A Gentle Reminder on THRA Claims: No Right to a Jury in a Circuit Court

A recent decision from the Tennessee Court of Appeals, authored by Judge Goldin, reminds employment litigators of a key distinction in state law: there is no right to a jury trial on Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA) claims in circuit court. If you want a jury, though, fret not. Just be sure your case is in chancery court. In this column, we’ll review some state constitutional law principles and take a road trip through Red Bank, Lafollette, and finally, out west to Jackson.

Tennessee is one of only a handful of states to distinguish between courts of equity (chancery courts) and courts of law (in our state, circuit courts). Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey and South Carolina are the others. For many types of cases it matters not whether they are filed in chancery or in circuit. The rights and remedies are the same. However, while THRA claims can be filed in either court, only chancery will guarantee a right to a jury.

 

A Brief History Lesson

This procedural technicality can be traced back to pre-1796, before Tennessee’s statehood. But, some fairly recent guidance (by comparison) from our state’s appellate courts should serve as a reminder to those of us who regularly litigate THRA claims in state courts.

Let’s start with a general premise: the Tennessee Constitution provides “[t]hat the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate. …” Inviolate — free or safe from injury or violation. Sounds clear, doesn’t it? Not so fast. For every rule, we know there is at least one exception. Article I, Section 6 does not guarantee the right to a jury trial in every case.  Here, the exception requires a brief account of pre-Tennessee history. The Tennessee Constitution only guarantees the right to “trial by jury as it existed at common law ... ‘under the laws and constitution of North Carolina at the time of the adoption of the Tennessee Constitution of 1796.’” The constitutional right to trial by jury does not apply to statutory rights and remedies created after the adoption of the 1796 Constitution.  For such statutory rights and remedies, the legislature is free either to dispense with the right of trial by jury, or provide for it.

The General Assembly was silent on THRA claims — the act neither explicitly provides for nor prohibits jury trials. So how is one entitled to a jury in chancery court but not circuit court? Answering this question requires some travel, and the road trip begins in Red Bank, Hamilton County, Tennessee.

 

‘Sneed v. City of Red Bank’: Tennessee Supreme Court, 2014

In Sneed v. City of Red Bank, an age discrimination case, the Tennessee Supreme Court relied on Tenn. Code Ann § 21-1-103 in holding that jury trials were allowed on THRA claims in chancery court. That statute provides: Either party to a suit in chancery is entitled, upon application, to a jury to try and determine any material fact in dispute, save in cases involving complicated accounting, as to such accounting and those elsewhere excepted by law or by this code, and all the issues of fact in any proper cases, shall be submitted to one (1) jury.

Justice Clark, writing for a unanimous Court, held in 2014 that “this statute has long been understood as affording a broad right to trial by jury in chancery court, even when the statute creating the cause of action does not otherwise expressly provide such a right.” There, the court concluded that, although the THRA provides no explicit right to a jury trial, Tenn. Code Ann. § 21-1-103 provides the right to trial by jury for THRA claims brought in chancery court. So, the Sneed decision explains why juries can hear THRA claims in chancery court. But, what about cases in circuit court? That requires a trip 150 miles to the northeast in Lafollette, Campbell County, Tennessee.

 

‘Young v. City of Lafollette’: Tennessee Supreme Court, 2015

The next year in Young v. City of Lafollette, the issue was whether claims under the Tennessee Public Protection Act (TPPA) could be submitted to a jury in circuit court. While TPPA claims are part of a different statutory scheme than THRA claims, the Tennessee Supreme Court harkened back to Sneed for guidance because “[t]he TPPA, similar to the THRA, neither explicitly provides for nor prohibits jury trials.” There, the court held that because “there is no statutory analog to Tennessee Code Annotated §21-1-103 creating a general statutory right to jury trial for claims brought in circuit court,” the plaintiff was not entitled to a jury. Justice Clark, again writing for a unanimous court, recognized that “it may seem counterintuitive” to allow juries for claims in chancery courts but not circuit courts; however, she explained that “creating new statutory rights and remedies that do not have an accompanying right to jury trial is a power within the purview of the Legislature.”

Simply put, the Supreme Court was not willing to create a right where the legislature had declined to do so.

 

‘Terry v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital’: Tennessee Court of Appeals, 2018

The third and final stop on this journey requires a trip west to Jackson, Madison County, Tennessee. Here, in Terry v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, the Tennessee Court of Appeals had an opportunity to directly address whether there was a right to have THRA claims heard by a jury in circuit court. Following the guidance of the Supreme Court in Sneed and Young, Judge Goldin held that because there is no statute like Tennessee Code Annotated §21-1-103 for circuit court actions and because the THRA itself does not explicitly allow for a jury, then the plaintiff was not entitled to a jury trial on her THRA claim in circuit court.

Interestingly, the hospital in that case moved to strike the jury demand only days before the scheduled trial date. The trial court granted the hospital’s motion, over the plaintiff’s objection. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that such a delayed maneuver was improper; yet, the Court of Appeals disagreed. Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 39.01 provides, in pertinent part:

When trial by jury has been demanded as provided in Rule 38, the action shall be designated upon the docket as a jury action. The trial of all issues so demanded shall be by jury, unless (a) the parties or their attorneys of record, by written stipulation filed with the court or by oral stipulation made in open court and entered in the record, consent to trial by the court sitting without a jury or (b) the court upon motion or of its own initiative finds that a right of trial by jury of some or all of those issues does not exist under the Constitution or statutes of the State of Tennessee.

The Court of Appeals held that “Rule 39 clearly places no time limitation on a movant.” It thus appears that a motion to strike a jury demand can be made at any time, regardless of how close it is to the trial date.

These cases make clear that there is no right to a jury on THRA claims in circuit court. Was this a widely known point of practice in Tennessee? It does not appear so. A quick review of Tennessee decisions indicates that numerous THRA claims have been submitted to circuit court juries. We even wrote about one in October 2016 (“Subjective Beliefs: Sufficient to Establish Pretext”), where we chronicled the Martin v. Perma-Chink Systems Inc. decision. There, a Knox County Circuit Court jury returned a verdict for $132,040 on an age discrimination claim under the THRA. It also occurred in Goree v. United Parcel Service Inc., where a Shelby County Circuit Court jury returned verdicts in excess of $4.6 million involving THRA claims. It does not appear that either side objected to a circuit court jury in those cases — and there may have been strategic reasons for empaneling a jury. Based on Rule 39.01, however, it appears that a circuit court judge could — and, in light of recent authority, perhaps should — on “its own initiative” strike a jury demand in circuit court.

In sum, the Terry decision should serve as a useful reminder that THRA claims are not to be tried in front of a circuit court jury. If you’re representing the plaintiff-employee, just be sure to file your case in chancery court, if you want a jury. And if you’re representing the defendant-employer, keep in mind that you can move to strike a jury demand in circuit court … at any time (although we don’t suggest waiting until the last minute).

 

Notes

1. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-311(a) (“Any person injured by any act in violation of this chapter shall have a civil cause of action in chancery or circuit court.”).

2. Tenn. Const. Art. I, § 6. This right is also enumerated in Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 38.01 (“The right of trial by jury as declared by the Constitution or existing laws of the State of Tennessee shall be preserved to the parties inviolate.”).

3. See Helms v. Tenn. Dep’t of Safety, 987 S.W.2d 545, 547 (Tenn.1999).

4. Id. (quoting Patten v. State, 221 Tenn. 337, 426 S.W.2d 503, 506 (1968)).

5. Tenn. Code Ann. § 21-1-103.

6. 459 S.W.3d 17, 31 (Tenn. 2014).

7. 479 S.W.3d 785 (Tenn. 2015).

8. Id. at 794.

9. Id.

10. Id.

11. No. W2017-00984-COA-R3-CV, 2018 WL 3203095 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 26, 2018).

12. Id.

13. No. E201501466COAR3CV, 2016 WL 3586949 (Tenn. App. June 27, 2016).

14. 490 S.W.3d 413 (Tenn. App. 2015).

 

EDWARD G. PHILLIPS is a lawyer with Kramer Rayson LLP in Knoxville, where his primary areas of practice are labor and employment law. He graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University and received his law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1978 with honors, and as a member of The Order of the Coif. He is a former chair of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section.
BRANDON L. MORROW is an associate with Kramer Rayson LLP in Knoxville where his primary areas of practice are labor and employment, and litigation. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee and a law degree from UT College of Law in 2012.

          | TBA Law Blog