No Claims Commission Jurisdiction Over Medical School Dismissal

A claim that a medical student was wrongly dismissed without the proper process does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Claims Commission.

In Williams v. State, No. E2017-00626-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 23, 2018), plaintiff had been dismissed from ETSU medical school, and he filed a complaint with the Tennessee Claims Commission alleging that his “permanent dismissal was negligently done by Defendant without a hearing or other university procedures required by the catalog and student hand book.” The Claims Commission dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307 gives the Claims Commission jurisdiction to hear “monetary claims against the state based on the acts or omissions of state employees” based on the “negligent care, custody and control of persons.” While this code section is to be “liberally construed,” the policy of liberal construction “does not authorize the amendment, alteration or extension of its provisions beyond the statute’s obvious meaning.” (internal citation omitted). Further, all three elements of care, custody and control do not have to be present to grant jurisdiction. The Claims Commission may have “jurisdiction to hear a claim against the State where the state employee alleged to be negligent had a legal duty to control…irrespective of whether he had actual care and custody…if he was negligent in the fulfillment of that duty.” (internal citation and quotations omitted).

Here, plaintiff was not arguing that he was within the care and custody of state employees, but instead asserted that state employees “had control over his future medical career, in that they controlled his enrollment status in the school, and determined whether he would be awarded a medical degree.” Plaintiff also alleged that “ETSU assumed a duty to control its employees in a manner that comports with the student handbook and the university’s policies and procedures.”

The Court rejected this argument, citing a previous case where it had stated that “all of the cases cited interpreting [the relevant statute]…involve an alleged duty by a state official to exert physical control of a person.” (internal citation omitted). The Court found that “even granting the statutory language at issue a liberal construction in favor of jurisdiction, we hold that it cannot reasonably be ‘stretched’ so far as to encompass the present situation.” The ruling that the Claims Commission lacked jurisdiction was thus affirmed.

The Tennessee Claims Commission has jurisdiction over a very specific set of claims. This case is a good, short read for anyone hoping to bring a claim under the “control” portion of the statute.