TN Supremes: Judges can fire employees at will

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts

Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the position of trial judge secretarial assistant is subject to the employment-at-will doctrine that generally applies in Tennessee.  The Court’s holding means that either the trial judge or the person employed in the secretarial assistant position may terminate the employment relationship at any time during the trial judge’s tenure.  If the employment relationship is not terminated earlier, then the employment relationship ends automatically when the trial judge’s tenure ends.

The Court’s ruling was issued in a case brought by Judith Moore-Pennoyer, who worked in the secretarial assistant position to Knox County Circuit Court Judge Harold Wimberly for 18 years. In 2014, Judge Wimberly sought re-election to another term but lost the contested general election to William T. Ailor.  Before Judge Wimberly’s term ended by operation of law on August 31, 2014, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer told Mr. Ailor she wanted to continue in the secretarial assistant position.  One week before September 1, 2014, which was the beginning of his term, Judge Ailor advised Ms. Moore-Pennoyer that he had selected another person to fill the position.  The next day, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer received a separation notice from the Administrative Office of the Courts (“AOC”) advising that her employment would end on the last business day of Judge Wimberly’s term.

On the day her employment ended, Ms. Moore-Pennoyer filed a lawsuit against Mr. Ailor and the State of Tennessee.  Mr. Ailor and the State of Tennessee moved to dismiss her lawsuit.

The trial court dismissed her claims against the State of Tennessee, but refused to dismiss her claim against Mr. Ailor for tortious interference with her employment relationship, and granted Mr. Ailor permission to appeal its ruling.  The Court of Appeals granted Mr. Ailor’s appeal, but affirmed the trial court’s decision. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Mr. Ailor permission to appeal and reversed the decisions of the trial court and the Court of Appeals.

The Tennessee Supreme Court explained its obligation, as the Court constitutionally vested with authority over the Judicial Department of Tennessee, to declare personnel policies for judicial staff.  After considering the relevant statutes and the unique nature of the relationship between a trial judge and the person hired in trial judge secretarial assistant position, the Tennessee Supreme Court confirmed that the generally applicable employment-at-will doctrine also applies to the position of trial judge secretarial assistant.  The Court agreed with Ms. Moore-Pennoyer that the AOC performs important functions for the Judicial Department, such as determining the need for trial judge secretarial assistants and fixing the salaries for the positions.  However, the Court explained that trial judges, not the AOC, have the authority to select, supervise and remove persons hired to fill secretarial assistant positions.  Under the employment-at-will doctrine, the employment of a trial judge secretarial assistant may be terminated at any time by either party, but if the employment relationship is not terminated earlier, a trial judge secretarial assistant’s employment ends automatically when the trial judge’s service ends, either by term expiration, death, resignation, election defeat, or otherwise.

The Court explained that, because Ms. Moore-Pennoyer had remained employed through the end of Judge Wimberly’s term, she had no existing employment relationship with which Mr. Ailor could have tortiously interfered.  As a result, the Court remanded to the trial court for entry of a judgment dismissing Ms. Moore-Pennoyer’s claim against Mr. Ailor.

Note: Text of the decision is HERE. The judge Moore-Pennoyer had worked with in prior years was a Democrat. The judge who fired her is a Republican. The News-Sentinel did a story on oral arguments in the case back in January, HERE.

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