Session October 16, 2019
from the Chancery Court for Greene County No. 2017-CV-316
John C. Rambo, Chancellor 
appeal concerns a clerk and master's petition for
additional staff. Kay Solomon Armstrong, Clerk and Master of
Greene County ("Petitioner"), filed a petition
against the County Mayor ("Defendant") in the
Chancery Court for Greene County ("the Trial
Court") seeking additional staff for her
office. After a trial, the Trial Court entered an
order replacing one half-time position in the office with one
full-time position. The Trial Court also awarded Petitioner
attorney's fees and expenses to be paid from the fees of
the Clerk and Master's Office. Defendant appeals to this
Court, arguing that the evidence preponderates against the
Trial Court's decision to award additional funding for a
new full-time assistant to replace a half-time assistant and
that Petitioner was not entitled to recover any
attorney's fees. We hold that reasonable attorney's
fees were recoverable by Petitioner pursuant to statute. We
hold further that the evidence does not preponderate against
the Trial Court's factual findings, including the Trial
Court's core finding that Petitioner's workspace is
so structurally inefficient that her office requires more
staff. We modify the Trial Court's order on fees and
expenses to the extent it failed to award Petitioner expenses
she paid out of pocket. On remand, the Trial Court is to
determine and enter an award including reimbursing Petitioner
for her reasonable out-of-pocket fees and expenses. We
affirm, as modified, the judgment of the Trial Court, and
remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Affirmed, as Modified; Case Remanded.
S. Dessauer and Suzanne S. Cook, Kingsport, Tennessee, for
the appellant, Kevin C. Morrison, in his official capacity as
Mayor of Greene County, Tennessee.
Matthew A. Grossman and Kevin A. Dean, Knoxville, Tennessee,
and, James R. Wheeler, Jonesborough, Tennessee, for the
appellee, Kay Solomon Armstrong, in her official capacity as
Clerk and Master of Greene County, Tennessee.
Michael Swiney, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Andy D. Bennett and John W. McClarty, JJ., joined.
MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE
August 2017, Petitioner sued Defendant in the Trial Court
seeking more funding for staff than the Greene County
Commission provided in the 2017-2018 budget. The Greene
County Clerk and Master's Office had five full-time
employees and one half-time employee. Petitioner sought one
new full-time employee as well as another part-time employee.
Petitioner's dual-pronged argument for additional staff
was that (1) she has lost experienced personnel in recent
times and (2) that the physical layout of her office located
in a nineteenth century courthouse basement is unconducive to
efficiency. Defendant, in response, has argued throughout
that Petitioner does not need any additional staff. Defendant
also has pointed to Petitioner's previous policy of
closing her office to the public on Wednesdays as evidence
that Petitioner and her staff have failed to attend to their
duties. Petitioner contends those closures were necessary to
complete the work of the Clerk and Master's Office. The
proceedings became contentious, and Mayor David Crum's
attorney, Suzanne Cook, filed a BPR complaint against
Petitioner's attorney, Matthew Grossman, for addressing
the Greene County Commission with Mayor Crum present outside
the presence of the Mayor's counsel. That complaint later
case was tried on March 27 and 28, 2018, and April 10 and 13,
2018. We quote some of the most pertinent testimony from
trial. Barbara Tallent ("Tallent"), an interior
designer, testified for Petitioner regarding the physical
structure of the Greene County Clerk and Master's office
and its detrimental effect on the staff's efficiency:
Q. And I believe the -- the question was could you compare
the Greene County Clerk and Master space to what the -- to
what the, pardon me, what the Clerk and Master has here in
Washington County? A. Certainly. I did have the opportunity
to walk through the space but even if I hadn't gone
behind the glass I could easily have observed that the sight
lines are 180 degrees better than what they are in Greene
County. I wouldn't want anybody to think that the Greene
County situation looks anything like it does here. The two
could not be more different. If you'll notice, maybe on
break, every staff member there has a sight line to the front
counter and the counters are at different heights for
wheelchair accessibility, standing height. I mean, it's
-- it's a great layout. Even as you work through the
department you'll see people in private offices who also
have glass fronts to their offices, again so that they can
maintain visibility. They will see if someone has left the
front counter and they'll know that they need to staff
that window. It's also greater auditory communication.
You're not trying to strain to hear what's going on
and that's a great assistance in training people. You
know, you -- you learn a lot just by hearing how someone else
is dealing with a situation. And cross-training and covering
for one another is better enabled that way. So what you see
here is a great example of more modern design approaches that
we do day in, day out for offices now, whether it be banks,
utility districts, government offices. Anyone that deals with
the public those sight lines are absolutely critical.
It's -- it's probably the number one programing
criteria that we're asked for when designing for offices
Q. . . . Do you have any opinion as to if the Greene County
Clerk and Master had a space that was situated more like the
Washington County Clerk and Master how would that affect Ms.
Armstrong's staffing needs? A. In my opinion I believe
the current staff that she has would be better accommodated
in an office such as the Washington County Clerk and
Master's office. In her current office environment it is
understandable that it would require more staff to do the
same duties, given the floor plan.
cross-examination, Tallent was pressed on whether the problem
was Petitioner's workspace or Petitioner's ability to
manage her office:
Q. As I understand your testimony, you're not saying Ms.
Armstrong needs more staff, are you?
A. Actually I am.
Q. But aren't you also saying that if there were more
staff in that office it would be more inefficient?
A. No. I'm saying that having more staff would allow them
to perform the duties that they are required to do which
would -- the most primary is to service the -- the walk-up
customers at those windows.
Q. Did you do any analysis of what other factors might impact
workplace efficiency in any given environment?
A. As it pertains to this specific project, yes.
Q. Okay. What else did you -- what other factors did you
A. Other factors are, for example, where their filing is.
Currently it's spread throughout the building even as far
as to the attic which lets me know there -- say for example,
someone needs to pull a file, they not only have to leave the
department, they may have to leave the floor and that creates
a longer time when someone is away from their desk or away
from their window.
Q. Doesn't that relate to the management of the space as
opposed to the space itself?
A. I wouldn't think so. There's nowhere for all of
their files to be housed within the department.
Q. Wouldn't you agree, ma'am, that there are a number
of things that impact workplace productivity and employee
efficiency other than the configuration of the office space?
A. I would agree.
Q. For example, the work ethic of your employees?
A. I would agree.
Q. You did no analysis of that, did you, ma'am?
A. Only observation.
Q. And would you also agree effective management impacts
Q. Did you do any analysis or review of Ms. -- Ms.
Armstrong's policies, practice and procedures for
A. I only observed.
took the stand, as well. Petitioner testified that the loss
of experienced staff had hindered her office's efficiency
as of late:
Q. Between 2016 and the present -- well, in -- in Fiscal Year
2016 beginning or we'll say '15/16, what was
approximately your total tenure of your staff?
A. Chancellor, I -- I might have to look at my notes but I
recall in 2015 my total years of experience was 103. My
lawyer will probably tell me if I'm wrong because he
probably knows the number but 103 years in 2015/16.
Q. And what's -- what's the total tenure of your
staff as we sit here today?
A. Not counting me it's 43 years so that's a
difference -- I think that's somewhere like 58 percent of
The Court: Your years of experience is not in the 103, right?
The Witness: No, sir.
The Court: Okay.
By Mr. Grossman:
Q. And I guess -- I guess, Your Honor, if you -- how -- how
many years have you been in the post?
A. I'm in my 26th year.
Q. So obviously I guess adding -- adding that to both the 103
number and the 43 number would make that -- roughly figure
that out, what percentage are you still losing?
A. Approximately 50 percent.
Q. What is the biggest problem that has resulted from this
staffing -- from this loss of tenured staff?
A. I can't get the work done, Chancellor. I can't
provide the service I need to provide in the manner the
taxpayer is accustomed to and I can't serve my bench in
the manner my judge is used to. I can't meet the
deadlines and I -- I have realized the worst this -- the more
time passes the worse it gets and that creates more potential
liability for my county if some -- if there is a failure, if
there's something missed.
Q. About how long does it take to replace tenured staff --
well, let me ask -- let me ask a different way. Is -- how
easy is it [to] replace tenured staff with -- with someone
who can jump right into the position?
A. In Greene County it's almost impossible. I have lived
this for 26 years and I've seen people come and I've
seen people go. When Tonya left after being there 11 years --
she wasn't the excellent employee she was when she left
when she first started. It -- it -- and she's smart girl
and the Circuit Clerk is blessed to have her but it took her
over five years to get to that level of efficiency. So by my
evaluation, having lived this for 26 years, if you have a
tenured person of 10 years, one decade, and they leave, they
leave and you need to replace them with a human plus a half
of another. When Russell Wexler died in -- suddenly in 2016,
him being there 25 years, that's two decades, we need two
halves or one whole to replace him, not just his position but
another whole human. And then, now we have Jeanne Tweed
having retired as her notice dated March the 21st of this
year, she's in her 32nd year. That's three decades.
That is one and a half positions by my evaluation.
Q. How many hours a week do you normally work? A. More than
40 hours a week do I work. Q. Do you take work home?
A. I take work home. I don't take court files home. I --
I will copy a section or I will take bags or boxes and I will
do work after hours at home in particularly because it's
less congested at my counter in the morning, I will do work
offsite and then arrive at the courthouse after that period
of work done. I've even done it in my car. Once you come
into that courthouse and you get on that front counter
it's like fighting fire. So in order to have
uninterrupted thought to work on something more complex, I
will hide out for a while or try to work on my forms or try
to understand what a new requirement is that I need to
Q. Is your cell phone number publically available?
A. Yes. Most members of the bar in Northeast Tennessee
I've offered my cell phone number to.
Q. When do you answer that phone?
A. I will answer my personal cell phone 24/7.
Q. Are you able to carry out all of the mandated functions of
your office without the assistance of deputies and assistants
at this time?
A. Absolutely not.
Q. Are you able to carry out all the mandated functions of
your office with the deputies and assistants that are
currently provided for in the budget?
A. Absolutely not.
Q. Just briefly tell the Court how your office is
A. We're not functioning; we're existing. We're
taking care of the customer that's right in front of us
and we're -- and we're answering the phone. But I am
here to ask you, Chancellor, to -- for relief because Greene
County doesn't have a Clerk and Master right now. You
have a good front counter clerk and I'm not able to
attend to my Chancellor and to the other judges in the Third
like I had been accustomed and -- and taught to do.
Q. And you're asking the Court to authorize the new one
-- one full-time and one part-time position as set forth in
there? A. Yes, if not more.
recross-examination, Petitioner was questioned regarding her
practice of performing some of her clerk and master duties
Q. And, ma'am, you were explaining to the Chancellor that
you have some pattern of doing work from home and doing
emails before you come into the office. You agree with me
your staff is in the office, or should be, to have the office
up and running by 8:00 in the morning, correct?
Q. And your staff needs you to be in the office as well doing
tasks. In other words, if you're working from home and
they're in the office that's not a very efficient
operation for you to direct your staff or supervise your
staff or deal with problems in the office, is it?
A. It's quite the contrary. To be able to manage a small
shop like that and have -- and help them in the more activity
part of the day -- the more active part of the day is you --
it's best to be out in the first morning hours as opposed
to lunchtime and going after. That's when we're busy.
That's when they need the help. That's when they need
the managing. That's when the liability is, more after
lunchtime and going down, not in the morning. So in an effort
to properly manage my office, my Chancellor and the
Chancellor before me knows that it's a time to be able to
-- to prepare and plan and do the catchup in the early
morning time and I stay offsite on purpose.
The Court: Do I understand that you're telling me that
the -- both the current and his predecessor Chancellor are
aware that you physically did not come into the office until
later in the morning on some frequency?
The Witness: Yes.
witness to testify was Attorney Kidwell King
("King"), who practices in Greene County. King
testified regarding the performance of the Clerk and
Master's Office. King stated, as pertinent:
Q. What kind of challenges can you face when doing
investigations of old cases in the Clerk and ...