the original complaint but omitted from amended complaint).

         This principle, however, does not prevent Plaintiff from objecting to the dismissal of her wrongful termination claim based on constructive discharge. Plaintiff filed the amended complaint in response to the trial court's order, which did not grant leave to amend the wrongful termination claim. Although Tennessee's decisional law has not addressed the effect of an amended complaint on claims that were dismissed without permission to amend, federal courts "'refuse to require a plaintiff to replead dismissed claims in order to preserve the right to appeal the dismissal, ' particularly because an attempt to reallege the claim would likely be futile." Hayward v. Cleveland Clinic Found., 759 F.3d 601, 617 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Young v. City of Mount Ranier, 238 F.3d 567, 572 (4th Cir. 2001)). "Federal case law interpreting rules similar to our own are persuasive authority for purposes of construing the Tennessee rule." Harris v. Chern, 33 S.W.3d 741, 745 n.2 (Tenn. 2000). We find this exception to the waiver rule is well reasoned. Thus, we will consider Plaintiff's allegation of constructive discharge only in relation to her wrongful termination claim under the Tenure Act.

         A. Wrongful Termination

         Broadly speaking, a claim for "wrongful discharge" is any claim that an employee was terminated in violation of a statutory or contractual standard. See Andrews v. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co., 406 U.S. 320, 324 (1972) ("[T]he very concept of 'wrongful discharge' implies some sort of statutory or contractual standard that modifies the traditional common-law rule that a contract of employment is terminable by either party at will."). Wrongful discharge claims often appear in employment discrimination and retaliatory discharge actions. See, e.g., Teter v. Republic Parking Sys., Inc., 181 S.W.3d 330, 339 n.1 (Tenn. 2005) (describing employee discrimination and retaliatory discharge claims as "wrongful termination cases which implicate major public policy concerns"). However, such claims are not limited to circumstances of discrimination or retaliation. Instead, an employee "may bring a claim for wrongful discharge under any statute that provides such a claim or under the common law of the state." Frye v. St. Thomas Health Servs., 227 S.W.3d 595, 613 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007) (citing Clanton v. Cain-Sloan Co., 677 S.W.2d 441, 443–44 (Tenn. 1984)). Under the common law of Tennessee, a discharge is "wrongful" when it "violates 'a clear public policy which is evidenced by an unambiguous constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provision.'" Id. at 613–14 (quoting Stein v. Davidson Hotel Co., 945 S.W.2d 714, 717 (Tenn. 1997)).

         The purpose of the Tenure Act is, inter alia, "to provide teachers stability in employment, to enshrine merit as the basis for that stability and to protect teachers from being fired due to malice or political differences." Kelley v. Shelby Cty. Bd. of Educ., 198 F.Supp. 3d 842, 852 (W.D. Tenn. 2016) (citing State v. Yoakum, 297 S.W.2d 635, 638 (Tenn. 1956)). By passing the Tenure Act, "[t]he General Assembly recognized that the efficient administration of the local educational systems of this State requires stability of programs and trained personnel." Ryan v. Anderson, 481 S.W.2d 371, 374 (Tenn. 1972).[2] In short, "[t]enure is the public policy of the State of Tennessee" and "any decision to remove a tenured teacher necessarily implicates these public policy goals." Kelley, 198 F.Supp. 3d at 852.

         Our courts have recognized illegal or wrongful discharge claims alleging a violation of various state and local tenure acts. See, e.g., Wells v. Tennessee Bd. of Regents, 231 S.W.3d 912, 915–16 (Tenn. 2007) (wrongful discharge under university teachers' tenure law); Haig v. Hoffmeister, No. C.A. 1197, 1989 WL 12285, at *4–5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 15, 1989) (wrongful discharge under local tenure act). As is relevant here, educators have succeeded on claims for wrongful discharge when they were fired without just cause, notice, or a hearing. See McGhee v. Miller, 753 S.W.2d 354, 356 (Tenn. 1988) (finding teacher was wrongfully terminated when the evidence did not establish just cause); Gibson v. Butler, 484 S.W.2d 356, 358–59 (Tenn. 1972) (affirming finding that discharge of teachers was wrongful when they were not provided with notice or a hearing); City of Knoxville v. State ex rel. Hayward, 133 S.W.2d 465, 469 (Tenn. 1939) (finding teacher's termination because of her marriage was unauthorized, illegal, and void); cf. Snell v. Bros., 527 S.W.2d 114, 119 (Tenn. 1975) (affirming award of damages for violation of non-tenured teacher's statutory employment rights); Kelley v. Shelby Cty. Bd. of Educ., 751 F.App'x 650, 655–56 (6th Cir. 2018) (finding that teachers were entitled to damages when the termination process violated the Tenure Act).

         Here, the Complaint alleged that the Board terminated Plaintiff in violation of the Tenure Act because there was no just cause for her termination and she was provided with no notice or hearing. As the above authority indicates, this allegation alone would state a prima facie case for wrongful termination; however, what makes this case unique is that Plaintiff alleged that the Board constructively terminated her. The trial court correctly noted that there is no controlling law concerning the doctrine of constructive discharge in a wrongful termination claim based on an alleged violation of the Tenure Act's provisions. Nonetheless, we find Plaintiff provided sufficient persuasive authority to prevent us from foreclosing the possibility that a constructive discharge could violate the Tenure Act.

         As Plaintiff argued before the trial court and on appeal, "constructive discharge recognizes that some resignations are coerced and that employers should not be permitted to escape liability [for wrongful discharge] simply because they forced an employee to resign." Frye, 227 S.W.3d at 611–12 (quoting Walker v. City of Cookeville, No. M2002- 01441-COA-R3-CV, 2003 WL 21918625, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 12, 2003)). Like express termination, a constructive discharge is wrongful when it constitutes "a breach of an express or implied contract of employment" or a "violation of fundamental public policy." Turner v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 876 P.2d 1022, 1030 (Cal. 1994) (citations omitted). Thus, in Tennessee, the doctrine of constructive discharge has been recognized in employment discrimination claims, see, e.g., Campbell v. Fla. Steel Corp., 919 S.W.2d 26, 33–34 (Tenn. 1996); retaliation claims, see, e.g., Crews, 78 S.W.3d at 865; and breach of contract claims, see, e.g., Guiliano v. Cleo, Inc., 995 S.W.2d 88, 94 (Tenn. 1999).

         In her opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and on appeal, Plaintiff cited to State ex rel. McGhee v. St. John, 837 S.W.2d 596 (Tenn. 1992) as a case where the Tennessee Supreme Court recognized the "constructive discharge" of a public school teacher. While the facts and controlling law in McGhee differ from the present case, we find the Court's reasoning in McGhee persuasive. The plaintiff in McGhee was a high school teacher who had been harassed, intimidated, and ultimately dismissed without just cause after she refused to inflate the grades of the high school's star athlete. See McGhee v. Miller, 753 S.W.2d 354, 354–55 (Tenn. 1988). Although the Court ordered the county school board to reinstate the teacher to her previous position, id. at 356, the board attempted to assign her to an elementary school when she returned from leave, State ex rel. McGhee, 837 S.W.2d at 598. The plaintiff refused the assignment and brought a claim for breach of contract and violation of the State Leave Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-705. Id. at 599. On appeal, the Court found the assignment constituted a ...


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