In a case argued and briefed by PBSJ attorneys Jonathan Guthrie and Mack Lundy, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs are entitled to jury trials in discrimination cases against government employers.
The case involves former Red Bank Chief of Police Larry Sneed, who alleged that Red Bank fired him for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act or the Public Protection Act. The case was set to go to trial before a Hamilton County jury about two years ago, but Red Bank argued in pretrial motions that a jury should not be allowed to hear the case. Red Bank asserted that a Tennessee law that prohibited jury trials against cities and counties in negligence cases—a law called the “Governmental Tort Liability Act”—should apply to discrimination and retaliation cases too.
The trial court denied Red Bank’s motion, but allowed Red Bank to present its argument to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals considered the case in 2013, and ruled in Red Bank’s favor. That court found that the Governmental Tort Liability Act controlled discrimination claims under the Human Rights Act and retaliation claims under the Public Protection Act. The Court of Appeals ruled that the Governmental Tort Liability Act prevented people with claims like Mr. Sneed from a jury trial. Further, the court ruled that other restrictions in the Governmental Tort Liability Act—such as strict limitations on a person’s ability to file suit against the government in the court of their choice—also applied to cases of government discrimination and retaliation.
Given the dramatic effect the appellate court’s decision had upon Mr. Sneed’s rights, he asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals’ decision. Though the Supreme Court takes less than 10% of the cases it is asked to review, it agreed to review Mr. Sneed’s.
After receiving the parties’ briefs and listening to their oral arguments, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and ruled in favor of Mr. Sneed. The Governmental Tort Liability Act did not control the Human Rights Act or any other law that independently allows a person to sue the government for a remedy. So no restriction in that Act applied to Mr. Sneed’s claims.
The Court further agreed with Mr. Sneed’s argument that Tennesseans have the right to a jury trial under the Human Rights Act regardless of whether they were discriminated against by a private or government employer. And since Mr. Sneed’s claims fell under the Human Rights Act, he too had the right to have a jury decide his case. The Supreme Court returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
Click here to read the Supreme Court’s decision.