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Appeals court rules on Wilson employment case

Jared Felkins jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com • Dec 15, 2015 at 2:55 PM

The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a ruling recently on a Wilson County wrongful termination suit filed by a former employee in the circuit court clerk’s office. 

The appeals court justices affirmed the Wilson County trial court’s decision in an opinion filed June 12. 

Former deputy clerk Kathy D. Palmore filed the original suit after Circuit Clerk Linda Neal fired her on July 20, 2012. Palmore sued Neal, and Wilson County, claiming Neal violated the state Whistleblower Act, as well as the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. 

According to the suit, Neal found child support payments the clerk’s office had received in trust that were sent to the wrong parties, and the intended recipients hadn’t received the court-order child support. The suit said Neal believed Palmore and possibly other deputy clerks were responsible for the errors. 

Palmore said in the suit Neal insisted she reimburse the clerk’s office $1,124.91, the amount of money sent out in error instead of seeking to recover the money. 

According to the suit, Neal told Palmore she would be fired if she did not reimburse the clerk’s office. Palmore was then fired for refusing to pay back the money. 

Circuit Court Judge C.L. Rogers, presiding judge in the case after Judge Clara Byrd recused herself, dismissed the complaint in August and issued an order. 

“The complaint on its face does not contain nor meet the legal requirement under the Whistleblower statute of illegal activity,” Rogers said in the order. “There is no reference to a violation of the criminal codes or regulations, state or federal. An employee that negligently causes loss or damage to her employer is liable for such loss of damage. [Ms. Neal] is obligated by the duties of her elected office to manage and control deputy clerks and the functions of her office. Therefore as a matter of law the complaint on its face does not assert the appropriate claim for violation of the Tennessee Whistleblower Act, no illegal activity.

“[Ms. Neal] acted within her duties and authority of termination. No other person outside the employment relationship acted in this matter. The complaint on its face makes out no intentional interference with employment as defined under the law.”

Appellate Court Justice Mark Rogers issued the opinion along with Justice Frank G. Clement and Justice Andy Bennett. They said the issue was whether Neal engaged in any illegal activity to warrant use of the Whistleblower Act. 

“…We affirm the trial court’s holding that plaintiff failed to state a claim for statutory retaliatory discharge for which relief can be granted,” the appellate decision said. 

In reference to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, the appellate decision said, “we affirm the trial court’s holding that the complaint failed to state a cause of action for intentional interference with employment.”

The appellate justices remanded the costs of the appeal to Palmore. 

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