Briefs have been submitted and the Tennessee Supreme Court is expected to hear argument in the case of Sneed v. City of Red Bank, Tennessee. The question presented is whether claims brought against governmental entities under the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”) are covered by the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”). In Tennessee, the federal Civil Rights Acts, the Pregnancy Amendment of 1978, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, are implemented through the THRA. Claims against governmental entities are governed by the GTLA which states that counties are immune from all lawsuits arising out of their activities. This immunity is subject to certain exceptions, however. Under the statute, counties do not have immunity for claims arising from the negligent operation of motor vehicles, from negligently constructing or maintaining streets, alleys or sidewalks, from the negligent construction or maintenance of public improvements and arising from the negligence of county employees. But what about claims that sound in tort, but are not specifically enumerated in the statute?
Larry Sneed was fired as Chief of Police of the City of Red Bank in July of 2010. He brought suit against the city and several city officials alleging that he was wrongfully terminated. As it relates to the City of Red Bank and the upcoming Supreme Court argument, Mr. Sneed’s claim was that he was terminated in violation of the THRA based upon his age. The city moved to transfer the case (which had been filed in chancery court) to circuit court and moved for a trial without a jury pursuant to the GTLA. The trial court held that the GTLA did not apply to claims under the THRA and therefore did not preclude a jury trial on that claim. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court and held that the GTLA does apply to claims brought against a municipality pursuant to the THRA.
Sneed argued that since his THRA claim was filed pursuant to the THRA and not the GTLA, the GTLA did not govern. The appeals court disagreed saying, “[the GTLA] is still generally applicable to suits against governmental entities unless the act at issue specifically provides otherwise or is only applicable to governmental entities and provides its own remedy.”
There is no doubt this case is of interest to governmental entities and employment lawyers alike. If the Supreme Court affirms the decision of the Court of Appeals, it will solidify the GTLA’s supreme governance of suits against governmental entities. With that, come the benefits and protections enumerated in the statute, specifically, the express definitions of scope and procedure of tort suits against governmental entities. I think the General Assembly intended for governmental entities to have sovereign immunity and this decision should come down on the side of the City of Red Bank.
You can read a copy of the Court of Appeals decision here: (attach pdf copy of opinion)