A provision of the GTLA allowing for the recovery of attorney’s fees by a governmental employee who was the prevailing party in a GTLA suit was constitutional and did not deprive plaintiff of her right to access the courts.
In Taylor v. Miriam’s Promise, No. M2020-01509-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 1040371 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 7, 2022, plaintiff filed suit against twelve defendants after she placed her child for adoption at birth but subsequently changed her mind. Two of these defendants were Kellye Reid, a licensed social worker, and Cookeville Regional Medical Center (CRMC), the employer of Ms. Reid. Plaintiff alleged that Ms. Reid had her “execute legal documents while under the influence of medication and falsely led [plaintiff] to believe that she could change her mind,” and that CRMC was vicariously liable for Ms. Reid’s actions.
After all defendants filed motions to dismiss, the trial court entered an order dismissing all claims, finding that all the claims were based on the premise that the adoption process was illegal under Tennessee law, but that it was not. The trial court also found alternative grounds for dismissal as to some defendants, including Ms. Reid and CRMC. Specifically, the trial court found that the claims against these defendants fell under the HCLA and that plaintiff failed to give pre-suit notice and failed to file a certificate of good faith. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed, and the Tennessee Supreme Court denied plaintiff’s permission to appeal.
When the case was remanded to the trial court, Ms. Reid filed a motion for attorney’s fees pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-113 of the GTLA. Plaintiff argued that the statute did not apply to Ms. Reid and that the statute was unconstitutional, but the trial court ultimately granted the motion for attorney’s fees. This appeal followed, and the award of attorney’s fees for Ms. Reid was affirmed.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-113(a) of the GTLA provides that if a claim is filed against “an employee of the state or of a governmental entity of the state in the person’s individual capacity, and the claim arises from actions or omissions of the employee acting in an official capacity or under color of law, and that employee prevails in the proceeding as provided in this section, then the court…on motion shall award reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by the employee in defending the claim filed against the employee.” Ms. Reid alleged that because she was employed by CRMC, which was a governmental entity, she was sued in her individual capacity, and she succeeded in getting the claims against her dismissed, she fell within the scope of this statute. Plaintiff argued that the statute was not applicable here, as Ms. Reid did not incur any attorney’s fees within the meaning of the statute, but the Court rejected this argument.
While Ms. Reid’s counsel filed joint motions, appearances, and briefs as counsel for both Ms. Reid and CRMC, subsection (d) of the statute specifically provides that “Attorneys’ fees and costs shall be paid to the state, or a governmental entity of the state, if either the state or the governmental entity represents, or retains and agrees to pay for counsel to represent, the employee sued in an individual capacity.” Here, CRMC retained counsel for itself and Ms. Reid and paid for said counsel, and the trial court correctly awarded the attorneys’ fees to CRMC under the statute. The Court found that plaintiff’s argument that the statute was inapplicable based on CRMC’s payment of the attorney’s fees was “without merit.”
Next, plaintiff attacked the constitutionality of the statute. Both defendants and the Court noted that plaintiff’s constitutionality arguments were somewhat unclear, but seemed to revolve around the statute violating her right to “access to the Courts.” After reviewing the standard for analyzing constitutionality claims, the Court looked at cases from other states and federal districts, noting that “[o]ther courts have also rejected the notion that attorney fee awards violate rights of access to the courts.” (internal citations omitted). The Court explained:
[W]e likewise conclude that the attorney fee provision of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-20-113, on its face, is not unconstitutional as a violation of the right of access to courts. The access claim does not assert ‘a litigating opportunity yet to be gained or an opportunity already lost,’ nor is there an underlying cause of action the vindication of which is prevented by the denial of access to the courts. We further conclude that [plaintiff] has failed to demonstrate that the statute is unconstitutional as applied in this case.
Plaintiff also argued that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision to designate her previous appeal as “Not for Citation” meant that she was “shut out of court” and “denied her ability to adjudicate her claim.” The Court rejected this assertion, noting that this designation did not “erase [her] case from history,” as she claimed, but simply meant it had “no precedential value” in other cases. The Court concluded that plaintiff had “successfully litigated her underlying claims all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court,” and her assertion that she was “shut out of court” thus failed.
Because the GTLA statute applied to defendant, and because plaintiff’s constitutionality argument failed, the award of attorney’s fees to defendants was affirmed.
This opinion was released five months after oral arguments in this case.