William T. Ailor, Judge

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.

 

McLemore Et Al. v. Knox County, Tennessee, No. E2022-01754-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 27, 2024). Caprice McLemore, Gary McLemore, Misty Tanner, Barrett Tanner, and McKinley Tanner (together, “Plaintiffs” or “Appellants”) appeal from the judgment of the trial court dismissing their case against the defendant, Knox County (“Appellee” or “the County”). Appellants were injured in a car accident on Clinton Highway after being struck by a vehicle driven by Roy Michael Simmons (“Mr. Simmons”), who was evading a Knox County sheriff’s deputy. Plaintiffs filed suit against the County, alleging that it was liable for their injuries arising from the accident. Following a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the deputy pursuing Mr. Simmons did not act unreasonably under the circumstances and that the County was thus not liable for Plaintiffs’ injuries. Plaintiffs timely appealed to this Court. Discerning no error, we affirm.

 

Collier Ex Rel. Chayce C. v. Roussis, M.D. Et Al., No. E2022-00636-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 20, 2024). This appeal concerns juror misconduct. Chayce Collier (“Chayce”), a minor, by and through his parent and next friend, Kendall Collier (“Plaintiff”), sued Periclis Roussis, M.D. (“Dr. Roussis”), Fort Sanders Perinatal Center, and Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center (“the Hospital”) (“Defendants,” collectively) in the Circuit Court for Knox County (“the Trial Court”) alleging health care liability in Chayce’s delivery. A major issue at trial was whether Dr. Roussis fell below the standard of care by failing to administer epinephrine to Plaintiff when she had an anaphylactic reaction during labor. The jury found for Defendants. However, it emerged that a juror had gone home and looked at the warning on an epipen which said that epinephrine should only be used when the potential benefit justifies the potential risk to the fetus. The juror shared this information with the rest of the jury. Plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial, which the Trial Court first granted and then denied. Plaintiff appeals. Under Tenn. R. Evid. 606(b), jurors may not be asked what effect, if any, that extraneous information had on them. Instead, courts look to the extraneous information itself to determine whether there is a reasonable possibility that it altered the verdict. We hold that there is a reasonable possibility that the extraneous information shared with the jury in this case altered the verdict, and Defendants failed to rebut the presumption of prejudice. The Trial Court applied an incorrect legal standard and thereby abused its discretion in denying Plaintiff’s motion for a new trial. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

 

Howell, III v. United Rentals (North America), Inc., No. E2023-00170-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 7, 2023). The plaintiff appeals from the grant of summary judgment to the defendants in this action. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence as barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court also dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for malicious prosecution after finding the plaintiff could not establish that the defendants had initiated the issuance of a criminal warrant without probable cause and with malice. Discerning no error, we affirm the trial court.

 

JCR, LLC v. Hance, No. E2022-00765-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 28, 2023).  Purchaser of real property at a non-judicial foreclosure sale brought an unlawful detainer action against the original homeowners when they refused to vacate the property after the sale. The homeowners brought a separate action against their mortgage servicer and the purchaser alleging, inter alia, wrongful foreclosure. The trial court dismissed the homeowners’ complaint against the purchaser and granted the purchaser’s motion for summary judgment with regard to the detainer action because there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the purchaser was entitled to possession of the property. Finding no error, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.  Dissent (opening paragraph): Because “[t]here is absolutely no doubt that wrongful foreclosure can be raised as an affirmative defense to an unlawful detainer action brought by the purchaser of property in foreclosure[,]” Davis v. Williams, No. E2010-01139-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 335069, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 31, 2011), no appl. perm. appeal filed (citations omitted), I respectfully dissent. The reasoning behind this defense is evident—to protect those who are wrongfully foreclosed upon from losing their home. The Hances availed themselves of the defense of wrongful foreclosure, just as Tennessee law provides. The Hances’ wrongful foreclosure lawsuit against Nationstar is still pending. While I cannot know the future outcome of the wrongful foreclosure lawsuit, neither can the majority. Under the majority’s holding, the decision in the wrongful foreclosure suit is immaterial. The Hances could prevail in their wrongful foreclosure lawsuit against Nationstar and still be ejected from their home by JCR leaving them with the hollow “victory” of attempting to collect on a money judgment against Nationstar. Their home would be lost to them despite their win. Such a result would be deeply unjust and contrary to longstanding Tennessee precedent that wrongful foreclosure is a defense to a detainer action. (Footnote omitted.)

 

Reiss v. Rock Creek Construction, Inc., No. E2021-01513-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 1, 2022). This appeal involves a counterclaim asserting defamation filed by the original defendant, a construction company, concerning statements that the original plaintiffs/homeowners made online and to third parties that were allegedly damaging to the construction company’s reputation. The homeowners sought dismissal of the defamation claims pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-17-101, et seq., known as the Tennessee Public Participation Act (“TPPA”). The trial court denied the homeowners’ motion to dismiss and ultimately entered judgment against them. The homeowners have appealed solely the trial court’s denial of their motion to dismiss. Determining that the trial court should have analyzed the motion to dismiss pursuant to the provisions of the TPPA rather than applying a traditional Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12 analysis, we vacate the court’s denial of the motion to dismiss and remand for further proceedings. We also vacate the trial court’s monetary award to the defendant construction company and remand that issue for further consideration once the motion to dismiss has been properly adjudicated.

 

Dodgson v. Williams, No. E2021-00873-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug 22, 2022).  This appeal concerns a detainer action. Lee Dodgson (“Dodgson”) sued Cheryl M. Williams (“Williams”) in the Knox County General Sessions Court (“the General Sessions Court”). The General Sessions Court ruled in Dodgson’s favor. Williams appealed to the Circuit Court for Knox County (“the Circuit Court”). Dodgson, the plaintiff in this matter, filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) for failure to state a claim. The Circuit Court granted Dodgson’s motion and dismissed Williams’ appeal. Williams appeals to this Court, arguing among other things that, while a motion for summary judgment might have been appropriate, a Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim was unavailable to Dodgson. We hold that Dodgson, as the plaintiff in this matter, could not use a Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6) motion as a means to dismiss Williams’ appeal. We vacate the Circuit Court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

 

In Re Rhyder C., No. E2021-01051-COA-R3-PT (Tenn. Ct. App. July 21, 2022).  This appeal arises from an unorthodox procedural history, wherein the trial court made its findings of facts and conclusions of law in an order granting summary judgment, the result of which terminated the mother/appellant’s parental rights. The court determined that the undisputed material facts clearly and convincingly established five grounds on which to terminate the mother’s parental rights. The court also found the undisputed material facts established that termination of her parental rights was in the child’s best interest. The mother appeals, asserting that the trial court violated her due process rights by terminating her parental rights without affording her an effective opportunity to cross-examine adverse witnesses. She contends the trial court erred by denying her motion to continue the hearing on the petitioners’ motion for summary judgment. She also contends the trial court erred by granting summary judgment on each of the alleged statutory grounds for termination as well as the issue of the child’s best interests. Following a careful review of the record, we have determined that the mother’s due process rights were not violated, and the trial court did not err in denying her motion for a continuance. We reverse the trial court’s ruling that Petitioners proved the ground of failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody or financial responsibility; however, we affirm the trial court in all other respects. Accordingly, we affirm the termination of the mother’s parental rights.

West v. Akard, No. E2021-00962-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 30, 2022).  In this landlord-tenant dispute, the circuit court concluded that the landlord violated the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (“Landlord/Tenant Act”), Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 66-28-101 to -522, and awarded the tenants $3,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages. The landlord appealed the punitive damages award. Because the landlord failed to file either a transcript or statement of the evidence, we conclusively presume that the record would have supported an award of punitive damages, and we affirm the circuit court’s judgment as modified.

 

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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