Tennessee Public Protection Act claims do not include a right to a jury trial, holds Tennessee Supreme Court.

By Daniel A. Horwitz

After being accused of sexually harassing a city clerk, Mr. David Young – then the city administrator for the City of LaFollette – was fired by a majority vote of the LaFollette City Council.  Thereafter, Mr. Young sued the City in Circuit Court for retaliatory discharge under the Tennessee Public Protection Act.[1]  In his complaint, Mr. Young requested a jury trial, which the City opposed.  Ultimately, the dispute over whether Mr. Young was entitled to a jury trial was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  After considering several disparate constitutional and statutory provisions, the court concluded that Mr. Young had neither a constitutional nor a statutory right to have his case tried by a jury, and thus, his request for a trial by jury was denied.

Initially, the City argued that the Government Tort Liability Act (GTLA) expressly precluded a right to trial by jury.  The GTLA specifically states that claims brought under its provisions shall be tried “without the intervention of a jury.”[2]  According to the court, however, the Tennessee Public Protection Act is “an independent statute which establishes its own rights and remedies apart from the procedures that apply under the GTLA.”[3]  Thus, the GTLA’s prohibition against jury trials did not apply.

Separately, the Tennessee Constitution expressly includes a right to trial by jury.  Specifically, Tenn. Const. art. I, § 6 provides that “the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate[.]”  Notwithstanding this apparent clarity, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held repeatedly that art. I, § 6 only provides a narrow right to trial by jury for claims that “existed at common law.”[4]  Incongruously, in practical terms, this means that the Tennessee Constitution only guarantees a right to trial by jury for claims that existed “under the laws and constitution of North Carolina at the time of the adoption of the Tennessee Constitution of 1796.”[5]  In this particular case, because the Tennessee Public Protection Act “was enacted by the Tennessee Legislature in 1990, almost two hundred years after the adoption of the first Tennessee Constitution,” the court explained that art. I, § 6 did not apply to Mr. Young’s retaliatory discharge claim, either.[6]

Even if the Tennessee Constitution does not guarantee a claimant the right to a jury trial, however, the legislature can still provide that right separately by statute.  For example, Tenn. Code Ann. § 21–1–103 affords litigants “a broad right to trial by jury in chancery court, even when the statute creating the cause of action does not otherwise expressly provide such a right.”[7]  However, because Mr. Young’s case was filed in Circuit Court – rather than Chancery Court – the court held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 21–1–103 also did not apply.

Finally, turning to the actual statutory provision under which Mr. Young’s retaliatory discharge claim was filed, the court held that the Tennessee Public Protection Act did not afford Mr. Young a right to a jury trial, either.  The Tennessee Public Protection Act is silent as to whether claims brought under its provisions include a right to trial by jury.  According to the court, however, this omission reflected the legislature’s intent not to provide such a right.  Specifically, the court explained, “[b]y enacting the TPPA, but choosing not to provide explicitly for the right to trial by jury within the TPPA, the Legislature exercised its authority to effectively preclude the right to a jury trial.”[8]

Thus, in conclusion, the court explained that because Mr. Young had neither a constitutional nor a statutory right to have his case tried by a jury, his request for a trial by jury was denied.

Read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Young v. City of LaFollette here.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] Statutory retaliatory discharge claims filed under the Tennessee Public Protection Act (TPPA) are considerably more difficult to prove than traditional retaliatory discharge claims that were previously permitted under common law.  See Haynes v. Formac Stables, Inc., 463 S.W.3d 34, 37 (Tenn.2015) (“The primary difference in the statutory version of [retaliatory discharge under the TPPA] is that it requires an employee to show that his or her refusal to remain silent was the sole reason for the discharge, whereas a common law [retaliatory discharge] claimant must show only that his or her refusal to remain silent was a substantial factor motivating the discharge.”).  Common law retaliatory discharge claims, however, are no longer actionable under Tennessee law.  See Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-1-304(g) (“This section abrogates and supersedes the common law with respect to any claim that could have been brought under this section.”).

[2] See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-307 (“The circuit courts shall have exclusive original jurisdiction over any action brought under this chapter and shall hear and decide such suits without the intervention of a jury, except as otherwise provided in § 29-20-313(b)”).

[3] Young v. City of LaFollette, No. E-2013-00441-SC-R11-CV, 2015 WL 5027595, at *6 (Tenn. Aug. 26, 2015).

[4] Helms v. Tennessee Dep’t of Safety, 987 S.W.2d 545, 547 (Tenn. 1999).

[5] Id. (quoting Patten v. State, 221 Tenn. 337, 344, 426 S.W.2d 503 506 (Tenn.1968)).  Accord Newport Hous. Auth. v. Ballard, 839 S.W.2d 86, 88 (Tenn. 1992) (“Article I, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution has never mandated the right to a jury trial in every civil cause. The right of trial by jury sanctioned and secured by this constitutional provision is the right of trial by jury as it existed at common law and was in force and use under the laws and Constitution of North Carolina at the time of the formation and adoption of our Constitution in 1796.”).

[6] Young, 2015 WL 5027595, at *6.

[7] Sneed v. City of Red Bank, Tennessee, 459 S.W.3d 17, 30 (Tenn. 2014).

[8] Young, 2015 WL 5027595, at *7.