Understanding the Discretionary Function Exception to the Tennessee GTLA

In a recent case that fell under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed the discretionary function exception to the GTLA as well as the findings a trial court must make to support a summary judgment decision.

In Lewis v. Shelby County, No. W2014-00408-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 17, 2015), two counselors who worked at a correctional facility in Shelby County sued for negligence related to injuries they sustained when attacked by an inmate. Plaintiffs alleged that on the night of the attack, the facility was understaffed; that they radioed their supervisor two times prior to the attack but he failed to appear; and that they made four “code red” calls for assistance during the attack, but that no one responded. Their suit was based on each of these three allegedly negligent acts.

The County moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted after a hearing, finding that the County was immune from suit under the discretionary function exception to the GTLA. In its order, the trial court specifically found:

  1. Decisions involving scheduling of employees to available posts, and the creation of shift rosters at the AOC, which is part of the Shelby County Division of Corrections, is a discretionary function as contemplated by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205(1).
  1. Shelby County Government is entitled to immunity from suit pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205(1).

The trial court did not address either of the other two allegations made by plaintiff in its order.

The Court of Appeals overturned the summary judgment decision, finding unresolved questions of fact that made summary judgment inappropriate. First, the Court noted that a staff roster submitted in response to the County’s motion indicated that one floater position at the facility was designated as “collapsed.” While the trial court made a specific finding that scheduling decisions were a discretionary function under the GTLA, the Court pointed out that the trial court did not address “whether the decision to ‘collapse’ a position reflects a policy decision made at an administrative/legislative level or an operational decision made by the shift supervisor or some other non-administrative/ legislative level employee.” If the decision was operational, then it would not fall under the discretionary function exception and the County would not be immune under the GTLA, thus the Court determined that “[t]his unresolved question of fact makes summary judgment inappropriate.”

Further, the Court pointed out that the plaintiffs had two other bases for their claims against the County—the failure to provide assistance when assistance was called for before the attack and the failure to respond to the code red calls. The Court found that “[t]he trial court’s order does not address whether these two claims were in the nature of planning or operational decisions. …Because the trial court did not specifically address Plaintiffs’ claims, summary judgment was inappropriate.”

Finally, the County argued on appeal that the attack by the inmate was not reasonably foreseeable and that it could not be responsible for this intentional, intervening act, citing a case about two inmates who had been jailed together for many hours before one attacked the other. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the inmate case, which was clearly factually distinguishable, did not stand “for the proposition that the attack of [Department of Correction] personnel by an inmate, standing alone, is sufficient to break the chain of causation in this case.”

While this case is notable for its analysis of discretionary functions under the GTLA, it is also important for its summary judgment analysis. Plaintiffs’ lawyers would be wise to note the rationale used by the Court here to overturn summary judgment. Although plaintiffs alleged three different, separate acts of negligence, the trial court’s summary judgment order only addressed one, making no findings of fact as to the other two. We clearly cannot know what the trial judge said in the hearing, but his failure to incorporate anything in the order regarding these two factual allegations rendered summary judgment reversible. This rationale could be useful in attacking a summary judgment decision on appeal. Likewise, if you are attempting to preserve a summary judgment decision, you need to carefully review the trial court’s order and ensure that all allegations are properly addressed therein.

On the other hand, if you win a summary judgment hearing, you should do your best to have the judge issue an order that addresses all relevant issues.  If the judge drafts an order that does not do so, file a Rule 59 or 60 motion to bring the deficiencies to the judge’s attention.