GTLA Complaint Survives Motion to Dismiss

In Holder v. Shelby County, No. W2014-01910-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 21, 2015), a father sued the county for acts of negligence by a county employee that he alleged caused the death of his son. The son was involved in a car accident and subsequently arrested. Upon evaluation, the son was determined to have a mental condition that caused him to be a threat to himself and others. He was accordingly put into a special housing unit for unstable inmates, where policy dictated that a guard perform mandatory safety checks of all inmates every thirty minutes.

Officer Moore was on duty from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm on the day the son was in the facility. Moore later admitted that he did not do any safety checks during that time, despite writing in the log book that he did and that at 9:16 pm all the inmates, including plaintiff’s son, were resting peacefully. After the 10:00 shift change, another deputy performed a safety check at 10:14 pm and found the son hanging in his cell by a bed sheet. The son still had a pulse but was not breathing, and he eventually died from his injuries.

Plaintiff filed suit alleging that his son died as a “result of Deputy Moore’s negligence and that Shelby County was vicariously liable.” The County filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on the grounds that 1) the complaint alleged only intentional acts and 2) Officer Moore was not acting within the scope of his employment, either of which would be enough to find that immunity was not removed under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA). The trial court granted the County’s motion, finding that the complaint failed to allege any negligent acts and that Moore’s falsification of the logs was not within the scope of his employment. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed this decision.

On appeal, the Court first addressed whether the County maintained immunity because the complaint failed to allege acts of negligence. If only intentional acts were alleged, then the County’s immunity under the GTLA would remain intact and the motion to dismiss would be proper. The County leaned heavily on a specific section of the GTLA which states: “Immunity from suit of all governmental entities is removed for injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of any employee within the scope of his employment except if the injury arises out of:…(6) Misrepresentation by an employee whether or not such is negligent or intentional.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205. The County argued that “because all of Deputy Moore’s alleged actions were intentional, immunity was not removed[.]”

In the complaint, plaintiff did allege that Moore falsified the log book, which was most likely an intentional act, but plaintiff’s complaint also alleged that Moore failed to make the required safety checks themselves. Plaintiff argued on appeal that the allegation regarding the falsification of the log book was irrelevant, as the actual falsification was not what proximately caused the son’s death; instead, Moore’s failure to actually complete the required safety checks was the alleged proximate cause of death.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed that the falsification of the log book would constitute negligent or intentional misrepresentation, and that Shelby County would remain immune under the GTLA for that specific allegation. But the Court also found that the “conclusion regarding the falsification of the log books…[did] not end the inquiry.” The Court pointed out that on a motion to dismiss, the allegations in the complaint must be taken as true and viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. The remaining allegations, it determined, “allege[d] negligent acts or omissions on the part of Deputy Moore.” Specifically, the Court noted that the complaint alleged that Moore failed to make required security checks, that Moore could not articulate a reason for his failure, and that at some point Moore admitted that his inaction constituted negligence. The Court further found that the complaint “makes clear that this inaction on the part of Deputy Moore was the legal and proximate cause of [the son’s] death.” In pointing out that this case was distinguishable from a case relied upon by the County, the Court noted that “nothing in the complaint indicate[d] Deputy Moore’s state of mind at the time of the inaction at issue in this case.” The complaint did not contain any allegation from which the Court could find that Moore acted intentionally, and thus dismissal on the basis of intentional acts was overturned.

With regards to the trial court’s finding that Moore was not acting within the scope of his employment, the Court focused on the proposition that this issue is a question of fact requiring a fact-intensive inquiry into the specific case. The factors to be considered “involve factual inquiries that cannot be determined by an examination of the pleadings alone.” (citation omitted). Further, the Court noted that when taking all the allegations in the complaint as true as required at the motion to dismiss stage, the plaintiff’s complaint had sufficiently alleged that Moore was acting within the scope of his employment. The Court thus found that the trial court inappropriately granted the motion to dismiss on this basis.

The Court clearly reached the correct result here—this was not a complaint that should be thrown out on a motion to dismiss. This decision is great reminder that when filing a claim under the GTLA, attorneys should pay close attention to the statute as they draft their pleadings, making sure to include all the necessary elements to establish that immunity is removed in their particular case.