Where plaintiff failed to file her appeal to the Claims Commission within 90 days of her claim being denied by the Division of Claims and Risk Management, dismissal was affirmed, even though the filing with the Claims Commission was within the one-year period following the car accident at issue. In Howard v. State, No. M2020-00735-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 26, 2021), plaintiff was injured in a car accident where the other car was being driven by a State employee. The accident occurred on March 12, 2019. Plaintiff filed a claim for damages with the Department of Claims and Risk Management (DCRM), which was denied on June 24, 2019. In the denial letter, the DCRM explained that plaintiff “had the right to file her claim with the Claims Commission within 90 days of the date of this denial.” Plaintiff subsequently filed her appeal with the Claims Commission on December 18, 2019. Because the appeal was not filed within 90 days of the denial by the DCRM, the Commissioner found that the Claims Commission lacked jurisdiction of the claim, and an order of dismissal was entered. This ruling was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
“Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-402 provides… the procedure for initiating a claim against the State.” Subsection (c) of this statute states that if the claim is denied by the DCRM, “the division shall so notify the claimant and inform the claimant of the reasons therefor and of the claimant’s right to file a claim with the claims commission within ninety (90) days of the date of the denial notice.” The Tennessee Claims Commission Rules also refer to the “time limit set out in T.C.A. § 9-8-402(c).” (internal citation omitted).
Plaintiff argued in this appeal that despite failing to meet this 90-day time limitation, her filing with the Claims Commission was not time-barred because it fell within the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104. Plaintiff advanced several arguments in support of this theory, but the Court of Appeals rejected each one.
Plaintiff first argued that the 90-day filing rule and the one-year statute of limitations conflicted with each other, but the Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court ruled that the two statutes “work in unison,” explaining:
When read together, these statutes create two distinct requirements for pursuing a claim against the State: (1) the initial notice of claim must be filed in the DCRM within the applicable limitations period… and (2) if the DCRM denies the claim, the claimant has the right to appeal to the Commission within ninety days of the denial. Consequently, section 28-3-104 and section 9-8-402(c) address different junctures within a case.
The Court further pointed out that even if the two statutes did conflict, “specific statutory provisions control over conflicting general provisions.” (internal citation omitted). The Court thus concluded that “being within the limitation of time provided by section 28-3-104 does not render the requirements of section 9-8-402(c) inapposite because the statutes provide separate, distinct requirements for bringing a claim of this type.”
Plaintiff’s second argument was that the Commissioner relied on a case designated “not for citation” in his opinion, and that he “therefore had no authority for his conclusion and that this error warrants reversal.” While the Court agreed that reliance on the case was an error, it ruled that it was not a reversible error here, stating that “if a trial court reaches the correct result, its judgment is entitled to affirmance irrespective of the reasons stated.” (internal citation omitted).
Finally, plaintiff argued that public policy favored “the liberal construction of section 9-8-402(c)” in order to allow the case to be decided on the merits. The Court pointed out, though, that while Tennessee prefers to resolve cases on the merits, “it is also well-established that lawsuits against the State may be brought only in such a manner and in such courts as the Legislature may direct.” (internal citation omitted). Here, the language of the statute clearly required plaintiff to file with the Claims Commission within 90 days of the denial letter, and the Court stated that it could not “so liberally construe the jurisdiction of the Commission or section 9-8-402(c) so as to nullify a clear requirement of the statute.” (internal citation omitted).
Because the Court found that “claimant’s right of action was dependent upon compliance with section 9-8-402(c),” dismissal of the case was affirmed.
This is a case of first impression in Tennessee. When filing suit against the State and proceeding through the process of the DCRM and Claims Commission, claimants can no longer assume that the one year statute of limitations trumps the provisions statute governing claims against the State of Tennessee. Rather, after a denial of the claim, the deadline to file in the Claims Commission will expire in 90 days even if the expiration of the 90-day period occurs on a date before the one-year statute of limitations would otherwise expire.
NOTE: This opinion was released 3.5 months after this case was assigned on briefs.