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Shelby County Tennessee v. Morris

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

December 16, 2019

SHELBY COUNTY, TENNESSEE
v.
GARY MORRIS, JR. ET AL.

          Session November 13, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Shelby County No. CH-15-0911 JoeDae L. Jenkins, Chancellor

         This appeal arises from Shelby County's decision to terminate Appellee's employment for non-compliance with the County's residency requirement. The Civil Service Merit Board ("CSMB") reversed the termination of Appellee's employment and reinstated him with back pay. On appeal, the Shelby County Chancery Court affirmed the CSMB'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

          Bridgett L. Stigger, and Sanjeev Memula, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Shelby County, Tennessee.

          Murray B. Wells, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Gary Morris, Jr.

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.

          OPINION

          KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE

         I. Background

         Appellee Gary Morris was an employee of Appellant Shelby County, Tennessee ("the County"), in its Roads, Bridges, and Engineering Department. As is relevant to this appeal, the County's Charter and Policy No. 304 require Shelby County employees to reside in the County as a condition of their employment. Specifically, the policy provides that "[a]ll employees hired after September 1, 1986, must be residents of Shelby County and shall continue to reside in said County as a condition of their employment." On January 15, 2015, the County requested Mr. Morris to provide a mailing address for his 2014 W-2. Mr. Morris provided the County with the mailing address of 345 Emma Road, Oakland, Fayette County, Tennessee, which was his girlfriend's address. Because of the County's residency requirement, Mr. Morris' supervisors questioned him about the out-of-county address he provided for mailing his W-2, and Mr. Morris immediately submitted a request to update his address to 5723 Logan Cove, Arlington, Shelby County, Tennessee.[1]

         On January 16, 2015, the County began an investigation of whether Mr. Morris was compliant with the residency requirement. The County requested that Mr. Morris confirm his compliance (by January 20, 2015) by supplying the County with three documents from a list of approved documents such as: a rental/mortgage contract, current driver's license, motor vehicle registration or title, current voter registration, W-2 form, current receipt for real estate taxes, or a current utility bill. On January 20, 2015, Mr. Morris provided a lease agreement for 6804 North Knoll, Millington, a Shelby County address. The lease was signed on January 17, 2015, and was to become effective on February 1, 2015. On January 21, 2015, Mr. Morris tendered three additional documents reflecting an address of 12466 U.S. Highway 64, a Shelby County address. These documents included a 2013 application for vehicle registration, a 2013 W-2 tax form (from another employer), and a March 2014 receipt for a trailer.

         On January 28, 2015, the County conducted a Loudermill hearing to determine whether Mr. Morris was a County resident. At that time, Mr. Morris submitted an affidavit from his aunt, Mosie Thomas, in which she stated that Mr. Morris lived with her at 12611 Highway 64, Shelby County, Tennessee, from January 1, 2014 through December 2014. On January 29, 2015, the County terminated Mr. Morris' employment on the ground that he failed to prove compliance with the County's residency requirement. Mr. Morris appealed the termination to the Shelby County Civil Service Merit Board ("CSMB"). On April 16, 2015, the CSMB conducted a hearing regarding this termination.

         On May 15, 2015, the CSMB found that the Roads, Bridges, and Engineering Department did not meet its burden of proof on cause to terminate Mr. Morris' employment. As such, the CSMB overturned the termination of employment, and reinstated Mr. Morris with back pay. On July 8, 2015, the County appealed the CSMB's ruling to the Shelby County Chancery Court ("trial court"). On December 13, 2018, the trial court entered an order adopting the CSMB's findings of fact and conclusions of law. The County appeals.

         II. Issue

         The County raises several issues for review. However, we perceive that there is one dispositive issue: Whether the trial court erred in affirming the CSMB's decision to reverse termination of Mr. Morris' employment and to reinstate him with back pay.

         III. Standard of Review

         "Judicial review of decisions by civil service boards of a county or municipality which affects the employment status of a county or city civil service employee shall be in conformity with the judicial review standards under 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 ...

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