Tennessee Supreme Court Affirms Termination Of Shelby County Firefighter

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that the Shelby County Civil Service Merit Board did not act arbitrarily or capriciously by affirming the termination of Shelby County firefighter Paul Zachary Moss without hearing evidence of discipline previously imposed on other firefighters. This is the second time this case has been before the Court.

In 2013, while off duty from his job as a firefighter, Moss went to a political rally after consuming alcohol and became involved in a fight with two men. Moss pointed a gun at the men and threatened to kill them. Moss was arrested at the scene and later indicted on two counts of aggravated assault. Moss entered an Alford guilty plea to one count of aggravated assault and the other count was dismissed. By entering an Alford plea, Moss pleaded guilty but did not admit to committing the criminal act. He was placed on judicial diversion.

The Shelby County Fire Department gave Moss written notice that he was facing possible termination because he had violated two fire department rules by failing to report his arrest and had pleaded guilty to a felony. Moss attended a meeting with fire department officials to present reasons why he should not be disciplined. At the meeting, fire department officials asked Moss about his conduct at the rally and about a previous unreported arrest and assault complaint against him. The day after the meeting, Moss was terminated based on his participation in the altercation and his dishonesty during the subsequent investigation.

Moss appealed to the Shelby County Civil Service Merit Board. During the Board hearing, Moss tried to cross-examine a Fire Department official about individuals who previously received more lenient discipline than Moss for similar offenses. The Board declined to hear the evidence and affirmed Moss’s termination for just cause.

Moss next appealed to the Shelby County Chancery Court, which affirmed the Board’s decision. Moss then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the chancery court’s judgment, finding that Moss had not received adequate notice of the grounds for his termination. The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted review of the case and reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that Moss received sufficient notice of the reasons for his termination to satisfy constitutional due process requirements. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for consideration of Moss’s remaining arguments.

On remand, the Court of Appeals found that Moss’s due process rights were not violated and that his termination was supported by substantial and material evidence. However, the Court of Appeals found the Board’s decision to exclude Moss’s evidence of previous discipline arbitrary and unreasonable and remanded the case for consideration of such evidence. The Supreme Court granted the Board’s request for review.

The Supreme Court concluded that the Board’s decision to exclude the evidence of past discipline was neither arbitrary nor capricious, explaining that the ultimate determination to be made by a merit board is whether an employee’s termination is supported by just cause. In similar cases, where the employee does not claim a constitutional equal protection violation, evidence of discipline previously imposed on other employees holds little relevance to a merit board’s determination of just cause. Merit boards may hear such evidence but are not required to do so. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and affirmed Moss’s termination.

To read the unanimous opinion of the Court in Paul Zachary Moss v. Shelby County Civil Service Merit Board, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.