Tennessee Supreme Court To Livestream Video Conference Oral Arguments On September 30

September 28, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court has four cases set for its September 30, 2020 docket. These cases will be heard by using video conferencing and will be livestreamed to the TNCourts YouTube channel. The details of the cases are as follows:

  • In re Neveah M.– This expedited appeal examines one of the grounds for termination in Tennessee’s termination of parental rights statute. In this case, a child was removed from her biological mother’s care and placed into the care of foster parents. Thereafter, the Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) filed a petition for dependency and neglect. The juvenile court determined the child was dependent and neglected and granted custody to the foster parents but did not terminate the mother’s parental rights. The mother did not appear at the hearing, but she later requested visitation with the child. Thereafter, the foster parents filed a petition to adopt the child and terminate the mother’s parental rights. After a trial, the trial court terminated the mother’s parental rights and granted the adoption. The trial court held that the mother had “failed to manifest an ability” to assume custody of the child and that placing the child in the mother’s care would “pose a severe risk of physical and psychological harm to [the child].” The mother appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the mother’s rights should not have been terminated under the statute without a finding that she was not only unable but that she was also unwilling to assume custody of the child. The Court of Appeals recognized a split of authority under Tennessee law regarding whether the petitioning party was required to prove that the parent was both unable and unwilling to assume custody or whether a failure to manifest either an ability or willingness to assume custody could be sufficient under the statute, in addition to the risk of harm element. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the foster parents’ application for permission to appeal and limited the issues to whether the statute requires a petitioner to prove inability or unwillingness or both inability and unwillingness and, if both, whether the Court of Appeals should have remanded the case for further proceedings for the trial court to address the issue of the mother’s willingness to assume custody of the child.
  • Snake Steel, Inc. v. Holladay Construction Group, LLC– Appellant Holladay Construction Group, LLC (“HCG”) hired Appellee Snake Steel, Inc. (“SSI”) as a subcontractor to complete steel construction work for 2200 Charlotte, LLC (the “owner”). Tennessee’s Prompt Pay Act (“the Act”) permitted HCG to withhold a “retainage,” a percentage of the agreed-upon contract amount, until satisfactory completion of SSI’s responsibilities and until the owner provided the payment to HCG. SSI completed its responsibilities in September 2014 and received payment minus the retainage amount. The owner remitted the retainage to HCG in May 2015. SSI requested the retainage from HCG in February 2016 but had yet to receive it by September 2017. SSI filed suit seeking to recover the retainage amount and arguing that it was entitled to a $300 per day statutory penalty for each day HCG withheld the retainage amount and failed to put it in an interest-bearing escrow account. After the suit was filed, HCG tendered the retainage amount and other fees but not the alleged penalty. Thereafter, HCG filed a motion to dismiss the claim for statutory penalties, arguing that the claim was barred by a one-year statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion, reasoning that the one-year statute of limitations barred recovery because the latest the claim could have accrued was February 19, 2016, one year and seven months before the suit was filed, when SSI requested the retainage from HCG. SSI appealed and the Court of Appeals agreed that the Act’s one-year statute of limitations applied in this case. However, the court remanded the case to determine when SSI could have reasonably discovered that HCG had failed to put the retainage in an escrow account. The court also held that, at the very least, SSI may be entitled to statutory penalties for the 365 days preceding when it filed the complaint in September 2017, or more. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, HCG argues that if SSI were able to collect any penalty based on the escrow account claim it would render the Act’s one-year statute of limitations meaningless. Additionally, HCG contends that the action accrued on February 19, 2016, and that the alleged penalty is disproportional to the actual harm. SSI argues that HCG’s failure to timely pay the retainage was a breach of contract and that HCG’s failure to hold the retainage in an escrow account was a breach of the Act. Additionally, SSI contends that it could not have reasonably known about HCG’s failure to keep the retainage in an escrow account until after the suit was filed in September 2017. As a result, the suit was filed within the one-year statute of limitations.
  • State of Tennessee v. Shalonda Weems– The defendant, Shalonda Weems, was convicted by a jury of aggravated child neglect and reckless homicide following the death of her infant child. After the jury’s verdict, the defendant filed a motion for judgment of acquittal on both charges. The trial court denied the motion as to the reckless homicide charge but granted the motion as to the aggravated child neglect charge because it determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove the defendant acted knowingly in causing harm to the child, a necessary element of conviction under the statute. The State appealed the partial acquittal, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. The court stated that the child’s medical records showed that she was “well[-]developed, well[-]nourished: alert and vigorous” and that she showed “normal growth and development.” Additionally, the court credited the defendant’s testimony and records that she attended regular check-ups and brought the child to the emergency room when she appeared ill on one occasion. The court determined that “the evidence was insufficient to prove that [the defendant] knowingly did not feed [the child] or knowingly neglected [the child].” The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the State’s application for permission to appeal in which the State argued that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred in affirming the trial court’s judgment of acquittal “by substituting its own credibility determinations for those made by the jury, determining the weight to be given to witness testimony, failing to consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the state, and failing to disregard countervailing evidence.” In response, the defendant argues that when contemplating the totality of the evidence at trial, the trial court applied the correct legal standard when it partially granted the motion for acquittal.
  • State of Tennessee v. Samantha Grissom Scott– The defendant, Samantha Scott, pled guilty to two drug offenses and, with the State’s consent, reserved her right to appeal a certified question of law regarding the legality of the search of her home. On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the defendant argued that her initial consent to officers to conduct a warrantless search of her home was involuntary and that, therefore, any evidence obtained from the search was inadmissible. She also argued that the search warrant that officers obtained using information discovered during the warrantless search was invalid, rendering inadmissible any evidence found through that search warrant. The State contested that the question on appeal was dispositive of the case and argued that exigent circumstances existed that allowed officers to seize the defendant and obtain her consent. Additionally, the State argued for the first time that, even if the defendant’s consent was invalid, the evidence still would be admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine. A majority of the appellate court agreed and held that the officers had probable cause to obtain a search warrant for the home upon their arrival, regardless of the defendant’s consent to conduct a warrantless search. Therefore, the evidence would have been discovered inevitably. The majority held that the defendant’s question was not dispositive and the appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The dissenting opinion determined that the inevitable discovery doctrine did not apply to the facts of this case because there was insufficient certainty that the officers would have obtained a search warrant and found the evidence on their own. The dissent also stated that no exigent circumstances existed and the defendant’s consent was invalid. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, in addition to the arguments made below, the defendant argues that the State waived its inevitable discovery doctrine argument by consenting to the certified question in the trial court. In response, the State contends that matters of jurisdiction, such as whether the question is dispositive, cannot be waived.

To watch the livestream, please visit: www.YouTube.com/user/TNCourts. Media members planning to attend oral arguments virtually should review Supreme Court Rule 30 and file any required request.