Jim Kyle, Chancellor

Biography

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.

 

Berryhill v. Shelby County Government Civil Service Merit Board, No. W2022-01814-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2024). A former Shelby County employee alleges that she was wrongfully terminated by the County and that the Shelby County Government Civil Service Merit Board (CSMB) improperly declined to consider her appeal. The CSMB’s decision not to consider her appeal was based upon its determination that the former employee was administratively removed from her position, not punitively terminated, and, accordingly, the matter was beyond its authority. The former employee sought judicial review of the CSMB’s decision in the Shelby County Chancery Court. The Chancery Court dismissed, concluding that the CSMB did not err on the merits and that the Chancery Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The former employee appeals to this court. Based upon a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, we affirm the Chancery Court’s dismissal of the former employee’s petition for judicial review.

 

Jackson v. City of Memphis, No. W2022-00362-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 24, 2023). This appeal arises from an employment termination case in which an employee of the Division of Fire Services for the City of Memphis was terminated for a second positive drug test.  After receiving notice of his termination, the employee requested an appeal hearing with the City of Memphis Civil Service Commission.  Following the hearing, the Civil Service Commission issued a decision affirming the termination of his employment.  The employee filed a petition for the trial court to review the decision of the Civil Service Commission.  The trial court found that substantial and material evidence did not support the decision and that the decision was arbitrary and capricious.  Accordingly, the trial court granted the employee’s petition and remanded the matter to the Civil Service Commission.  The City of Memphis appeals.  We vacate the decision of the trial court and remand to the trial court for entry of an order to remand to the Civil Service Commission with instructions to issue a decision addressing certain deficiencies.

 

Whitworth v. City of Memphis, No. W2021-01304-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 3, 2023).  Appellant city residents sued the City of Memphis for breach of contract, breach of implied contract, unjust enrichment, and promissory estoppel related to inadequate garbage collection services provided by the City. Residents also sought a constructive trust and a declaratory judgment. The trial court dismissed the breach of contract action upon its conclusion that the provision of garbage collection services was a government function that did not create an enforceable contract between the city and its residents. The trial court dismissed the residents’ other contractual claims on the basis that they were barred by sovereign immunity. Finally, the trial court dismissed the claims for constructive trust and declaratory judgment upon its conclusion that they did not state a claim for relief under the circumstances. We affirm.

 

N.H. et al v. Shelby County Schools, W2022-01761-COA-T10B-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan 11, 2023).  This is an interlocutory appeal as of right, pursuant to Rule 10B of the Rules of the Supreme
Court of Tennessee, filed by N.R.H. (“Petitioner”), seeking to recuse the trial court judge. Having reviewed the petition for recusal appeal filed by Petitioner, and finding it fatally deficient, we dismiss the appeal.

 

Hawthorne v. Morgan & Morgan PLLC, No. W2021-01011-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 14, 2022).  This is an appeal following the trial court’s dismissal of a legal malpractice complaint predicated upon actions allegedly taken by the Defendants in connection with a prior class action proceeding. In light of its dismissal of the Plaintiff’s complaint, the trial court ruled that a “derivative” third-party complaint asserted by the Defendants should also be dismissed. Whereas the Plaintiff challenges the dismissal of her complaint, the Defendants submit that, if the order dismissing the Plaintiff’s complaint is reversed, the order dismissing their third-party complaint should also be reversed. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse, in part, the dismissal of the Plaintiff’s claims, reverse the dismissal of the third-party complaint, and remand for further proceedings.

 

Southern Steel & Concrete, Inc. v. Southern Steel & Construction, Inc., No. W2020-00475-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 14, 2022).  This appeal involves a payment dispute among several companies, including a construction company, a concrete company, and a fabricator company, that ultimately centered on a question of alter-ego status. The trial court found that the concrete company and the construction company were one and the same, and therefore were alter egos of each other. The trial court granted the concrete company enforcement of its lien and awarded it the funds that were deposited in the clerk’s office for the work performed on a building project. The trial court also denied the fabricator company’s cross-claim against the construction company for breach of contract for subcontracting work to the concrete company. The concrete company appeals. We affirm. [Editor’s note:  Chancellor Kyle was affirmed on legal grounds other than the law he applied in the case  The Court of Appeals applied the “tipsy coachman doctrine” to affirm.

 

Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., et al. v. City of Memphis, et al., No. W2019-00299-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 23, 2022). Plaintiffs filed this declaratory judgment action seeking a binding judicial interpretation of a contract executed by the three defendants. Plaintiffs were not parties to the contract, nor did their complaint allege that they were third-party beneficiaries of it. The three defendants filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim based on lack of standing, which the trial court granted. The plaintiffs appeal. We affirm and remand for further proceedings.

 

White v. Shelby Cty. Bd. of Educ., No. W2020-00278-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 22, 2022). Appellee, a tenured high school teacher, petitioned for judicial review of Appellant Shelby County Board of Education’s decision to terminate his employment. Without making findings to explain its reasoning, the trial court remanded the case to the school board for a second hearing. From our review, neither party argued that the school board’s initial hearing was procedurally deficient. As such, the trial court’s decision to remand the case to the school board, without findings to support such decision, was error. Vacated and Remanded.

 

Martina Smith, et al. v. Donna Jean Walker, et al., No. W2021-00241-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 22, 2022). Appellants purchased a home from Appellee that was contaminated with mold. Appellants therefore filed suit against Appellee. The trial court granted summary judgment in Appellee’s favor. Because the trial court’s order does not comply with Rule 56.04 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure or Smith v. UHS of Lakeside, Inc., we vacate and remand.

 

Reginald McWilliams v. Shelby County Land Bank, et al., No. W2021-00732-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 31, 2022). This appeal arises from a collateral attack of a tax sale of real property. The action was commenced by a pro se plaintiff against various Shelby County government entities. The plaintiff and his siblings inherited real property from their father, who died in 1992, and subsequently failed to pay property taxes for a number of years. The Shelby County Trustee’s office notified the plaintiff of the tax debt and an impending tax sale. The plaintiff did not pay the debt, and the property was sold. Several years later, the plaintiff commenced this action by filing an “‘Emergency’ Application for a Restraining Order” to prevent Defendants from “stealing” his property. After a hearing, the trial court denied the Application for a Restraining Order and dismissed the action with prejudice. This appeal followed. 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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