Tennessee Supreme Court To Continue Live-Streaming Video Conference Oral Arguments May 28

May 26, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court has five cases set for its May 28, 2020 docket.  These cases either will be heard by using livestream video conferencing or submitted on briefs.  The first three cases will be heard by livestream video conferencing, and the last two cases will be submitted on briefs.  The details of the cases are as follows:

  • State of Tennessee v. Robert Jason Allison– The defendant, Robert Allison, was convicted of two counts of delivery of marijuana, one count of possession with intent to distribute over ten pounds of marijuana in a drug-free school zone, one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, and two counts of money laundering.  The evidence at trial showed that the defendant engaged in two separate drug sales with a police informant in which he exchanged drugs for money, and he provided, or “fronted” drugs, and received payment at a later date.  The defendant appealed his convictions and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed.  On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Court has narrowed the issues to the three addressed by the Court of Criminal Appeals: (1) whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to support the defendant’s convictions for money laundering, (2) whether the defendant’s convictions for money laundering violate the double jeopardy clause of the federal and state constitutions, and (3) whether the Tennessee money laundering statute is unconstitutionally vague.  The defendant argues that the drug sales and receipt of money for the “fronted” drugs were one single transaction and cannot be considered separate transactions to sustain the money laundering convictions and that his convictions violate the double jeopardy clause.  Additionally, the defendant argues that there was no proof that the money received for the “fronted” drugs was used in furtherance of illegal activity.  The State argues that the money received for the “fronted drugs” was a separate transaction apart from the two controlled buys with the police informant.  Additionally, the State contends that the evidence supports an inference that the money received for the “fronted” drugs was used to buy drugs for future sale.  The State also argues that the language of the Tennessee money laundering statute specifically provides for multiple convictions; therefore, the double jeopardy clause is not applicable.  Moreover, the offenses of money laundering and the sale of drugs require proof of different elements for conviction.  Lastly, the State argues that the defendant has waived his constitutional claim regarding the money laundering statute, but that, nonetheless, the statute is not vague.
  • Brice Cook v. State of Tennessee–The defendant, Brice Cook, was tried and convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Following the denial of his direct appeal, he filed a petition for post-conviction relief that alleged multiple theories of ineffective assistance of counsel during trial and on appeal and also claimed that the State committed discovery violations.  After a hearing, the post-conviction court denied the defendant’s petition.  The defendant appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals reasserting the claims from his original petition as well as a new claim that the post-conviction judge was unconstitutionally biased toward him during the post-conviction proceeding and deprived him of his right to due process.  The defendant sought a new post-conviction hearing and for the court to recuse the post-conviction judge from the case.  A majority of the intermediate court affirmed the denial of the petition and held that the defendant failed to carry his burden regarding the ineffective assistance of counsel claims.  Additionally, while the majority cautioned the post-conviction judge against sharing his personal comments about the proceedings or the parties, the court determined that the judge’s comments did not evidence bias against the defendant.  Moreover, the court held that the defendant waived the claim of judicial bias because he did not file a timely motion to recuse the post-conviction judge as is required by Tennessee Supreme Court Rules.  The dissenting opinion in the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that the post-conviction judge should have disqualified himself regardless of a motion from the defendant and that, through his comments about trial counsel and the post-conviction process, the post-conviction judge expressed bias that effected the fairness of the proceeding.  Additionally, the dissent concluded that any motion by the defendant would have been futile because the comments giving rise to the claim of judicial bias came at the end of the hearing.  On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the defendant argues that the post-conviction judge violated his right to a fair post-conviction proceeding and that he should be entitled to a new hearing with a different judge.  Additionally, the defendant contends that he did not waive the judicial bias claim because the judge had a duty to recuse himself even absent a motion to recuse, and a biased trial judge is a structural, constitutional error that requires reversal.  The State argues that the defendant waived the claim of judicial bias, and plain error review is not available in post-conviction proceedings.  Additionally, the State argues that the post-conviction judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the defendant’s original petition for relief, and the post-conviction judge did not commit reversible error in expressing his own thoughts on the petition or the parties after he made his ruling.  Lastly, the State argues that the defendant waived any additional constitutional claims that were not previously raised in the Court of Criminal Appeals.
  • Melanie Lemon v. Williamson County Schools et. al.– In this case, the plaintiff, Melanie Lemon, brought suit against the school board and three individual administrators after she claimed she was harassed, stalked, and intimidated into resigning from her position as a classroom teacher.  Ms. Lemon filed a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against the administrators and filed claims of wrongful termination under the Teacher Tenure Act (“TTA”), breach of contract, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress against the school board.  The trial court dismissed the claim for wrongful termination and held that because Ms. Lemon resigned from her position, she was not afforded the protections of the TTA, and her theory of constructive discharge was not recognized under Tennessee law.  The trial court also dismissed her claims of negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress on the basis that the school board was immune from suit under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”).  The trial court later granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants as to the claims of breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Ms. Lemon appealed to the Court of Appeals and challenged the dismissal of all five claims.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotion distress and breach of contract, as well as the claim against the administrators for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the dismissal of Ms. Lemon’s claim for wrongful termination.  In so doing, the Court of Appeals held that, while there is no controlling law in Tennessee regarding constructive discharge, there was nothing that foreclosed the application of that theory in a wrongful termination action under the TTA.  The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted the school board’s application for permission to appeal.  The school board argues that the TTA does not apply to Ms. Lemon because of her resignation and that the theory of constructive discharge is incongruent with the intent of the TTA.  The school board also argues that if the Court were to recognize a claim for constructive discharge under the TTA, Ms. Lemon’s remedy is limited to those enumerated in the statute.  On the other hand, if the Court were to recognize the wrongful termination claim as a common law tort claim, not under the TTA, the school board argues that it is immune from suit under the GTLA.  Ms. Lemon argues that the theory of constructive discharge supports the overall legislative intent of the TTA, and the evidence shows that she was constructively discharged from her position.  Additionally, Ms. Lemon contends that the remedy available to her should not be limited to those enumerated in the TTA because reinstatement is not appropriate under the circumstances, Tennessee case law supports a remedy of compensatory damages, and awarding her a remedy outside of what is listed in the TTA is within the Court’s power.  Ms. Lemon also challenges the dismissal of her original tort claims, which the school board argues were all properly dismissed.  The individual school administrators argue that they are not proper parties to this appeal because Ms. Lemon failed to preserve the issue of the dismissal of her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim on appeal.  Additionally, the administrators argue that they are absolutely immune from suit and, even if the Court were to allow the claim against them, the evidence fails to show the administrators’ conduct was “outrageous.”
  • State of Tennessee v. Yodelkis Contreras–This appeal comes after the defendant’s sentence of 10 years’ probation, which began in 2005, was revoked in 2017.  The Bedford County Probation Office filed probation violation reports in this case in 2011 and 2014, alleging that the defendant violated the terms of his probation on numerous occasions as early as 2006 and 2007.  Each time a report was filed, a warrant was issued for the defendant’s arrest, but those warrants were not served on the defendant at the time.  In 2016, Bedford County Circuit Court placed the defendant’s case on the “retired docket” and classified the defendant as “unapprehended” but “subject to being reactivated.”  In 2017, the defendant was stopped for speeding and arrested based on the outstanding probation warrants from 2011 and 2014.  At that time, the probation office filed another amended probation violation report which alleged a new violation connected to the defendant’s 2008 guilty plea to a drug charge in federal court.  After a probation hearing, the trial court revoked the defendant’s probation and ordered him to serve his 10-year sentence in confinement.  The defendant filed a motion for a new trial or, in the alternative, a motion to arrest the judgment of the trial court.  He argued that the trial court’s decision to revoke his probation was against the weight of the evidence, or, alternatively, the trial court no longer had jurisdiction over the case.  The trial court denied the motion and the defendant appealed.  The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court and held that the defendant’s original sentence of 10 years’ probation was illegal because the defendant’s crime of conviction was not eligible for probation.  However, the court also concluded that the trial court retained jurisdiction to correct the original illegal sentence and impose the defendant’s new sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.  Additionally, the court held that the defendant waived any claims related to his right to a speedy trial because he “did not demand a speedy trial, did not move for dismissal based upon the deprivation of a speedy trial, and did not present the denial of a speedy trial as grounds for relief in his post-trail motion.”  On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the defendant argues that his original sentence, imposed in 2005, had expired at the time the trial court revoked his probation in 2017.  The defendant supports this argument by pointing to the fact that the trial court placed his case on the retired docket in 2016.  The defendant also argues that any tolling provisions that would have placed his probation term on hold when the first warrant was issued in 2011 should be waived in the interest of justice because the State was aware of the illegality of the sentence shortly after it was imposed and did not take any action to correct it.  The State argues that the defendant’s sentence was not expired because, even if illegal, the sentence was effective and subject to tolling provisions until it was completed or corrected.  In this case, the State argues that the defendant’s probationary period was tolled starting in 2011 when the first warrant was issued.  Additionally, the State argues that the defendant had avenues to challenge the timeliness of service of the warrants in this case but failed to do so, and the defendant’s failure should not lead to a court-made remedy or an exception to the tolling provisions for an illegal sentence.
  • In re: Winston Bradshaw Sitton– This attorney-discipline case originated after attorney Winston Sitton commented on a woman’s public Facebook post, identifying himself as a lawyer and discussing whether she should carry a gun in her vehicle and how to present a defense to avoid criminal responsibility if she killed her ex-boyfriend in her own home.  Mr. Sitton also urged the woman to delete the thread from Facebook.  A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility (“the Board”) concluded that Mr. Sitton’s conduct violated two rules of professional conduct.  Based on the violations and certain aggravating factors, the hearing panel proposed as the sanction a sixty-day active suspension of Mr. Sitton’s law license.  Neither Mr. Sitton nor the Board appealed the hearing panel’s findings, conclusions, or proposed sanction.  Upon the Board’s submission of the proposed order of enforcement to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Court rejected the proposed punishment, stating that the “punishment seem[ed] inadequate” and proposing that the punishment be increased.  The parties were given the opportunity to respond to the Court’s Order, and Mr. Sitton raised five issues in his response, four of which relate to the evidentiary rule of completeness, Mr. Sitton’s intent, the presumption of innocence, and alleged ex post facto legislation.  In the fifth issue, Mr. Sitton argues that suspension or disbarment under the circumstances is not supported by the ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions or consistent with prior disciplinary cases in Tennessee.  He contends that he did not engage in criminal conduct or submit false statements to the court, and he did not practice law in Tennessee after his license was provisionally suspended.  The Board argues that Mr. Sitton’s issues pertaining to anything other than the proposed sanction are not properly before the Court because Mr. Sitton failed to pursue an appeal of the hearing panel’s decision as provided by Supreme Court Rules.  Regarding Mr. Sitton’s proposed punishment of a sixty-day suspension, the Board contends that, given the unique facts of this case, disbarment or a lengthy suspension would be appropriate and in line with the ABA Standards. 

Cases will be live-streamed to the TNCourts YouTube page. The cases will begin at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1:30 p.m.