Claim regarding retirement benefit calculation was not a tort claim.

Although plaintiff labeled his complaint as a tort claim, the gravamen of the complaint was a dispute over “the amount, time and manner of payment of plaintiff’s pension plan benefits.” Plaintiff was therefore required to first present his claims to the pension board pursuant to the City’s Code of Ordinance, and thereafter was required to follow the judicial review provision laid out in the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-322, which grants exclusive jurisdiction of such reviews to the Chancery Court. Dismissal from the circuit court based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction was thus affirmed.

In Best v. City of Memphis, No. W2021-0020-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 15, 2021), plaintiff was a former firefighter who had initially been denied Line of Duty (LOD) disability benefits by the defendant City’s Pension Board. After plaintiff appealed the decision, an Administrative Law Judge determined that plaintiff was in fact entitled to benefits from defendant. The ALJ’s order was entered in May 2019.

In October 2019, plaintiff filed suit in the Circuit Court “alleging that the City delayed the payment of his LOD benefits, miscalculated the date from which back pay should begin, and improperly moved his official retirement date.” Plaintiff asserted claims for breach of contract, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court dismissed the breach of contract and emotional distress claim sua sponte, based on the City ordinance stating that participation in the retirement system did not create a contract, and based on Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205(2), which states that “the City’s immunity from suit is not removed in cases of infliction of mental anguish.” The only remaining claim was the claim for negligence.

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(1). The trial court agreed that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and grated dismissal, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In affirming dismissal, the Court of Appeals considered defendant City’s Code of Ordinances, which required disputes regarding the retirement system to be presented to the Pension Board. The Court also looked at Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-9-114 and § 45-3-322, which together establish that “[j]udicial review of an administrative agency’s action is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Chancery Court.” With those rules and statutes as a basis, the Court reasoned:

Although on its face Plaintiff’s complaint appears to sound in tort, the allegations solely concern the Pension Board’s calculation and manner of payment of his LOD benefits following the ALJ’s order to award benefits. Similarly, on appeal, Plaintiff states that ‘the basis of his lawsuit’ is the City’s alleged failure to provide ‘all amounts due to him’ pursuant to the ALJ’s order awarding LOD benefits.  Plaintiff argues that the Pension Board failed to follow the ALJ’s order. Thus, we affirm the trial court’s finding that the gravamen of the Complaint is a dispute of the amount, time, and manner of payment of Plaintiff’s pension plan benefits. …Plaintiff was required to formally present the disputes alleged in the complaint to the Pension Board in the first instance. Even a generous reading of the complaint shows that Plaintiff did not do so, and he does not argue otherwise on appeal.

(internal citations omitted).

The Court of Appeals further explained that because the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act “governs judicial review of the Pension Board’s actions,” if plaintiff considered himself to be “aggrieved by a final decision in a contested case or … he intended to obtain judicial review of a preliminary, procedural or intermediate agency action or ruling,” plaintiff should have filed his case in Chancery Court, which he did not do. Dismissal based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction was therefore affirmed.

This case is fairly fact specific, but it is a reminder that a plaintiff cannot change the gravamen of a complaint simply by labeling it as a tort case. Here, using the word “negligence” in the complaint did not change the analysis that this was really a case about retirement benefits from the City, and was thus subject to certain procedural and jurisdictional requirements.
NOTE: This opinion was released 1.5 months after the case was assigned on briefs.

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