James Haltom, Commissioner


Reports of Cases Reviewed by Appellate Courts – Beginning Jan. 1, 2022

Text is the appellate court’s summary of the opinion.

Scroll down for important information.


Blackstock, Jr. v. State of Tennessee, No. M2023-00064-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2023).  The Tennessee Claims Commission dismissed appellant’s complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Discerning no error, we affirm.


Black as next of kin for Black v. State of Tennessee, No. M2022-00399-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 25, 2023).  This is a wrongful-death health care liability action against a skilled nursing facility, the Tennessee State Veterans’ Home in Clarksville (“TSVH-Clarksville”), which is owned and operated by the State of Tennessee. The claimant, Linda Black (“Claimant”), is the surviving spouse of Robert Junious Black, deceased, who was a resident of TSVHClarksville from December 16, 2016, through January 9, 2017. Claimant asserted that TSVH-Clarksville proximately caused Mr. Black’s death by failing to monitor and report his symptoms under the applicable standard of care. In particular, Claimant alleged that the staff at TSVH-Clarksville (1) failed to follow Mr. Black’s care plan for risk of dehydration; (2) failed to prevent Mr. Black from developing a urinary tract infection; (3) failed to notify Mr. Black’s physician of a significant changes in his clinical status; and (4) failed to properly assess Mr. Black. Following a two-day bench trial, the Claims Commissioner found that Claimant failed to establish a health care liability claim because, inter alia, the State complied with the applicable standards of care and Claimant failed to establish causation. This appeal followed. We affirm.


Cage v. State of Tennessee, No. M2022-01155-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 16, 2022) (memorandum opinion).  An inmate appeals the Claims Commission’s dismissal of his claim. Because the inmate did not file his notice of appeal within the time permitted by Rule 4 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, we dismiss the appeal.


Cavaliere v. State of Tennessee, No. M2021-00038-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2022).  This appeal arises from proceedings in the Tennessee Claims Commission and follows a trial concerning care received by the decedent while at the Tennessee State Veterans Home. The Claims Commission ultimately found that the claimants had failed to establish a health care liability claim and therefore dismissed the case. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the judgment of dismissal.


Walker v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-01626-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. 2022).  A homeowner brought an action for nuisance and unlawful taking against the State of Tennessee for its alleged failure to maintain a drainage facility on an easement the State acquired from a prior owner of the property. On grant of summary judgment, the Tennessee Claims Commission found no evidence to suggest the State constructed the faulty drainage structures the homeowner alleged caused the flooding and, therefore, the State was not required to maintain or repair the faulty structures. Discerning no error, we affirm the Claims Commission’s ruling.


Green v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-01244-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App Dec. 15, 2021).  In this action filed against the State of Tennessee (“the State”), alleging negligence by employees of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”), the Claims Commission (“the Commission”) dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Determining that subject matter jurisdiction existed in the Commission, we vacate the Commission’s order and remand this matter to the Commission for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Setayesh v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-01490-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct App. Dec. 13, 2022).  This appeal involves the interpretation of a provision in an employment contract executed by a professor and Nashville State Community College. The appellant, a tenured faculty member, transitioned from a teaching position to an administrative position and back again, and asserts that Nashville State breached the terms of her employment contract when it refused to pay her 80% of her administrative salary when she returned to a faculty position. The Tennessee Claims Commission held a trial on the breach of contract issue and determined that the contract referred to a Tennessee Board of Regents policy that did not entitle the professor to 80% of her administrative salary, and therefore, the professor’s breach of contract action failed. The Commissioner recalculated the amount of money the professor was owed for her spring 2018 salary. The professor appeals, asserting that the Commissioner erred in refusing to consider parol evidence in rendering its decision. We agree with the professor that parol evidence is helpful to understanding the parties’ intent as expressed in the agreement, and we reverse the Commissioner’s decision. The case is remanded for calculation of the professor’s faculty salary at no less than 80% of her administrative salary.


A. B. Normal v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-01390-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 3, 2021).  A property owner whose property was destroyed by a lightning-induced fire filed suit against the State on the theory of negligence. The Claims Commission dismissed the case after concluding that any negligence on the part of the State was not the proximate cause of the property owner’s injury. Finding no error, we affirm the decision of the Claims Commission.


Howard v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-00735-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App Aug. 26, 2021).  Following a car accident involving an employee of the State of Tennessee, Irene Howard (“Claimant”) sought damages against the State based on alleged injuries arising from the accident. The claim was denied by the Division of Claims and Risk Management (the “DCRM”), and Claimant thereafter appealed to the Claims Commission (the “Commission”). Because Claimant failed to appeal the DCRM’s decision within ninety days, however, the Commission concluded it lacked jurisdiction over the case and dismissed the appeal. We affirm.


Understanding the Limitations and Use of the Information Found in This Book

Tennessee’s trial judges resolve hundreds of thousands of legal and factual issues in tens of thousands of cases every single year.  No appeal is filed in the vast percentage of those cases, indicating that while the “losing” party may not like a ruling on a particular issue, that party understands there was an appropriate reason for the judge’s decision or, at a minimum, the judge was acting within his or her discretion.


Of course, a small number of decisions of trial judges do result in an appeal. Experienced trial lawyers know that the number of cases appealed out of a particular trial judge’s court does not, in and of itself, reveal much about the trial judge. For example, some judges hear more complex cases than others, and those cases are more likely to be appealed. Convictions in child sex abuse cases are frequently appealed, as are many criminal cases resulting in long sentences. There are a large number of parental rights termination cases that find their way to the appellate courts.  Judges who routinely try those types of cases will, other things being equal, see more of their cases reviewed by appellate courts than judges who do not see such cases.


Second, certain litigants (and certain lawyers) are more likely to appeal a case than others.  Thus, judges who have those litigants or lawyers regularly appear in their courtrooms will find more cases reviewed by the appellate courts.


For these and other reasons, the reader is cautioned not to read too much into the number of cases appealed from a court.  Stated differently, there is no reason to believe that a judge who has ten cases reviewed by an appellate court in a single year is a “worse” judge than one who has one case appealed, or that a judge who has three cases appealed is a “better” judge than one who has nine cases appealed.


Next, the number of times a judge’s ruling is reversed by an appellate court is not necessarily indicative of the quality of his or her work. For example, experienced lawyers know that there are “holes in the law,” i.e., cases where there is no law directly on point and the judge is forced to predict what an appellate court would rule on the issue. The fact that a judge decided an open legal issue one way and an appellate court decided it another way does not mean that the trial judge was “wrong” or does not understand the law. It simply means that the trial judge had a different view of what the law should be than the appellate court that decided the issue. A trial judge is not blessed with a crystal ball that can with 100 percent accuracy forecast how an appellate court will rule on an undecided legal issue.


In addition, the trial court is sometimes not provided with the same in-depth legal arguments and law that is supplied to the appellate court by the parties, or which is provided by law clerks at the appellate level (many trial courts do not have law clerks). The trial judge may have reached the same conclusion as the appellate court if he or she had been supplied with additional law or argument.


Finally, the law changes constantly, and the trial judge may rule on a case based on today’s law, which may evolve between the time of that ruling and the issuance of an opinion of the appellate court. In such cases, the reversal of the case by the appellate court is a question of timing of the original court decision as compared to changes in the law, not one of error by the trial court.


So, what is the value of this book?  How can the trial lawyer use it to help his or her clients given the limitations expressed above? Permit me to digress slightly.


You have seen the coffee cups or t-shirts that proclaim, “A good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge.”


Some read this phrase as suggesting that the “great lawyer” is one who has an improper relationship with the judge – that he or she can use a personal relationship to improperly influence the judge.  But most lawyers know better.  Most lawyers understand that “knowing the judge” means knowing the judge’s background, preferences concerning the presentation of evidence (including exhibits), arguments of motions, drafting of proposed orders, and given that experience, how he or she is likely to rule on a particular issue.  “Knowing the judge” also means knowing the local rules, local forms, local customs, and what things irritate the judge (and every judge is irritated by at least one thing that lawyers or litigants may do).


Many lawyers, particularly those in more rural areas of the state or who limit their practice to one area of law, understand the personality and preferences of the judges they see on a regular basis. Many of these lawyers may have a fair advantage appearing before that judge. (The advantage is “fair” because it results from experience and knowledge.)  That advantage – knowing how the judge thinks and his or her preferences – is not outcome-determinative, but it still may be an advantage, similar to a sports team playing on their home field.


Why did I say it “may” be an advantage, given what I said earlier about the benefits of “knowing the judge?”  Because simply knowing the judge’s thought processes and preferences is not enough. You still need to have the law and the facts on your client’s side.  And you need to be prepared to be able to give the judge what he or she needs to know to make a ruling.


So, the purpose of “The Book” is to give Tennessee lawyers case-related information to help them understand the trial judge who will rule on their client’s case or preside over a jury trial. By looking at past appellate court rulings arising from cases decided by the trial judge, anyone unfamiliar with a judge can get a “feel” for the judge. The case data contained herein does not compare with daily or weekly appearances in front of the judge on issues like a given case, but it is readily available information that give you an idea of how the judge has ruled in the past on a variety of matters.


The cases included are those originally decided by the trial judge that were in appellate court opinions released on or after January 1, 2022.  Note that there are a substantial number of judges who first took office in 2022 and thus it is reasonable to assume that there will be no appellate decisions for such judges until late 2023 or 2024.



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