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Campbell v. City of Chattanooga

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

November 6, 2019


          Session August 20, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Hamilton County No. 18-0163 Jeffrey M. Atherton, Chancellor.

         This appeal arises from the Chattanooga Police Department's decision to terminate Appellant's employment as a police officer. The administrative law judge affirmed the decision to terminate Appellant's employment. On appeal, the Hamilton County Chancery Court affirmed the ALJ's ruling. Finding no error, we affirm the decision of the Chancery Court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed and Remanded

          Janie Parks Varnell, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, David Campbell.

          Phillip A. Noblett, City Attorney, and Keith J. Riesman, Assistant City Attorney, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee, City of Chattanooga.

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.



         I. Background

         David Campbell ("Appellant") was a police officer with the Chattanooga Police Department ("CPD"). On May 29, 2016, Mr. Campbell was dispatched to an apartment complex on report of a fight there. When Mr. Campbell arrived on scene, there were approximately 20-30 people in the parking lot. Mr. Campbell and other officers directed the crowd to clear the parking lot. While Mr. Campbell was giving these instructions, Hanson Melvin, a resident of the complex, walked by Mr. Campbell, and Mr. Campbell initiated an encounter with him. Mr. Melvin was known to Mr. Campbell because, on several previous occasions, Mr. Campbell had stopped Mr. Melvin for various alleged offenses, including driving without a valid driver's license. Mr. Melvin was walking toward a silver vehicle with his friend, Coheleach Holmes. During this interaction, Mr. Campbell handcuffed Mr. Melvin and arrested him for disorderly conduct. Mr. Campbell placed Mr. Melvin in the back of his police car and took him to jail.

         On June 5, 2016, Mr. Melvin filed a complaint against Mr. Campbell with CPD Internal Affairs Department ("IA"). In his complaint, Mr. Melvin alleged that Mr. Campbell harassed and falsely arrested him. CPD opened an investigation under case number 2016-14, with Sergeant Jeff Gaines as the lead investigator. The scope of the investigation was Mr. Campbell's alleged violations of: (1) ADM-01 Code of Conduct- Harassment;[1] and (2) ADM-16 Code of Conduct-False Arrest.

         During the investigation, Sergeant Gaines interviewed: (1) Mr. Melvin; (2) Mr. Campbell; and (3) Officers Jeffrey Rahn and Dustin Finley, who were on the scene during the May 29, 2016 call. Sergeant Gaines also discovered that Mr. Melvin's license was revoked. In addition, Sergeant Gaines learned that Mr. Melvin had several arrests and citations for violation of the Driver's License law. The investigation revealed that there were no vehicles registered to Mr. Melvin; however, Sergeant Gaines discovered that a 2014 silver Chevrolet, which met the description of the vehicle Messrs. Melvin and Holmes were walking toward on the night of Mr. Melvin's arrest, was registered to Mr. Holmes. Sergeant Gaines concluded that it was "probable that the vehicle in question that Mr. Melvin was [walking] towards belonged to Mr. Holmes and more likely Mr. Holmes was going to be the driver." Before submitting his report, Sergeant Gaines also reviewed dash-camera video footage from the night of the incident. On August 16, 2016, Sergeant Gaines submitted his report. On August 30, 2016, Lieutenant Pedro Bacon, who assisted in the investigation, also submitted a "Conclusion of Fact" report.

         Deputy Chief of Staff David Roddy, Captain Zach McCullough, and Assistant Chief Eric Tucker reviewed Sergeant Gaines' findings. Deputy Chief of Staff Roddy and Assistant Chief Tucker recommended sustaining the false arrest charge but not the charge of harassment. Captain McCullough did not recommend sustaining either charge. On January 11, 2017, Mr. Campbell received a letter advising him that a disciplinary hearing concerning IA case number 2016-14 would be held on February 10, 2017.

         In addition to being investigated for the false arrest violation, Mr. Campbell was also under CPD investigation for alleged violations of OPS-1-Operation of Motor Vehicle. On January 26, 2016, under IA case number 2015-24, Mr. Campbell was found to have violated OPS-1 for "reckless use of his motor vehicle by driving at excessive speeds . . . and causing physical contact with a suspect." He was suspended, without pay, for seven days, and was also removed from his Field Training Officer ("FTO") position.[2]Thereafter, CPD periodically monitored Mr. Campbell's driving habits by reviewing his in-car videos. To this end, on August 17, 2016, Lieutenant (now Captain) Jerri Sutton reviewed Mr. Campbell's in-car video footage from July 21, 2016. From the video, Captain Sutton determined that Mr. Campbell again violated OPS-1 when he operated his vehicle at speeds up to 92 miles per hour without activating his emergency equipment. Captain Sutton further found that "[Mr.] Campbell was going to back up an officer who had not requested emergency assistance. I[n] the video, [Mr.] Campbell can be seen driving to the right of traffic that he was passing then eventually turning left onto a side road before deactivating his camera." Captain Sutton reported her findings to Assistant Chief Tucker, who instigated another investigation led by Lieutenant Craig Joel.

         For his investigation, Lieutenant Joel reviewed portions of six-to-eight months of randomly chosen video from Mr. Campbell's assigned police car. Lieutenant Joel found several policy violations on Mr. Campbell's part. Lieutenant Joel noted instances where Mr. Campbell drove, in populated areas, at excessive speeds that, at times, reached over 100 miles per hour. During some of these instances, Mr. Campbell did not activate his emergency lights and/or siren. Mr. Campbell also passed vehicles on the right side, on curves, and over double-yellow lines. Lieutenant Joel chose four of the most egregious driving examples to show to Mr. Campbell at a meeting on September 16, 2016, where Mr. Campbell's attorney was also present. During this meeting, Mr. Campbell was given the opportunity to explain his driving. After the meeting, Lieutenant Joel sent a memorandum of his findings to Assistant Chief Tucker and Captain Sutton. Therein, Lieutenant Joel recommended that the case "be reviewed more in depth up the chain of command [because Mr. Campbell's] driving behaviors [were] a pattern unaltered by negative discipline," i.e. Mr. Campbell's previous unpaid suspension and removal from his FTO position.

         After reviewing Lieutenant Joel's report, Captain Sutton found that Mr. Campbell violated OPS-1. Assistant Chief Tucker concurred and recommended a hearing to determine appropriate disciplinary action. This hearing was consolidated with the disciplinary hearing on the false arrest and harassment charges.

         On February 10, 2017, Chief Fred Fletcher presided over the consolidated disciplinary hearing. Mr. Campbell attended with his attorney. Several police officers, who participated in the investigations, were also present. At the beginning of the hearing, Chief Fletcher explained that the hearing was for Mr. Campbell to clarify his actions and behavior on the night he arrested Mr. Melvin as well as his reasons for the reckless driving. As discussed, infra, Chief Fletcher and other investigating officers questioned Mr. Campbell concerning both his interactions with Mr. Melvin, and the video footage of his driving. Mr. Campbell was given the opportunity to refute the charges.

         Following the hearing, on February 16, 2017, Chief Fletcher announced his decision to sustain the charges against Mr. Campbell, i.e. violation of: (1) ADM-01 Code of Conduct-Harassment; (2) ADM-16 Code of Conduct-False Arrest; and (3) OPS-1 Operation of Motor Vehicle. Based on these charges and CPD's previous disciplinary action against Mr. Campbell, by letter of February 20, 2017, Chief Fletcher notified Mr. Campbell of CPD's decision to terminate his employment, effective February 16, 2017.

         Mr. Campbell appealed CPD's decision to Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael Begley, who heard the appeal on June 29 and 30, 2017. The following individuals testified at the hearing: (1) Chief Fletcher; (2) Deputy Chief of Staff Roddy; (3) Sergeant Gaines; (4) Lieutenant Joel; (5) Captain Sutton; (6) Assistant Chief Tucker; (7) Officer Finley; (8) Officer Rahn; and (9) Mr. Campbell. In addition, twenty-three exhibits were entered into evidence. By order of January 26, 2018, ALJ Begley concluded that Chief Fletcher did not have a reasonable basis to sustain the harassment allegation, see footnote 1. However, the ALJ sustained the termination of Mr. Campbell's employment on his finding that CPD had a reasonable basis to sustain both the false arrest allegation and the OPS-1 violations.

         Mr. Campbell appealed the ALJ's order to the Chancery Court of Hamilton County ("trial court").[3] By order of October 12, 2018, the trial court found substantial and material evidence to uphold the ALJ's decision to sustain the false arrest and OPS-1 allegations and thus, affirmed the termination of Mr. Campbell's employment. Mr. Campbell appeals.

         II. Issues

         Mr. Campbell raises several issues for review. However, we perceive the dispositive issues are:

1. Whether the trial court erred in affirming the ALJ's ruling that CPD had a reasonable basis to sustain Mr. Campbell's false arrest and OPS-1 violations.
2. If so, whether the trial court erred in upholding the ALJ's ruling that CPD had a reasonable basis to terminate Mr. Campbell's employment.

         III. Standard of Review

         Our review of the ALJ's decision is governed by the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act ("UAPA"). Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-9-114(b)(1); City of Memphis v. Civil Serv. Comm'n of Memphis, 238 S.W.3d 238, 242 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007). The UAPA provides, in pertinent part:

(a)(1) A person who is aggrieved by a final decision in a contested case is entitled to judicial review under this chapter, which shall be the only available method of judicial review. . . .
(h) The court may affirm the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings. The court may reverse or modify the decision if the rights of the petitioner have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are:
(1) In violation of the of constitutional or statutory provisions;
(2) In excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
(3) Made upon unlawful procedure;
(4) Arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion; or
(5)(A) Unsupported by evidence that is both substantial and material in the light of the entire record.
(B) In determining the substantiality of evidence, the court shall take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight, but the court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact.
(i) No agency decision pursuant to a hearing in a contested case shall be reversed, remanded or modified by the reviewing court unless for errors that affect the merits of such decision.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-322. In City of Memphis, this Court explained that

[u]pon confirming that an agency has employed the proper legal principles in the case under review, this Court must then consider the disputed factual findings and address whether the agency had a reasonably sound basis for making those findings. See McEwen v. Tenn. Dept. of Safety, 173 S.W.3d 815, 820 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). Like the trial court, this Court applies the substantial and material evidence standard in reviewing the agency's findings of fact. Bobbitt v. Shell, 115 S.W.3d 506, 509-10 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003). Substantial and material evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a rational conclusion" and to furnish a reasonably sound basis for the decision under consideration. City of Memphis v. Civil Serv. Comm'n, 216 S.W.3d 311, 316 (Tenn. 2007) (quoting Jackson Mobilphone Co. v. Tenn. Pub. Serv. Comm'n, 876 S.W.2d 106, 110-11 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1993)); Dickson v. City of Memphis Civil Serv. Comm'n, 194 S.W.3d 457, 464 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005); Pruitt v. City of Memphis, No. W2004-01771-COA-R3-CV, 2005 WL 2043542, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 24, 2005); Bobbitt, 115 S.W.3d at 510.
As directed by the statute, we take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the evidence, but we may not substitute our own judgment on questions of fact by re-weighing the evidence. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-322(h)(5)(B). When the agency conducts a hearing and can evaluate the witnesses as they testify, this Court gives the tribunal's credibility determinations great weight. Pruitt, 2005 WL 2043542, at *7. Moreover, the substantial and material evidence standard does not justify reversal of an administrative decision only because the evidence could also support another result. Martin v. Sizemore, 78 S.W.3d 249, 276 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). Rather, we may reject an administrative determination only if a reasonable person would necessarily arrive at a different conclusion based on the evidence. Id.
Likewise, Tennessee Code Annotated Section 4-5-322(h)(4) permits a reviewing court to modify or reverse an administrative decision if it is "[a]rbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion." Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-322(h)(4). A decision unsupported by substantial and material evidence is arbitrary and capricious. City of Memphis, 216 S.W.3d at 315. Yet, a clear error of judgment can also render a decision arbitrary and capricious notwithstanding adequate evidentiary support. Id. at 316. A decision is arbitrary or capricious if it "is not based on any course of reasoning or exercise of judgment, or . . . disregards the facts or circumstances of the case without some basis that would lead a reasonable person to reach the same conclusion." Id. (quoting Jackson Mobilphone, 876 S.W.2d at 110-11).

City of Memphis, 238 S.W.3d at 243. With the foregoing in mind, we turn to address the issues.

         IV. Analysis

         A. ADM-16 Violation: False Arrest

         Mr. Campbell argues that the ALJ's decision to sustain the false arrest charge is not supported by substantial and material evidence. The charge against Mr. Campbell arises from his alleged violation of CPD policy ADM-16, which provides, in pertinent part:

         I. Policy

A. All employees-whether on or off duty-shall be governed by reasonable rules of good conduct and behavior and shall not commit any wrongful, malicious, or criminal act which may bring reproach or discredit upon themselves, their fellow employees, the Chattanooga Police
Department, or the City of Chattanooga.
C. Nothing in this order or in any other general order shall be interpreted to preclude or prohibit the Chief of Police from tailoring appropriate disciplinary action to fit the circumstances of any violation of policy, rule or order of the Department or any violation of policy, rule or order of the City. The Chief of Police may impose any level of disciplinary action authorized by the Chattanooga City Code.

         II. Conduct in General

A. Submitting false reports
Written and oral reports submitted by employees shall be truthful and complete, and no employee shall knowingly enter or cause to be entered inaccurate, false, misleading or improper information, or submit reports containing material omissions.
B. Employee Conduct During Internal Investigation
Employees shall answer questions truthfully, submit written statements and participate in recorded interviews during internal investigations related to the employee's duties or fitness for duty. Failure to answer such questions and cooperate with the investigation may form the basis for disciplinary action and may result in dismissal from the department. The intentional misrepresentation of a material fact during an internal investigation may result in the dismissal of the employee from the Department.
S. Unbecoming Conduct
1. Employees shall conduct themselves at all times-both on and off duty-in such a manner as to reflect favorably on the Department. Conduct unbecoming a public employee includes conduct that is unlawful and/or brings the Department into disrepute, reflects discredit upon the employee as a member of the Department, or impairs the operation or efficiency of the Department or officer.
Concerning the false arrest charge, the ALJ found, in relevant part:
9. [Mr. Campbell] . . . stated to Mr. Melvin in a casual tone, "Hey man, you got your license back yet? You working on it?" Mr. Melvin responded that it was none of [Mr. Campbell]'s business. Mr. Melvin had committed no violation at this point.
10. After a brief pause, [Mr. Campbell]'s tone became angry. He became highly agitated, demanding that Mr. Melvin come back and show his identification because they were on government property and [Mr. Campbell] was a government official. Mr. Melvin stated that all [Mr. Campbell] did was harass him and pick on him and that he was leaving.
11. Further escalating the situation, [Mr. Campbell] then asked Mr. Melvin to put his hands on the vehicle, eventually grabbing one of Mr. Melvin's arms and placing it on the vehicle. As a result of [Mr. Campbell]'s escalating actions, Mr. Melvin became irate and began yelling. Two other officers walked over to assist [Mr. Campbell] in handcuffing Mr. Melvin.
12. Once in handcuffs, Mr. Melvin was arrested for disorderly conduct, was led to [Mr. Campbell]'s patrol car, and was placed in the back seat.

         Sergeant Gaines' internal investigation report for IA case number 2016-14 was admitted as Exhibit 7 to the ALJ hearing was. Therein, Sergeant Gaines summarized his interview with Mr. Campbell concerning Mr. Campbell's position on the false arrest incident, to-wit:

While clearing the area, [Mr. Campbell] observed Mr. Melvin walking by him heading towards a vehicle with another person. Knowing that he didn't have a license, he asked him if he had gotten his license back. Mr. Melvin responded back with "that's none of your business." [Mr. Campbell] did not know if Mr. Melvin had been involved in the call but did see him approach a vehicle and knew he didn't have a license. When [Mr. Campbell] asked Mr. Melvin for his ID, he patted his pants and stated he did not have it on him. When he asked Mr. Melvin for his SSN, he stated that he was harassing him. Mr. Melvin was getting louder when speaking and was becoming agitated. . . . Mr. Melvin continued to argue with [Mr. Campbell] and had something in his hands. After ordering him 4 times to show what was in his hands, [Mr. Campbell] grabbed Mr. Melvin's hand that had the object in it, put his hand on Mr. Melvin's back and placed him on the car. . . . At this time, Mr. Melvin was being detained for failing to show what he had in his hands and if he possessed a valid DL. After handcuffing Mr. Melvin, he began hollering and screaming. Mr. Melvin was taken to a police car where he was searched and an ID was not found. [Mr.] Melvin continuously yelled that they didn't have the right to do what they are doing to him. He was told at this time he was being arrested for disorderly conduct due to the people being out there and him causing a scene.

         Lieutenant Bacon's Conclusion of Fact was admitted as Exhibit 20 to the ALJ hearing. Therein, Lieutenant Bacon stated that

[o]n the night in question [Mr.] Melvin was merely walking down the sidewalk when he was asked a question by [Mr.] Campbell about his license. He replied none of [Mr.] Campbell's business since he was not driving a vehicle and [Mr.] Campbell was only casually inquiring (not lawfully). The situation went from this question to [Mr.] Campbell demanding to see [Mr.] Melvin's identification for some reason not really known even though he had a prior knowledge of [Mr.] Melvin's identity. The situation further heightens with [Mr.] Campbell impeding [Mr.] Melvin's ability to go on his way[, ] which eventually lead to [Mr.] Melvin's arrest for Disorderly Conduct. It is clear in the audio of the ICVAR system that Hanson Melvin was quite calm for most of this encounter until the realization of the impending arrest. [Mr.] Campbell[, ] however, goes from being friendly, to being authoritative and finally the arrest of [Mr.] Melvin after the 'none of your business' statement[, ] which drew more attention than [Mr.] Melvin's actions. This case was True Billed in Grand Jury; however[, ] it was dismissed from Criminal Court (Judge Pool) on August 26th, 2016.

         Exhibit 12 to the ALJ hearing was the audio recording from Mr. Campbell's disciplinary hearing on February 10, 2017. In response to the question of when Mr. Melvin exhibited the behavior necessary to develop probable cause for a disorderly conduct arrest, Mr. Campbell stated:

A: Right as I was placing cuffs on him.
Q: So it was as you were placing cuffs on him or after you placed cuffs on him?
A: Pretty much the same time.
Q: So why were you placing cuffs on him if he hadn't become disorderly yet?
A: To detain him because he was attempting to leave the scene in a ...

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