Tag Archives: Daniel Horwitz

Davidson County Chancery Court Invalidates School Board Censorship Clause in Ex-MNPS Director Shawn Joseph’s Severance Agreement

In an order issued earlier this afternoon, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled in favor of Plaintiffs Amy Frogge, Fran Bush, and Jill Speering, who earlier this year sued Metro and ex-MNPS Director Shawn Joseph over the legality of the School Board censorship clause contained in Joseph’s severance agreement.  In a Memorandum Order, Chancellor Lyle struck down the censorship clause as unconstitutional on multiple grounds and permanently enjoined its enforcement.

Among other things, the clause prohibited elected School Board members even from truthfully criticizing “Dr. Joseph and his performance as Director of Schools.”  Upon review of it, Chancellor Lyle ruled that the clause violated the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, unlawfully prohibited them from speaking honestly with their constituents, and violated established Tennessee public policy.  As a result, the clause was invalidated as unenforceable.  Metro and Joseph will additionally be required to pay the Plaintiffs’ “reasonable costs and attorney’s fees,” which have been pledged to charity.

“This is a landmark victory on behalf of both elected officials’ free speech rights and citizens’ right to hear from their elected representatives,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who represented all three Plaintiffs.  “Metro and Joseph should be ashamed of their efforts to gag elected officials and prevent them from speaking honestly with their constituents about issues of tremendous public importance, and their illegal attempt to do so should serve as a costly warning to other government officials to think twice before violating the First Amendment.”

Daniel Horwitz is a First Amendment lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee.

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New at the Tennessee Free Speech Blog

By Daniel Horwitz:

As readers of this blog will be aware, its editor has expanded its focus to topics well beyond the Tennessee Supreme Court.  In an effort to focus coverage on free speech issues, the author has also started a separate blog—the Tennessee Free Speech Blog—devoted specifically to free speech cases across Tennessee.  Recent posts from that blog are linked below:

Tennessee Free Speech Blog:

Second-Ever Anti-SLAPP Petition Granted Under the Tennessee Public Participation Act, $26,500.00 in Attorney’s Fees and Sanctions Awarded to Prevailing Defendant

Defending Against Malicious Prosecution Claims in Tennessee

Not With a Bang, But With a Whimper: Strip Club and Valet Parking Company’s SLAPP-Suit Against Neighbors, Councilman Ends Quietly After Total Loss in Five Separate Courts

Fired Preschool Teacher Loses Defamation, False Light Claims Against Church Preschool Due to Common Interest Privilege, Absence of Damages

Clumsy court ruling allows SLAPP-suit to move forward against State Representative John Mark Windle

Tennessee Court of Appeals: You (Still) Can’t Sue People For What They Say During Judicial Proceedings

Tennessee Court of Appeals to Public Officials: Get Ready For Loads of Libel Lawsuits

Knoxville News Sentinel, Reporter Jamie Satterfield Win Dismissal of Defamation Lawsuit

First-Ever Anti-SLAPP Petition In Tennessee Granted in Lawsuit Regarding Negative Yelp Review

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First-Ever Anti-SLAPP Petition In Tennessee Granted in Lawsuit Regarding Negative Yelp Review

On July 1, 2019, the Tennessee Public Participation Act—Tennessee’s first meaningful anti-SLAPP statute—took effect. The statute dramatically expanded the scope of speech that receives heightened legal protection in Tennessee. It also equips people targeted by Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (“SLAPP-suits”) with important tools to secure the dismissal of meritless claims early on in litigation. Perhaps most importantly, the TPPA allows prevailing defendants to get their full attorney’s fees paid by a losing plaintiff if a petition to dismiss is granted. Previously, prevailing defendants were (generally) only able to recover a maximum of $10,000 under Tennessee’s frivolous lawsuit statute, and they were only eligible to do so if a plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Several defendants quickly benefited from the TPPA’s added protections after the statute took effect, resulting in plaintiffs quickly dropping defamation claims or providing additional bases for dismissal in speech-based lawsuits that were ultimately dismissed on other grounds. Today, however, in a ruling by Wilson County General Sessions Judge Barry Tatum, the first-ever petition to dismiss a plaintiff’s claims under the Tennessee Public Participation Act has been granted.

The case arose out of a lawsuit filed by Dr. Kaveer Nandigam and his corporation, Nandigam Neurology, PLC, against Kelly Beavers regarding a negative Yelp review. After Ms. Beavers took her father to see Dr. Nandigam and had a terrible experience, she exercised her First Amendment right to leave a negative review on Yelp!, a popular consumer review website. Dr. Nandigam quickly threatened to sue her if she did not remove the review, and ultimately, he did sue her for defamation and false light invasion of privacy regarding it when she refused.

After Dr. Nandigam dismissed and then refiled his lawsuit against her, Ms. Beavers filed an immediate Petition to Dismiss the Plaintiffs’ claims under the TPPA. Earlier this morning, her petition was granted. Thus, pending a potential appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, all of the Plaintiffs’ claims against her have been dismissed with prejudice.

“This is a huge win for Kelly Beavers and the First Amendment, and it’s a huge loss for Dr. Nandigam and anyone else who would abuse the legal process to promote censorship of honest, critical consumer reviews,” said Daniel Horwitz, a speech defense lawyer who represented Ms. Beavers. Ms. Beavers’ claims for attorney’s fees and sanctions against both Dr. Nandigam and his attorney, Bennett Hirschhorn (a real estate lawyer and landlord whose relevant First Amendment experience otherwise appears limited to having been charged with “distributing pornographic photographs” after graduating law school), remain pending.

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Joseph Webster’s Wrongful Conviction Gets the “Undisclosed” Treatment

Joseph Webster—the Nashville man whose case earlier this year became the first in history to be approved for reinvestigation by the Davidson County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit—has officially gone national. After a series of explosive local stories by WPLN’s Julieta Martinelli and Fox 17’s Dennis Ferrier, the Undisclosed Podcast—a popular program dedicated to exploring wrongful convictions that is coming off a string of successful exonerations in Philadelphia—has aired the first episode of its new series on Joseph Webster’s case. The episode can be viewed here.

Webster’s conviction has attracted widespread coverage due in part to its sensational details—a man serving a life sentence for a crime committed by his brother—and in part because the evidence of his innocence is overwhelming. Since being convicted, the lone witness who identified him as a perpetrator has recanted her identification of Webster multiple times. Further, four separate witnesses—including the brothers’ mother and the real perpetrator’s ex-girlfriend—have come forward to say that Webster’s brother not only confessed to committing the murder, but also bragged about doing so. DNA testing has additionally excluded Webster as a potential contributor to the DNA found on the murder weapon. Further, new eye witnesses have come forward to provide evidence that exculpates Webster and a description of the killer that does not match Webster at all. Separately, a treasure trove of new evidence points to two other individuals—Mr. Webster’s brother and his longtime right hand—as having being the real perpetrators who committed the crime, which still remains an unsolved cold case as to the second individual involved.

Webster’s original conviction review application is available here. Selected local media coverage from the case appears below.

-WPLN: Nashville District Attorney Agrees To Review Conviction In 1998 Murder Case

-Fox 17: FERRIER FILES: Is Nashville man serving a life sentence innocent?

-Fox 17: FERRIER FILES: Nashville murder conviction investigation to be reopened

-Fox 17: FERRIER FILES: Imprisoned man’s DNA not on murder weapon

-The Tennessean: District attorney redesigns ‘burdensome’ process of searching for wrongful convictions

-News Channel 5: Nashville murder conviction being reopened

-WPLN: Investigation: After Pledging To Examine Innocence Claims, Nashville DA Has Yet To Open A Case

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Tennesseans For Sensible Election Laws Issues Litigation Threat Over Davidson County Election Officials Viewing Marked Ballots

Following a push to promote confidence in the election system, Nashville voters are using new voting machines to cast their votes in the August 1, 2019 Metro election. The purpose of the change was to enhance election integrity by giving voters a paper printout of their ballot choices that can be used to verify selections made on an electronic voting machine and to conduct a hand recount, if necessary. The rollout, however, has not gone as planned.

Earlier today, decorated News Channel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams announced on Twitter that during the process of scanning his marked ballot, a poll worker had stared at it and was able to determine how he had voted, and that his wife had experienced the same issue:

My wife and I both had the same horrified reaction yesterday when we voted early in the Nashville election. The new system prints out your votes, then an election worker helps feed them into the scanner. In both cases, she was actually staring down at how we voted. Stop it NOW!— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) July 21, 2019

You feed it into the scanner face-up, and there was an election worker standing right by the machine. In both our cases, she looked right down at the ballot as it was being fed into the machine.— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) July 21, 2019

Thereafter, multiple other voters chimed in to report having the same experience. The issue—which appears to be due in large part to untrained or poorly trained poll workers who missed instructions that marked ballots are not to be touched and should be scanned by voters facedown—seriously compromises the secret ballot, prompting election advocacy group Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws to issue a litigation threat to the Davidson County Election Commission:

The letter, in full, reads as follows:

TSEL STATEMENT ON NASHVILLE POLL WORKERS VIEWING VOTERS’ MARKED BALLOTS

Following reports from News Channel 5’s Phil Williams and other voters that poll workers in Davidson County, Tennessee have been viewing voters’ marked ballots while voters were feeding them into scanners, Daniel A. Horwitz, General Counsel for Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws,issued the following statement:

Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws is deeply concerned about reports that Davidson County poll workers have been viewing individual voters’ marked ballots as they were being fed into scanners.  It should not even be possible for such a scenario to occur, much less actually occur in practice.

The secret ballot is critical to maintaining the integrity of Tennessee’s election process.  Ballot secrecy prevents illicit tactics like vote-buying and ensures that voters will be comfortable voting for whomever they please without fear of retaliation or intimidation.  Simply put: The secret ballot is essential in order to maintain both confidence in and the security of Tennessee’s entire election process.

To protect the secret ballot, Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-9-101(a) provides that: “A voting machine to be used in Tennessee . . . must ensure voting in absolute secrecy.”  Further, under Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-3-108(b)(1), paper ballots must be administered and arranged in such a way “that it is impossible for any person to see a voter’s ballot while it is being marked.” 

Reports by Phil Williams and others that their marked ballots were viewed by poll workers while their votes were being counted make clear that Davidson County’s new voting process does not comply with applicable ballot secrecy mandates.  As a consequence, Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws demands that the Davidson County Election Commission take immediate action to ensure that all marked ballots are fed into scanners facing down and that poll workers are unable to view them under any circumstances.  Any election official who attempts to view a voter’s marked ballot must be terminated.  If the Davidson County Election Commission does not take immediate action to maintain legally-mandated ballot secrecy, we will take legal action yet again to protect Tennessee’s democratic process.”

Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws is a nonpartisan group of concerned citizens who care about protecting Tennessee’s democratic process. Its mission is to ensure that Tennessee’s election and campaign finance statutes, policies, and regulations protect all Tennesseans’ rights to participate in the political process without unreasonable interference from the state government.  Learn more at tn4sense.org.

Paid for by Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws.  David M. Morelli, Jr., Treasurer.  Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee, but we don’t think it should be a crime not to tell you that.

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The Tennessee Justice System Has a Bigoted Personnel Problem. Unfortunately, the Bureaucrats Responsible for Overseeing It Don’t Care.

By Daniel Horwitz:

It seems that almost every week now, government officials involved in Tennessee’s justice system make headlines for their overt, unapologetic bigotry. In May of this year, for instance, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Jim Lammey gained national attention after posting an article that referred to Muslim immigrants as “foreign mud” and said that Jews should “get the f**k over the Holocaust.” Weeks later, Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcutt provoked an initial wave of outrage after posting (among other disqualifying nonsense) that Muslims’ “belief system is evil, violent and against God’s Truth,” only to outdo himself shortly thereafter when a video surfaced of him proclaiming that gay couples don’t enjoy constitutional rights and would not be protected by domestic violence statutes within his jurisdiction. And today, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports that Knox County Sheriff’s Detective Grayson Fritts recently declared that “federal, state and county governments should arrest, try, convict and ‘speedily’ execute people within the LGBTQ community” for participating in Pride parades.

These outrages are not isolated. They also are not surprising, given the shockingly indifferent way that such disqualifying conduct is treated by the bureaucrats who oversee Tennessee’s justice system. And they will continue to occur over and over and over again until administrators like BPR Chief Disciplinary Counsel Sandy Garrett are replaced with competent, capable people who consider bigotry and misconduct by public officials at least as problematic as private attorneys loaning poor clients money so that they can pay their rent.

This is not an exaggeration. Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility—the shadowy, quasi-governmental body that regulates lawyers in Tennessee—has routinely turned a blind eye to racism and approached the absolute worst forms of misconduct with kid gloves under circumstances when the violators were participants in Tennessee’s justice system. In 2014, for instance, a Shelby County District Attorney who was caught (and admitted) withholding exonerating evidence in a capital murder case received nothing more than a public censure. In other circumstances, misconduct in the form of racist comments made by District Attorneys during prosecutions were ignored by the body entirely. And indeed, during an insane attempted power grab last year that would have afforded the BPR wide-ranging authority to censor and prosecute a vast amount of constitutionally protected, private attorney speech, at Ms. Garrett’s urging, the BPR itself sought to carve out a special disciplinary exemption for prosecutors who exercised racist peremptory challenges during jury selection.

By contrast, trivial violations that most reasonable people would not consider misconduct at all are met with fire and fury. For instance, in only the latest indication that Tennessee’s BPR has lost both its purpose and its mind, the Board came down hard on one lawyer for what is apparently considered an egregious offense in this State: Helping a poor client pay her rent.  Ultimately, the punishment he received was identical to the sanction that the BPR levied against the above-mentioned Memphis prosecutor who hid exonerating evidence in a capital murder case—a fact that says just about everything that needs to be said about the BPR, its judgment, and its priorities.

Most troublingly, though, Garrett’s BPR has helped prevent serious misconduct by public officials from coming to light by aggressively prosecuting attorneys across the state for having the audacity to speak up or speak out against judges. Indeed, notwithstanding the absence of any conceivable harm to the public, there appears to be no surer way to guarantee severe professional sanction in Tennessee—including summary, indefinite suspension—than to stand up to a judge. Given this context, it is fair to wonder whether the culture of silence and censorship that Garrett’s BPR fosters—whether deliberately or otherwise—serves to inhibit whistleblowing and allows misconduct by public officials to fester unchecked for years. Indeed, one wonders whether that’s the point.

Year after year, bar associations and self-important bar leaders across Tennessee wonder aloud why the legal profession is consistently held in such low esteem by the general public. Curiously, the existence of bigoted judges and prosecutors, a structurally inadequate indigent defense system, and highly questionable behavior by professional regulators—both with respect to the way they treat practicing attorneys and prospective lawyers—never seem to come up as possible explanations.  Certainly, the solutions sought by the BPR don’t address any of the many legitimate reasons why the public would hold the entire legal system in low regard.  Instead, to the exclusion of any justifiable priority, the approach of Tennessee’s BPR has largely been to censor and prosecute lawyers who criticize governmental participants in a legal system that is failing daily.

Though few dare to challenge the BPR’s behavior and priorities given credible fear of retaliation, it is past time that the BPR secured new leadership.  As Garrett’s BPR demonstrates year after year, the body quite simply lacks the judgment to oversee or regulate the practice of law in Tennessee.  Having failed to do her job competently for long enough, the Tennessee Supreme Court should replace her.  Alternatively, for the good of the profession, Garrett should do the honorable thing and resign.

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White County, Tennessee Inmate Sterilization Program Terminated By Historic Order

Federal court orders that controversial sterilization program be rescinded; White County officials to pay Plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, permanently enjoined from making or enforcing any sentencing determination that is based “in whole or in part upon a defendant’s consent—or refusal to consent—to becoming permanently or temporarily sterilized.”

Following an historic reversal at the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit last month, an inmate sterilization program instituted by two White County, Tennessee officials has finally come to an end.  The landmark order comes nearly two years after a trio of inmates at the White County jail filed suit against White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield—the architect of the program—and the White County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that the program violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses.

A consent decree approved by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee earlier today formally terminates the controversial inmate sterilization program, compelling Judge Benningfield to rescind each of his standing orders regarding the program “in their entirety,” effective immediately.  The Court’s order also permanently enjoins both Judge Benningfield and the White County Sheriff’s Office “from making or enforcing any sentencing determination that is based in whole or in part upon a defendant’s consent—or refusal to consent—to becoming permanently or temporarily sterilized” at any point in the future.  Judge Benningfield and the White County Sheriff were further ordered to pay the costs of the lawsuit and the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, which the order provides “shall be donated by Plaintiffs’ counsel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Tuskegee History Center.”  Each of the three inmates who sued after refusing to become sterilized also received a 30-day sentencing credit toward a future expungement.

“Inmate sterilization is despicable, it is morally indefensible, and it is illegal,” said Daniel Horwitz, a Nashville-based constitutional lawyer who represented the inmates along with Richard Brooks. “Let this historic order serve as a warning: Whether you are a sitting Judge, a Sheriff who is ‘just following orders,’ or any other government official, if you violate the Constitution, you will be held accountable.”

The Consent Decree and Final Order approved by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee and additional case documents regarding the program appear below.

Consent Decree and Final Order

6th Circuit Opinion Reversing District Court

Plaintiffs’ Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief

Plaintiffs’ Memorandum in Support of Summary Judgment

6th Circuit Brief of Plaintiffs-Appellants

Selected Media Coverage:

-The Tennessean: Federal court order officially ends Tennessee ‘inmate sterilization’ program

-Vice: A Tennessee County Wanted to Sterilize Inmates for Shorter Sentences. That’s Over Now.

-Fox 17: Tennessee inmates win suit against judge who offered sentencing credits for sterilization

-IFL: Federal Court Ends Tennessee’s Controversial Inmate Sterilization Program

-News Channel 5: White County Inmate Sterilization Program terminated by federal ruling

-The Tennessean: Court revives lawsuit against judge who shortened jail time if inmates got ‘sterilized’

-The Washington Post: Tennessee judge reprimanded for offering reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization

-The Tennessean: 2nd lawsuit challenges Tennessee county’s inmate birth control practice

-WSMV Channel 4: Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectomies, birth control implants

-BBC News: ‘We were guinea pigs’: Jailed inmates agreed to birth control

-ScotBlog: Lawsuit Seeks to End White County’s Ongoing Sterilization Program

Individual Rights Are Expanding In Tennessee

By Daniel A. Horwitz

The past week has been an excellent one for individual rights in Tennessee, with improvements coming in several independent areas:

First, the Tennessee General Assembly has passed the State’s first meaningful anti-SLAPP law to protect Tennesseans’ right to free speech. The reform will instantly have the effect of deterring people from filing baseless lawsuits aimed at censoring critical commentary and severely punishing people who do. Thus, effective July 1, 2019, the Randy Rayburns and Linda Schipanis and Bari Hardins of the world will be able to wield a powerful protective weapon against foolish bad actors’ efforts to censor and intimidate them through frivolous, failed lawsuits.

Second, following a 2017 lawsuit to terminate a White County, Tennessee inmate sterilization program, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that sterilization-for-sentencing-credits arrangements like White County’s are illegal. “Requiring inmates to waive a fundamental right to obtain a government benefit impermissibly burdens that right” in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court’s opinion reads. “This decision sends a clear, important message that should never have been necessary in the first place: Inmate sterilization is illegal and unconstitutional,” the inmates’ attorney, Daniel Horwitz (the author), said in a statement to The Tennessean on the ruling.

Third, the Tennessee General Assembly passed one of Governor Bill Lee’s central legislative priorities—a substantial reduction in the current expungement fee that the state assesses people for the privilege of expunging convictions and diverted offenses on their criminal records. Tennessee’s expungement law, which enables people to expunge up to two qualifying convictions, provides an extraordinarily important mechanism for people to move on from an interaction with the criminal justice system and eliminate their criminal record history such that—as a matter of law—it “never occurred.” Although the reform does not wholly eliminate all applicable expungement fees, it reduces the total fee that people will have to pay to expunge a conviction or diversion from $280 to $100 going forward.

These important reforms each move individual rights in the right direction. They reduce private litigants’ ability to abuse the legal process, they curtail the government’s power to infringe upon people’s constitutional rights, and they help ensure that people will not suffer a life sentence for minor criminal convictions solely because they lack the ability to pay a few hundred dollars to expunge their qualifying convictions. Hopefully, progress like this is only a beginning.

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The “Justice Game,” and the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Latest Opportunity to Call Foul

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Over at the Litigation & Trial Blog, attorney Max Kennerly has penned an excellent piece on “The Unjust ‘Sporting Theory of Justice’ In Federal Courts.”  The “sporting theory” at issue is a reference to a famous speech entitled “The Causes Of Popular Dissatisfaction With The Administration Of Justice,” which Roscoe Pound—then the Dean of Harvard Law School—delivered at the American Bar Association’s annual convention in 1906.

Pound’s essential premise was that, by the turn of the twentieth century, the American justice system had devolved into little more than a game that focused not on adjudicating controversies on their merits and meting out judgments that substantive justice compelled, but looked instead to whether litigants had successfully navigated procedural rules that had little bearing, if any, upon the actual case at bar.  Pound decried:

“The inquiry is not: What do substantive law and justice require? Instead, the inquiry is: Have the rules of the game been carried out strictly? If any material infraction is discovered, just as the football rules put back the offending team five or ten or fifteen yards, as the case may be, our sporting theory of justice awards new trials, or reverses judgments, or sustains demurrers in the interest of regular play.”

None of this, of course, was to suggest that procedural rules are not important.  Indeed, to the contrary, all agree that procedural rules—such as fair notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard—are essential to protect substantive rights. 

Frequently, however, procedural rules are distantly removed from substantive protections.  Under such circumstances—particularly when a rule is unclear or an opposing litigant has not been harmed—the notion that someone should lose their day in court due to technical non-compliance is corrosive to the justice system’s fundamental purpose: To adjudicate the merits of controversies and dispense justice based on litigants’ substantive rights.

Frustratingly, despite many essential improvements over the past century that aimed to reform the justice game, many judges’ disinterest in providing substantive justice doggedly persists.  Kennerly’s article provides some recent examples in federal court, but Tennessee is a similar offender.  Tennessee’s intermediate appellate courts, in particular, have long jumped to dismiss substantive claims based on procedural technicalities that have little or no relation to litigants’ substantive rights—something that the Tennessee Supreme Court has repeatedly intervened to chastise over, and over, and over again.

Consider, for instance, the Court of Appeals’ 2014 opinion in Arden v. Kozawa—a wrongful death case that the Court of Appeals dismissed because the plaintiff had delivered notice to an opposing party using FedEx instead of USPS (the Tennessee Supreme Court sensibly reversed).  Or this case from a few weeks ago, where the Court of Appeals declined to consider a litigant’s argument on appeal because—although the issue was raised in the litigant’s briefing—“an issue may be deemed waived when it is argued in the brief but is not designated as an issue in accordance with Tenn. R. App. P. 27(a)(4).”  Alternatively, consider the host of hyper-technical dismissals in Health Care Liability Act cases for which this author has blasted the Court of Appeals for “undermin[ing] the fundamental purpose of the civil justice system as an institution.”  None of these opinions is even remotely concerned with whether the substance of a litigant’s claim has merit.  Instead, the judgments turn on whether the litigants involved adhered to substantively vacuous “rules of the game.”

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, for its part, is just as guilty.  Almost daily, defendants are treated to dismissive rulings based not on the merits of their claims, but based on (often unevenly applied) procedural flaws—waiver and abandonment, failure to preserve issues or exhaust remedies, failure to assert their claims quickly enough, and the like.

Perhaps no case better illustrates the Court of Criminal Appeals’ commitment to the justice game than this August 2018 case.  There, a defendant sought to terminate his supposedly outstanding, decades-old court costs.  He specifically invoked Tennessee’s ten-year statute of limitations for collecting on judgments as a defense to a District Attorney’s sudden and plainly retaliatory efforts to collect costs as many as twenty-six years after the fact.  Unfortunately, the trial court dismissed the defendant’s claim on procedural grounds that both parties essentially agreed were wrong—finding that although the defendant had been served with multiple writs to execute on the judgments at issue, “no pending civil action existed” to collect on them.  Thereafter, the defendant appealed.

In a series of previous cases—every single one of them involving a pro se litigant—the Court of Criminal Appeals had deprived similar litigants of their day in court and held that a denial of a motion to terminate court costs cannot be appealed under Tenn. R. App. P. 3(b), which governs criminal appeals.[1]  Accordingly, the defendant made clear over and over again in his briefing that he was filing his appeal under Tenn. R. App. P. 3(a)—which governs civil appeals and guarantees litigants an appeal “as of right”—instead.  The defendant’s argument also made particularly good sense in the context of his case, given that Tennessee law provides that taxes, costs, and fines that arise out of criminal cases are collectable “in the same manner as a judgment in a civil action.”[2]  As an alternative to considering the merits of his appeal under Tenn. R. App. P. 3(a), though, pursuant to longstanding precedent that provides that the relief sought by a pleading—rather than the title assigned to it—controls its treatment, the defendant asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to convert his appeal into a catch-all writ of certiorari instead if Tenn. R. App. P. 3(a) did not afford him a right to appeal after all.[3]

In a cursory, four-page opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the defendant’s appeal on the basis that Tenn. R. App. P. 3(b)—Tennessee’s criminal appeal provision—did not allow it.  (Tenn. R. App. P. 3(a) was never mentioned.)  The Court also declined the defendant’s request to adjudicate the merits of his appeal as a writ of certiorari—even though the same court routinely extends the government that benefit under similar circumstances.  

Given that—as noted above—the defendant had repeatedly indicated that he was appealing under Tenn. R. App. P. 3(a), not Tenn. R. App. P. 3(b), one reading of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ opinion might be that the Court misread the defendant’s claims.  Alternatively, a less charitable conclusion might be that—in its haste to dismiss yet another defendant’s appeal on purely technical procedural grounds—the Court of Criminal Appeals didn’t read them at all.

Laudably, the Tennessee Supreme Court has frequently served as a bulwark against hyper-technical procedural dismissals of this sort.  Consequently, time and again, it has intervened to reverse and remind Tennessee’s intermediate appellate courts that courts must not “exalt[] form over substance to deprive a party of his day in court and frustrat[e] the resolution of the litigation on the merits.”[4]

Encouragingly, Kendall Southall’s appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, in which he asks the Court to order the Court of Criminal Appeals to adjudicate the merits of his claims, still remains under review.  For the sake of substantive justice—rather than just the sport of “the justice game”—everyone should hope that the Tennessee Supreme Court intervenes and affirms, yet again, the judiciary’s obligation not to “exalt form over substance”—something that our Supreme Court has repeatedly held that it “refuses to do.”[5]

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[1] See State v. Johnson, 56 S.W. 3d 44, 44 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2001) (“Christopher Joseph Johnson, pro se.”); State v. Hegel, No. E2015-00953-CCA-R3-CO, 2016 WL 3078657 (Tenn. Crim. App. May 23, 2016) (“James Frederick Hegel, pro se”); Boruff v. State, No. E2010-00772-CCA-R3CO, 2011 WL 846063 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 10, 2011) (“Douglas Boruff, pro se”); Hood v. State, No. M2009-00661-CCA-R3-PC, 2010 WL 3244877 (Tenn. Crim. App. Aug. 18, 2010) (“Jonathon C. Hood, Clifton, Tennessee, pro se”); Lewis v. State, No. E2014-01376-CCA-WR-CO, 2015 WL 1611296 (Tenn. Crim. App. Apr. 7, 2015) (“Stephen W. Lewis, Wartburg, Tennessee, Pro Se”).  

[2] Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-24-105(a).

[3] See, e.g., Norton v. Everhart, 895 S.W.2d 317, 319 (Tenn. 1995) (“the trial court should have treated the petition as one for a writ of certiorari.  It is well settled that a trial court is not bound by the title of the pleading, but has the discretion to treat the pleading according to the relief sought.”); Estate of Doyle v. Hunt, 60 S.W.3d 838, 842 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001) (“A trial court is not bound by the title of a pleading, but rather the court is to give effect to the pleading’s substance and treat it according to the relief sought therein.”); Hill v. Hill, No. M2006-01792-COA-R3CV, 2008 WL 110101, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 9, 2008) (same).

[4] Jones v. Prof’l Motorcycle Escort Serv., L.L.C., 193 S.W.3d 564, 573 (Tenn. 2006).  See also In re Akins, 87 S.W.3d 488, 495 (Tenn. 2002) (“we . . . avoid exalting form over substance.”); Childress v. Bennett, 816 S.W.2d 314, 316 (Tenn. 1991) (“it is the general rule that courts are reluctant to give effect to rules of procedure which seem harsh and unfair, and which prevent a litigant from having a claim adjudicated upon its merits”); City of Chattanooga v. Davis, 54 S.W.3d 248, 260 (Tenn. 2001) (overruling a prior decision that “exalted technical form over constitutional substance in a manner rarely seen elsewhere.”); State v. Henning, 975 S.W.2d 290, 298 (Tenn. 1998) (“To hold otherwise would exalt form over substance.”); Henley v. Cobb, 916 S.W.2d 915, 916 (Tenn. 1996) (“it is well settled that Tennessee law strongly favors the resolution of all disputes on their merits”); Norton, 895 S.W.2d at 322 (Tenn. 1995) (emphasizing “the clear policy of this state favoring the adjudication of disputes on their merits”).

[5] King v. Pope, 91 S.W.3d 314, 325 (Tenn. 2002).

Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Sentencing Provision in Cyntoia Brown Case; Media and Public Badly Misunderstand the Court’s Opinion

By Daniel A. Horwitz

In an opinion released on Thursday, the Tennessee Supreme Court answered a certified question of law from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in the high-profile case of Cyntoia Brown, the juvenile sex trafficking victim who received a life sentence after being convicted of murdering a John. The Court’s opinion concluded—unanimously and correctly by any reasonable determination—that Ms. Brown will become eligible for parole after serving 51 years in prison.

It should be noted that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling that Ms. Brown is parole eligible after 51 years was the more lenient outcome available in her case—albeit not the one that Ms. Brown’s attorneys had sought for reasons unique to her circumstances. Nonetheless, a flood of national attention to Ms. Brown’s case and a significant misunderstanding of its posture led multiple commentators—Ana Navarro, for instance—to decry the Court’s ruling as “a travesty of justice,” which it most certainly was not:

Cynthia Brown was a 16 girl when she killed a 43 year-old man forcing her to have sex.
The Tennessee Supreme Court ordered she must serve 51 years.
THIS IS A TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE.
Folks, you need to flood Gov. @BillHaslam’s twitter feed and demand he do something about this. https://t.co/EUKdwQnS6J— Ana Navarro (@ananavarro) December 8, 2018

To put the fairness of her punishment in its proper context: Cyntoia Brown’s sentence is grossly unfair, and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam should grant her clemency immediately. (People like Calvin Bryant and Randy Mills deserve clemency, too.) Indeed, Governor Haslam should have granted her clemency months ago when she first applied. Ms. Brown—a bright, capable young woman who was very much a victim herself and whose rehabilitation is no longer even questioned—has been punished enough, and her sentence should be commuted immediately to bring it into compliance with modern standards of decency.

As for her pending legal challenge, though: Ms. Brown’s case is far from unique. In fact, from a purely legal perspective, her sentence is considerably less severe than fourteen others in Tennessee. There is a material difference between a juvenile life without the possibility of parole sentence—which fourteen Tennessee defendants are serving right now—and a juvenile life with the possibility of parole sentence, which is what Ms. Brown received. (One of those defendants—who is serving three consecutive life without the possibility of parole sentences for felony-murder charges committed when he was 14—is the author’s client.)  Specifically: A life with the possibility of parole sentence includes the possibility of parole, while a life without the possibility of parole sentence does not. The issue in Ms. Brown’s case—which the Tennessee Supreme Court has now resolved—was whether her sentence included the possibility of parole.

Ms. Brown’s trial court ruled that she would be eligible for parole after 51 years. There also has never been any doubt that this was the actual sentence that Ms. Brown received. In its sentencing order, her trial court specifically stated that Ms. Brown “must serve at least fifty-one (51) calendar years before she is eligible for release.” The Tennessee Department of Correction similarly notes that Ms. Brown is parole eligible:

Nonetheless, Ms. Brown’s federal habeas claim sought to convince the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to hold that she was not eligible for parole at all. The claim—to put it mildly—was never likely to succeed. Nonetheless, in June, the Sixth Circuit gave the Tennessee Supreme Court the opportunity to clarify the perceived ambiguity in Tennessee’s sentencing scheme and determine whether or not Ms. Brown was parole eligible.

In its opinion on Thursday, the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that Ms. Brown was indeed parole eligible. According to the Court, this result was dictated by Tennessee’s sentencing statutes, which the Tennessee Supreme Court determined were not in conflict. Even if Tennessee’s sentencing statutes were ambiguous, however, the “rule of lenity” would have required the same outcome. Under that rule, whenever there is an ambiguity in a criminal provision that can reasonably be interpreted in two ways—one that is more favorable to a defendant and one that is less favorable—precedent and fairness compel that the more lenient interpretation be applied.

Contrary to typical circumstances, Ms. Brown argued that she should have been given a sentence that was even harsher than the one she actually received. The reason why she lodged that claim? In a 2012 case—Miller v. Alabama—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile life without parole sentences are presumptively unconstitutional. That decision was also held to be retroactive in 2016 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. As a result, if Ms. Brown had received a life without the possibility of parole sentence, then she would (at least theoretically) be entitled to have her sentence remedied.  In other words: Ms. Brown wanted the Sixth Circuit to hold that her sentence was even harsher than it was so that it would be presumptively unlawful.  To date, however, it is worth noting that none of Tennessee’s fourteen actual juvenile life without parole defendants have had their presumptively unconstitutional sentences corrected in any regard.

Because the Tennessee Supreme Court has now determined—correctly and by necessity—that Ms. Brown is and always has been parole eligible, her entitlement to resentencing under Miller and Montgomery is not straightforward. She can, and will, continue to argue that she received a “de facto” life without parole sentence because few people will survive 51 years in prison. Nonetheless, anyone who decries the Tennessee Supreme Court’s clarification is, in a literal sense, demanding an even harsher outcome in her case: That Ms. Brown is never eligible for parole at all. The notion that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s failure to embrace that outcome is a “travesty of justice” is farcical, and outrage about the Court’s decision should be tempered accordingly.

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